Paper.li – content aggregation for the easily frightened

Content. We’re not so much waving in it, as drowning. IDC says that in 2011 we created 1.8 zettabytes (or 1.8 trillion GBs) of information. In 2012 it reached 2.8 zettabytes and IDC now forecasts that we will generate 40 zettabytes (ZB) by 2020.

Of course, that’s not all human-readable data but I’ve been looking around for those kind of figures and it seems we’ve given up on calculating the size of the blogosphere, Twitterverse or any other social media-verse-osphere in any meaningful way.

So let’s forget about quantifying data. How do you feeeeeeeeel about it?

Personally, I feel overwhelmed a lot of the time. Google Reader was great for grabbing a ton of feeds and filtering the wheat from the chaff. It closed. Yahoo Pipes does something similar but has a steep learning curve and is a bit flaky.

TweetDeck was the answer, I thought, with its persistent filters. And as I wrote recently, Feed.ly is starting to pique my interest in RSS again because it’s a better way of actually finding out what people are writing about, properly, rather than just sharing.

But it’s still all a bit, well, panic-inducing. I dip into TweetDeck and have a nibble but hop away quite quickly again like a tiny frightened rabbit. Feed.ly, while more relaxing, can also scare the faint of heart, especially with its title-only layout. There are magazine-type apps such as Flipboard, which recently expanded into the web(osphere) and Google Newsstand. This seemed a way forward, by presenting items in a neat, concise layout but try as I might, I never really managed to get them quite how I wanted them.

But Paper.li just works for me.

At its simplest and most effective, you just plug your Twitter feed into it, which creates a publication based on the most shared content, that was shared by the most influential people. So it’s almost a Twitter ‘expander’, taking the most relevant tweets and expanding them back into full articles. You can go much deeper into different sources of content, filters, customisation and so on, but at the basic level it works marvellously well.

I’ve been using it for quite some time, ever since Neville Hobson’s version cited me as contributing to his daily publication. I used it to help promote Byyd (recently reactivated I see) and am currently helping LoopMe with it too. Oh, and I’m also using it myself, obviously.

However, forget about sharing for a second. My publication is actually really useful to me. This is because it represents something of an amazing intersection between the people I want to follow, and the content I want to read.

What I really like about this approach is that I get an email in my inbox each morning telling me that the new edition’s ready. I go and take a look, and there it is: my magazine, with the most interesting articles that I really need to read. Not columns of content or masses of titles. Just the top, say, four or five articles distilled for my pleasure.

So forget about building feeds or creating lists, or scanning vast swathes of information rolling in front of your eyes like so many fruit machines. Just start up a Paper.li publication, plug your Twitter timeline into it, tweak it a little with filters, and away you go. If it’s not quite right, tweak it again a few more times and you’ll soon have your own, simple, relevant daily digest.

I think the next radical step in Paper.li’s evolution is going to be some sort of unique delivery system. I see a great opportunity to offer the magazine in, say, a PDF format so that people can print a hard copy. Or, how about this: a centralised printing facility that not only prints but delivers, maybe via third-party agents that specialise in news, with franchises based in local communities offering a valuable source of local employment. It might catch on…

Is social media a waste of time for marketers?

The answer is ‘Mostly, yes’, according to Mark Ritson, associate professor of marketing and branding expert at Melbourne Business School. See below.

This video has been doing the rounds recently – or, at least, I noticed it tweeted by Brandwatch’s Will McInnes yesterday – and, because of my frighteningly short attention span nowadays (probably down to social media), I noticed it was over 30 minutes long and shelved it.

Then I thought “No Brendan, don’t let social media fry your brain.” And watched it. And it’s brilliant. If you’re in any way involved with marketing, PR, social media or communications generally, I highly recommend you set aside half an hour and watch it.

In some ways it’s heinous. A few years ago I’d have said ridiculous. Almost blasphemous. His premise is that social media is a waste of time for brands. But today, I think he’s right. I kept finding myself nodding my head in agreement. What he says, when looking at social media from an academic and macro perspective, is what I’ve been thinking and seeing at the coal face for the past few years.

