Local governments taking lead in being social

NOTE: This was first published in the April 30 edition of the Daily Herald Business Ledger

Have you “liked” your town lately?

According to a recent study conducted at the University of Illinois-Chicago, government agencies are embracing social media as a way to inform and engage the public. The study ranked Naperville, Aurora, Elgin, Arlington Heights and Skokie among suburbs that are at the top of staying in touch and informing its constituency through social and online platforms.

But government’s use of social media goes well beyond posting pictures of the mayor with his BFFs. When coupled with existing online platforms, social media is providing new avenues for an agency to keep its public informed and create a new “transparency” in providing easy access to information.

“The unique thing about government usage of social media is in who is initiating the communication,” said Don Gingold, president of Sprocket Websites in Naperville. “In business, it’s almost always the sales and/or marketing departments. Their message is one of persuasion. With government, their message is one of information. They are trying to engage, but not to sell. Instead, it’s to create information flow.

“Governments want to engage with citizens about budgets, construction projects and the delivery and quality of services. For real-time communication, governments want to receive the quickest possible notice of crimes in progress, natural disasters or developing communication bottlenecks so that they can deploy resources to deal with the situation,” he added. “Conversely, they want to be able to rapidly inform citizens in real time about local emergencies, weather alerts and other time-sensitive issues.”

Sprocket has worked with several government agencies to develop and maintain websites, and recently began migrating to what they term “digital governance,” combining online and social media strategies to fully engage local government and the public. For example, Sprocket recently worked with the DeKalb County State’s Attorney’s office to hold a Twitter town hall meeting on government corruption and solicited questions for the event through the social media platform.

“(DeKalb Co. State’s Attorney) Clay Campbell has a well-maintained Facebook page and active Twitter stream, along with a thorough, interactive website,” Gingold noted. “We believe it is the first occurrence of such at the local government level.”

While communities are developing “communities” on Facebook and Twitter, each platform serves a very different purpose from the local government perspective.

“Facebook is mainly used to engage residents regarding local issues and to inform them about the activities of an officeholder, agency or government unit,” he said. “Facebook lends itself well to this purpose because of the ample number of characters that can be employed in wall postings — 5,000 as opposed to Twitter’s 140 character limit. The ability to attach links to useful websites, video, audio and  applications that can be used with a Facebook page.

“In contrast to Facebook, Twitter lends itself better to the real-time reporting of events and especially emergencies because of the instant indexing of all messages and the ‘trending topics’ sidebar.”

And while most government agencies focus their social media efforts on the big players like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, Gingold said some agencies are experimenting with newer platforms, such as Google+ and the photo ‘pinning’ site Pinterest.

“Many cities — even smaller ones like Tyler, Texas — have Pinterest accounts where the city and its residents have created dozens of ‘boards’ with photos of their town and its attractions,” he said.

“That said, the bulk of communication is happening on the tried and true platforms, since the bulk of the social media population is there.” He added, “and the rest of the online population will look for information on the government website, so government entities should be sure their site is maintained as they venture into social media.”

In addition, some cities have looked to mobile apps as a way to get real-time information to residents faster.

“Governments use apps in two major ways: to use resources more effectively and to supply citizens with critical information when the need it the most,” Gingold said. “In the city of Chicago, for example, an app called Snow Tracker has been developed that permits citizens to use mobile devices to monitor the location of snowplows in order to see how soon their street will be plowed.

“Now that this app has come available, city emergency lines no longer need be overwhelmed with irate citizens wondering when their street will be plowed, while citizens can plan their lives more easily knowing when they will be able to move freely,” he added.

With the help of Stephen Haliczer, professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University and an expert on the topic, Sproket is making a push to local governments around the state to offer digital governance strategies and solutions. Gingold noted they’ve also added the expertise of Jill Schuch, a social media instructor based in Scottsdale, Ariz., to offer governments website and social media management.

Gingold stresses that a solid strategy employs both website and social media applications, and one does not replace the other.

“Social media platforms do not replace your website, and best practice is to integrate both,” he said. “At least show links between the two, but a savvy organization would show their Facebook or Twitter streams on their own website, and would refer to website pages in their social media posts.” For more, go to http://www.sprocketwebsites.com.

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Expert: Technology will change the world, but you can handle it

Note: First published in the Jan. 9 Daily Herald Business Ledger.

As we begin the new year, you can expect technology to make further changes in the way your business and your customers interact, according to experts. But a local expert says you need not fear the coming evolution because you are already a technology expert, though you may not know it.

“Most of you have become digital technologists, but you just haven’t realized it,” said Steve Bell, president of KeySo Global LLC in Long Grove. “But if you look over the past 30 years, you can see just how your life has changed inordinately.”

Bell, whose global consulting company tracks technology trends, says people tend to look at themselves as novices when new technology changes the way things are done. But when they step back and look at how they’ve adapted to technology over the decades, they can be more confident in taking advantage of the new developments that will affect their business and lives in the future.

Bell points to four developments in the 1980s that have significantly changed the way people live and work today: The creation of the PC computer and cellphone; the establishment of a global Internet, and the creation of the Sony Walkman. While the first three may be self-explanatory, Bell notes the Walkman opened the doors to the ability to carry “personal music” anywhere at anytime.

As the 1980s brought the introduction of these new technologies, the 1990s brought their integration into society, he said. For example, GSM cellphone technology (which Bell worked on when he was employed with Motorola), the development of the World Wide Web and Internet browsers, and the creation of TiVo with its ability to time-shift entertainment brought technology into the mainstream. Add to that the development of the iPod and iPhone and rise of social networking in the 2000s, and Bell said it easy to see just how well people have adapted to change.

