The importance of voice

Does a more personal voice make information more credible? Carrie Brown-Smith writes that, in the news industry, there is some evidence that “a hint of personality” leads to “higher credibility”. She goes on to say:

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. […]

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as “political efficacy,” or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking, actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

Understanding what encourages trust is very important indeed. Edelman’s Trust Barometer survey showed that across the board, trust in official channels of communication is declining:

Mirroring the erosion of trust in business this year, trust in every type of source of information about companies and of every type of spokesperson is down in most markets around the world. These lower levels of credibility suggest that business must engage with its audiences through multiple voices on multiple channels, especially since informed publics say they need to hear information several times before they will believe it.

If a more personal voice is key to reversing this decline in trust, then social media is an obvious way to do it. Now this might all seem like stating the obvious, but it’s worth going over this familiar ground. A lot of businesses have yet to shake off their fear of having actual, real humans speaking on their behalf. If they don’t, they’re going to find that a trust divide has opened up underneath their feet, with people trusting companies who are open, transparent and personable and not trusting those who use only corporate managed communications channels.

Social semantics

Andrew McAfee asks if the word “social” has so many negative connotations that it’s a potentially harmful word to use when trying to persuade managers that web 2.0 tools are worth investigating:

“It’s technically accurate… [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to busy, pragmatic line managers inside organizations. The best thing it is is neutral… the worst thing it is is a sign that we’re going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities. The impression I get from people who make decisions… is ‘I’m not running a social club. I’m trying to run a business here.’ ” (I accompanied this monologue with a picture intended to convey what flashes through an executive’s mind when he hears the word ‘social.’)

I discussed the baggage that comes with “social” last year:

Is ‘social’ the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, ‘social’ has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people’s weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can’t be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.

Whether or not you agree with all of those descriptions – and for the record, I don’t – you have to admit that the word ‘social’ does have a bit of a bad rap. I wonder how much that influences people – in business and elsewhere – to dismiss ‘social media’, ‘social networks’ and ‘social tools’ before they have even found out what they are and what they’re good for.

I still think that the word “social” is a problem. But I’m not sure that it either can or should be replaced. If a company balks at the word “social” before even looking at how social tools can be used to help their people get stuff done, then they have deeper problems than those that social tools can help with.

Why we should care about information overload

Tom Davenport writes that no one cares about information overload anymore. His main thesis appears to be that because no one turns off their phone in meetings, tunes their email filters or turns off their email alerts, that means that information overload is now unimportant. He then tries to conflate that with the aspects of information flow that make turning these things off difficult, i.e. our addiction to the receipt of new and exciting bits of information.

Tom has basically got everything the wrong way round. Information overload still matters, and that few people do something about it should be cause for concern and not a reason to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is ok.

The problem is one of those nasty wicked problems that change shape as you try to solve them. There is a complex interplay between the tools we use to communicate online, our physiological responses to incoming data, our expectations of other people’s expectations of our response to incoming communications, and cultural pressures that cause us to create and disseminate information in specific ways.

This is difficult territory. You can’t just tell people to turn off their email alerts and expect that to do the trick – although I certainly do recommend that as one action to take. Beating the physiological responses to incoming information is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation, but it’s the culture that’s going to be hardest to figure out. How do we change the way that people relate informationally to one another so that we have a healther information landscape?

I don’t have answers to that. But I do know that pretending information overload is an insignificant problem is not a constructive way to deal with it.

What makes a website successful?

Paul Boag has written a great blog post about what makes websites successful, and many of his conclusions are directly applicable to social media projects too. Paul says,

Before we can address issues of aesthetics, usability and code, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients’ website will fail.

I could very easily rewrite that to refer to social media, without having to change much:

Before we can address issues of social tool choice, metrics and community building, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients’ social media project will fail.

Well worth a read, both for businesses considering a website redesign and those considering a social media project, internal or external.

Newsflash! RSS still not dead: Story at 11.

I’ve lost count of the number of times over the years various people have declared RSS to be dead, dying, moribund, comatose or laid low with a dose of swine flu. The latest is a piece by Read Write Web’s Richard MacManus who says, RSS Reader Market in Disarray, Continues to Decline.