Now, he goes to great lengths to say that he doesn’t think all social media is bad. Quite the opposite, he thinks it’s great for individuals and is truly a revolution in communications that is here to stay. But therein lies the problem. Social media is about people, not brands. So an individual’s success does not translate into brand success.

I found this out the hard way. When I started blogging, I got a lot of interest. I had hundreds of subscribers. So naturally my position was “Well if I can do this, and I’m just one guy typing away in a room somewhere, imagine how well an entire company would do.” This didn’t happen, because social media is about people, not brands.

Ritson really holds no punches. He points out the paucity of marketing budgets allocated to social (around 5%). He takes the potential TV and radio audience sizes for top brands – often in the millions – and compares that to the reach on offer from social media – the thousands or even hundreds – to show how, time after time, social media is a fraction of the traditional media. “Get used to that decimal point because you’re going to see it a lot”, he says. And you do. When he’s generous, he rounds up to 1%. There’s a murmur of surprise from the audience when he graphically demonstrates the contrast between social and traditional reach. I’ve done something similar: one character in this post is red, representing social media. Compared to all the other characters in this post, it’s about the same ratio.

Interestingly, only last night I watched BBC news comparing the fortunes of our main political parties in terms of their Facebook Likes and Twitter followers. Again, thousands, versus the millions of voters in our country.

I’ve seen this too. I’ve looked at referral traffic in Google Analytics for websites. The biggest referral is typically organic search, at least 50%. Then you’ll get direct referral, at a few percentage points below organic. Social referrals are around 3% at most. Is this really worth your time as a marketer?

However, as well as critiquing social media for brands he admits that there are still uses for social media. Again, I agree. He points out that social can benefit sales/tech support, and I’ve seen social media used successfully for this: check out the Facebook pages of most consumer tech brands and you’ll see a well-oiled support operation, with quick turnaround of queries. He also admits that research can benefit, and again I’ve built my own systems for pulling down data and figuring out what people are saying about brands, and what sort of message penetration they’re achieving.

I’d still say that there is some value in using social media for brands, despite the limitations. If you can run a slick, tight operation, where you make the most of your content and you genuinely have – I’m going to that word – passion for what you do, then you can start carving out a share of voice against your competitors without breaking your back. And there’s always room for building up a social profile that benefits your company, especially if you’re self-employed like me. Provided you keep social media in perspective (remember that 5% budget), and use it for marketing AND support AND research, then it can justify itself as a tool. Just.

#NewsSonnet 2: KKK, Rochester, NoTW, Brains

News sonnets: current affairs in three  iambic pentameter quatrains of alternating rhyme and a couplet.

The KKK has been Anonymized
Their concealment, by the masked, unconcealed.
So will disguise be, by the disguised
Unmasked? The pointed, burning truth revealed?
Andy Coulson served all five months, is freed.
Hang on. Eighteen into five doesn’t go.
Rebekaaaaaaaaah Brooks meanwhile is to succeed
Robert Thomson as News Corp’s CEO.
Niggle Farridge has a brand new MP.
Flashman vows he will regain the seat.
Milibean sacks turbulent Thornberry
For flags, a white van, and a reckless tweet.
Memory lapses, fainting fits, some pain.
It’s nice and tasty living in a brain.

What will happen come Twittergeddon?

So it’s been a very long time since I blogged. The main reason is that I’ve been getting to grips with mobile advertising for the past nine months – long enough to have a baby, or two-fifths of a baby elephant – and aligning Adfonic’s communications channels.

One key project has involved ‘classic’ social media: identifying our influencers, ranking them, and setting up mechanisms to monitor them. This just simply helps us to gain insights into the main industry issues, from the people who matter, and engage with them on a very human level.

The only stumbling block is: Twitter. Lists are great. But that’s just the ‘who’ part. To know what they’re saying, about a specific topic (ie mobile advertising) you need to be able to filter these lists. And that’s causing me headaches.

For example Hootsuite, while providing filters, does not do this persistently. When you add a filter, then select a different stream or tab, the filters disappear. Not good.

Tweetdeck used to have great filtering in the classic ‘Yellow’ version. But then it was revamped after being bought out by Twitter, and lost most of the features that made it useful in the process, including filtering.

So what is to be done? I’ve been running the old Tweetdeck as a backup solution, and it does a brilliant job. Every Twitter list, filtered for an extra smooth taste, gives me an instant overview of what our most influential Tweeters are saying about mobile advertising. It enables us to be informed across all our influencers, and agile in our response.

But I have a bad feeling. Come 5th March, Twitter will deprecate its old API, and at that point, I do wonder what’s going to happen with the old Tweetdeck. I expect it will just stop working, and I’m back to Hootsuite, or investigating more sophisticated – and expensive – tools that will do this very important job.

I know change is inevitable – George Harrison kind of said the same. But why on earth Twitter won’t enable filtering for lists, I do not know. Perhaps they think their servers will melt. Possibly they just want us to return to the ‘needle in a haystack’ approach of old. Or maybe – just maybe – someone somewhere will figure out a cool way to do this. And then charge us through the nose for it.

The old web is dying and I’m not sure I like the new one

BlogPulse has no pulse

So I was playing around with dashboards and the like yesterday  – as one does – and noticed that BlogPulse has disappeared. BlogPulse was not the greatest blog search engine around, but it was the only one offering anything like useable charts. So, given that Technorati charts disappeared years ago (although they still have a page claiming they’ll be back soon), and other solutions such as IceRocket don’t enable you to pass keywords to create live charts, it would appear there is no longer any blog charting widget out there.

Is this the final nail in the coffin of blogging? Are we really so uninterested in blogging activity that charts are no longer considered viable? It would seem that way, and the ‘blogging is dead’ meme is very much alive right now.

Charting generally seems to be suffering

Recently, tweetcloud.com disappeared, without even a whimper. It just vanished. I seemed to be the only person who noticed, but tweetcloud.com was, like BlogPulse, the only solution that did something incredibly useful: it would create a tweetcloud for a search term on the fly. In other words, you typed in what you were looking for, and it created a tweetcloud for that search (not a tweetcloud of your own timeline, which really isn’t that much use but I suspect a lot less processor-intensive). Plus it did it quickly, and there was a widget for it, which enabled you to build dashboards giving an instant overview of the latest terms associated with any topic. It was great. And then it wasn’t. There are sort-of alternatives still such as Visible Tweets, Cloud.li and Twendz, but, while they’re very pretty, you can’t build them into dashboards.

And today, Trendistic, the only (again) solution for live charting of Twitter trends, is down. It was down yesterday too. Look for it on Twitter search and there are just a load of weird Polish references to it (who knows, maybe Trendistic is a Polish pop group). Surely – sssssurely – Trendistic can’t have disappeared too? And surely, again, it can’t just be me who thought it was an absolutely brilliant idea?

RSS is dying

If you’re detecting a pattern here, you’re not alone. It does seem that really great ideas are failing as the web grows bigger and faster. They just cannot keep up, it seems – or, at least, not until/unless they’re snapped up by one of the walled gardens such as Facebook. Free information – as in, really free, readily available, easily manipulated and shared across the entire web – is disappearing.

RSS was supposed to be the great hope of free information. Peel the content away from the format, and hey presto, you can share pretty much anything across any platform. But therein lies the problem: something free is not something you can fence off and charge for. It is free in every sense of the word.