RSS is a bit of a weird duck, really. It is infrastructure more than it is a service and there’s a distinct lack of clarity outside the tech community about what it is and what it does. That’s not helped by the fact that there are competing standards, not to mention competing terms: RSS (and all its version numbers), RDF, Atom, web feeds, news feeds, syndication, syndication feeds, even just plain ‘feeds’.

In short, RSS confuses people. It’s not until I explain how easily RSS can save time that people start to become interested. In a business context, RSS is invaluable. So many information publishers now produce RSS feeds of one stripe or another that it has become possible to draw together huge numbers of sources in one place very easily indeed. Anyone in market or competitive intelligence, marketing, PR, research, and any other department that relies on aggregating information should be all over RSS like a rash. But they aren’t. Why?

This is where RWW’s piece becomes relevant. At best there is stagnation in the RSS reader market, at worst there is a genuine decline. RWW reports:

[…] Feedburner no longer publishes any useful data about RSS Readers. The product has been infrequently updated since Google acquired it in June 2007 and it no longer even has a proper blog (a Google blog called Adsense For Feeds was the closest I could find).

Pheedo also has gone quiet from a blogging perspective – its last blog post was January 2009.

[…] There’s little sign of life on Bloglines’ blog either and its traffic numbers show a decline since June 2009.

Netvibes, FriendFeed, Newsgator and PostRank are the only other english language competitors showing in our Feedburner numbers. The others are either browser (Firefox) or operating system readers.

Also note that Newsgator shut down its online RSS Reader at the end of July this year.

We are not seeing the kind of innovation that we need in the RSS market. I suspect that part of this has been because businesses have been very slow to realise the usefulness of RSS and so hoped-for licensing income hasn’t been forthcoming for aggregation vendors. Partly this is down to the fact that getting new software assessed, accepted and rolled out through business is a long, tedious process in most companies – long enough to kill off relationships with cashflow sensitive start-ups.

A friend of mine once told me that it took his company 18 months to code-check new software. Doing that with social tools is IT suicide – most tools have iterated half a dozen times in that period. At least. It’s no wonder that most of the companies I talk to have not implemented any RSS readers internally. By the time they’ve got the software approved, it’s out of date.

This means that people are stuck using web-based applications. Whilst Netvibes and Google Reader are very good at what they do, they are also a little limited. Google Reader is a very introspective tool – you can share stuff with other people within Google Reader, but there are no tools for sharing on Twitter, Delicious, Instapaper etc. Netvibes does a bit more, in that you can share on Twitter or Facebook, but again it doesn’t embed itself in the wider content-reading ecosystem.

RSS still has huge potential, but the landscape it sits within is complicated, comprising of RSS sources, RSS readers, IT department policy makers, and those social media community members who are actually still communicating to business that this is a really useful tool.

That’s a lot of ducks to get in a row, but I am pretty sure (or rather, I hope!) that at some point, it’s going to happen. I wouldn’t call time of death on RSS just yet.

links for 2009-12-28

links for 2009-12-27

links for 2009-12-25

  • Kevin: National Public Radio in the US is launching an ambitious local news effort known as Project Argo. They have $3m in foundation support from the Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This hire definitely caught my eye. "Knight Foundation’s Matt Thompson, co-producer of viral hit Epic 2004, joins as editorial product manager Feb. 1." NPR head of digital Kinsey Wilson says the project is aimed at replacing what newspapers have traditionally done as newspapers continue to struggle. The project partners with a dozen stations across the country, although most are big city stations and most are in coastal states. Each station will have a blogger-journalist to contribute to the project.
    (tags: local npr radio)

links for 2009-12-24

  • Kevin: Apple is reportedly in talks with US TV networks for subscription TV services. Apple TV hasn't seemed to get a lot of love from Steve Jobs, but it sounds like iTunes TV subscriptions will be part of a broader hardware strategy from Apple which includes the mythical Apple tablet. Publishers like Conde Nast are already preparing to deliver content to Apple's tablet and other media slates.