So it seems RSS is suffering too. Google Reader used to be a really nice way to bring feeds together and create a static web page of the results as well as a newly aggregated feed. Not since its recent revamp however. All the sharing features have been ported across to Google+, presumably because Google+ is a neat, walled garden whereas RSS was messy and free. Yahoo Pipes was the ultimate RSS aggregator/mash-up tool but suffered from underinvestment by Yahoo. Even after a supposed major overhaul, it’s flaky and too slow to power a dashboard (unless you’re prepared to wait for a minute or so while the results load up). Another RSS mashup tool, XFruits, died a couple of years back. Do a search for RSS aggregator tools and it’s like a graveyard. The only viable tool that I can see is called FeedRinse which, while it offers aggregation and filtering (the two most useful features of Pipes), also feels a bit overloaded and slow. And, as with TweetCloud and BlogPulse, it’s the only game in town, which leads me to believe it won’t be for much longer.

RSS from search has been abandoned by major players too. Such as the bookmarking platform Delicious. You used to be able to search across the Delicious database and pull an RSS feed from that. Stunningly useful, as it showed you what other people considered important for any topic. Not any longer. Twitter has also demoted RSS from search: you can still do it, but you have to look around to find out how. It’s another candidate for the cull, I believe.

Mash-ups are harder

So where does this leave us if we want to create our own mash-ups or dashboards? Well we can dive into the APIs if we fancy it, and learn a smattering of HTML and javascript. But we still need reliable platforms to base our dashboards on. The familiar theme of ‘only game in town’ is revisited here, in that the only solution offering public dashboards – that is, pages that you can show to anyone without them needing to log in – is Netvibes. And every time I create a dashboard in Netvibes, I find I have to spend quite some time figuring out what works still and what doesn’t. Quite apart from discovering over the past few months that third-party sites have disappeared, I’m finding that third-party widgets in Netvibes are broken, or even that Netvibes itself is cranky. So for example, my attempts to create a dashboard yesterday were frustrated by HTML widgets only displaying the top portions of any image or javascript output, widgets generally not staying in the same place when I refreshed the page, RSS feeds not being imported correctly, and on recourse to their support forum, finding it full of spam.

It seems the free tools that were once so useful are now decaying or falling apart. I don’t know what ‘Web 2.0′ really meant, but I have a sense of something dying, something that was slower and smaller than the web today, that shared more freely but was doing so with less immediacy and monetary return. Whatever we’re moving towards, if it’s Web 3.0, then it’s becoming more consolidated, monetised, bigger, faster, noisier.

So the ‘roll your own’ approach is going to get harder. The smaller, innovative sites that did one thing, and one thing well, just cannot survive the double onslaught of vastly increased traffic and expectations of real-time delivery unless they can make money from  it.  The old, fluid, free web that comprised many islands of activity is solidifying into separate continents of influence. The game is so much harder now, that it’s only the really big players that can make sense – and money – out of it.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

Me? I preferred the more innovative, dynamic environment. I liked the way that RSS could be readily shared, and smaller enterprises could create neat tools that let you do things with it, without really needing to be a developer. I guess those days are gone. Nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be.

Postscript: … and no sooner do I file this post then I read this Observer piece by John Naughton, entitled “Has the Internet run out of ideas already?”, on the progression of information technologies: “from somebody’s hobby to somebody’s industry; from jury-rigged contraption to slick production marvel; from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel – from open to closed system.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. In fact, I didn’t.

Me, Friends Reunited, and Radio 4

So out of the blue I got a call from BBC Radio 4 to go in and talk about the recent relaunch of Friends Reunited on the You and Yours programme.

“Friends Reunited has relaunched?” thought I. Fortunately I managed to pull enough from my dusty memory banks sufficiently quickly to convince the assistant producer I was their man.

Two days later and I was outside Broadcasting House, having fairly thoroughly researched the topic. That was fortunate, because the questions they asked me – live, on air, in front of millions of listeners – weren’t actually the questions they told me they were going to ask.

I knew all about its history (set up by Julie and Steve Pankhurst in 2000, 3,000 users after one year, 2.5 million after two, 15 million by 2005 then sold to ITV for blah blah blah). I’d even figured out why some networks succeed and others fail (combination of luck and basically just being better), and why some major acquisitions hadn’t worked out (mostly the same reasons). This is because the assistant producer told me that’s what they were going to ask me.

Imagine, then, my surprise when Julian Worricker turned to me and asked my opinion of the site having played around with it. Fortunately, I had played around with it, for about an hour, without actually getting anywhere with it. Unfortunately, I had to be frank and say so, sitting right next to Chris van der Kuyl, CEO of BrightSolid, the company behind the Friends Reunited relaunch. He didn’t seem to mind: he was very well media trained and put up a good fight, I thought. For what it’s worth I thought he was an extremely nice chap and we had a very good chat before the programme.

Julian also asked my take on the name. Again, I wasn’t entirely positive. But I tried to get some conciliatory stuff in, such as Friends Reunited’s brand recognition and the way that focusing on nostalgia is potentially effective (although, I fear, in reality, not very).

Anyway, you can listen to the clip here. I’m probably not supposed to host it but heck, I pay my license fee and if the BBC wants me to take it down, I will. I was frankly surprised when a BBC radio journo friend of mine asked whether they were going to taxi me in. “No”, I replied, “But I’m interested to find out that’s the kind of thing my license fee is paying for.”

If they do use a sledgehammer to crack a nut, then I will graciously crack, in which case you can (at the time of writing) listen to the programme here.

So, I’ve had my fifteen minutes of fame. I just wish it hadn’t started with me coughing and saying ‘Excuse me’. How terribly British of me.

Tracking the KPIs of Social Media | SEOmoz

Over the past year or so I’ve become fairly convinced that measurement through solid, universal frameworks of understanding is the key to success. However, often what I find is that clients either don’t really care about it, or that, if they do, they only really care about the ‘good’ metrics such as ‘Friends of friends’ in Facebook, which is akin to the alchemy of AVE.

The Conversion funnel is as good a place as any to start. Believe me, I’ve presented this to entire roomfuls of so-called marketing types who have never heard of it which frankly astonishes me (and did astonish me at the time – I really did have to stop my jaw from dropping). It’s been around for a long time, it’s simple, and, I believe, it works. Just take each segment of the funnel and figure out what you’re trying to achieve with it, and from that figure out how you’re going to measure what you’re trying to achieve, to see if you’re achieving it.

I’ve used AIDA in the past, which may be a bit simplistic because it doesn’t take into account repurchase. I’ve used a much more complicated version of the funnel which left people looking mystified. But this one is the Goldilocks funnel, I think. It’s just right.

And, praise be, the entire blog post is pretty good. I’m not sure it quite manages to bridge the gap between online activity and conversion (ie “Did we manage to sell stuff?”) but that’s something we’re all trying to do, and it probably falls into the space between your website and your ecommerce platform. Right?

Anyway, as I always do when I ‘repurpose’ (ie steal) other people’s content, don’t just sit here reading this, go over to SEOMoz and check out the full piece. I like.

Who’s Using Google +? / Flowtown (@flowtown)

Nice infographic from Flowtown here.

Google+ is a strange beast. On the one hand, I see it every day because my home page is set to Google, and I’m always logged in, so I see it whenever I fire up my browser. So, you could say it’s won the homepage war, mainly because it’s been around longer than Facebook (and because I want to search for things quickly rather than wait for Facebook to fire up).

On the other hand, apart from playing around with it a bit, there is VERY little activity there. Flowtown shows that only 17% of users are active, and while I don’t have comparable figures for Twitter or Facebook, it doesn’t sound that great to me.

And while Facebook is a true platform, in that people can build their own apps and deliver them to this richly connected environment, Google+ resolutely is not. Everyone is helping Facebook to grow, while only Google is growing Google+.

As is often the case, only time will tell. I recently came across a study I did from a couple of years back in which ‘some’ of the brands were on Twitter. Today, they all are. So perhaps this will happen with Google+. In the meantime, Flowtown tells us that 61% of the top 100 brands have Google+ pages. Maybe B2B is where Google can establish a social media foothold. But going head-to-head with Facebook could be picking a fight it cannot win..