“We help people recognize that they are much more technology savvy than they realize,” Bell said. “But it’s like the frog in a pot. You don’t know you’re being cooked until somebody shows you the water is much hotter than it used to be, so you have the opportunity to either jump out or continue to get cooked.

“We find once people look at it that way, they say ‘oh yeah, I never thought about it like that,’” he added.

Having that confidence to handle change will be even more important this year, as Bell believes 2012 will be a pivotal year in the integration of mobile technology into the business world.

“2010 brought everything together,” he said. “In device evolution, it’s the development of the tablets and cloud computing. The user experience is becoming more of a differentiator as touch screens are making things become more relevant. And social media is leveraging all these trends.”

As a result, he said. smartphone use and the growth of 4G LTE cellphone technology has already changed how consumers live, work, and shop — and that will change how businesses cater to their customers in the coming year.

“The confluence of LTE and smartphone devices is compelling because it gives an opportunity for the ecosystem that builds around them to not only grow and stimulate in relation to the U.S. economy, but potentially global as well,” he said. “But a more interesting element is that mobile devices, mobility and the power of the networks is fundamentally changing the business models for most companies and industries.”

We are already seeing this in the retail industry as more consumers are using smartphones to comparison shop — both online and in brick-and-mortar businesses (Bell estimates that 50 to 60 percent of all shoppers are already doing this). While in one store, they can use their phones to compare product prices among stores, and if they find a better deal, they can also check availability at that store before they leave one business for another.

But as digital wallets, smart cards and loyalty programs become more prevalent, businesses now have the opportunity to compile information on their customers, track their buying habits and even know what parts of their store they are frequenting. In turn, the business can develop and instantly push offers and opportunities tailored to keep customers in the store. Bell said having this technology gives the business the advantage to keep a customer from leaving the store if they find a better price elsewhere.

“On the one hand people are saying ‘can I get this somewhere else,’” he said. “But you can turn that around. You can push them a coupon (to their smartphone) that says ‘if you stay in the store and buy two items in the next half-hour, you can get a 25 percent discount on both items.’ It could easily match what they were going to get if they went elsewhere, but the positive thing is now they’re going to buy two items where before they would have bought none.”

While this is now being used by many national chains, Bell foresees the growth in 2012 of businesses that will help small to mid-sized retailers utilize the technology. He points to one company, Chicago-based Belly, as an example of firms helping small businesses develop customer loyalty programs that can compete with bigger players like Starbucks.

The key for the small business owner, Bell stresses, is to recognize what technology is doing, do some research, and take advantage of the opportunities that the changes will create.

“If you open your eyes and look at the technology that is around, if you use the Internet a little bit to explore, there is a plethora of opportunities to be very active and very flexible by utilizing some of the technologies to enhance your business, as well as enhance the experience of both the people who work in your company and the experience you can deliver to your customers,” Bell said.

For more information, go to www.keysoglobal.com.

They say they’ll pay, but will they pay for you?

People say they would be willing to pay for content online. But, would they be willing to pay for YOUR content?

A new survey from the Pew Institute found that — contrary to perceived notions — people would be willing to pay for online content. That is good news for news organizations that have been struggling to find a way to financially sustain themselves in the new media world order.

The survey shows that 65 percent have paid for online content — things like music and video downloads of applications. As time has brought a new dimension to online purchasing, the idea of paying for content online has slowly found favor among the masses.

Hopefully news organizations that have been champing at the bit for years to place paywalls on their sites won’t use this survey as their green light. While people will be willing to pay for content such as news stories, they’ll also be more selective as to what they choose.

That means that if you’re the only source of news in your area, or have the status of being “top dog” in your area, you may be able to successfully apply a paid program. The New York Times is planning such a thing in 2011, and they may have success with it because — after all — they are the New York Times.

But for the hundreds of news organizations that compete with one another, or in markets that are becoming more saturated with alternative news sources such as hyperlocal operations, this will be tougher sell. In order to make your pay plan work, you will need to offer online and through mobile apps something that people will want to pay for. And what worked for you in print or over the air most likely won’t cut it online.

Keep your customer in mind. For example, I currently have 10 news-related apps on my iPhone, ranging from the New York Times, BBC and USA Today to some local news outlets . If I were the type of user the Pew survey mentioned, then I would be willing to pay up to $10 a month for a subscription to these outlets.

But would I be willing to pay $100 a month of all of this? Not likely, so I’ll probably cull down my news choices to 2 or 3 of the most useful ones for me. So seven or eight apps would bite the dust from my iPhone. Now multiply that by the millions of mobile app users out there who would most likely do the same with their devices.

How do you keep from being one of the 7 or 8? You make  your online product one that your customers need to go to first for their news fix. That means making it more than just an RSS feed or a listing of headlines. It needs to be dynamic, interactive and unique to your market.  Most important, it needs to be there when your customers come to you.

That’s what people will pay for.

Is your organization there yet?

Sell the experience, not the content

What makes your news organization unique?

What makes your readers WANT to go to you for their information?

In today’s world, the content that made you the go-to place for readers is no longer unique. Thanks to Google and non-traditional competitors both small and large (think AOL’s Patch), your content is fighting with others to command readers’ attention. And in most cases,  your good name just isn’t enough to draw on anymore.

As I’ve mentioned before, what is missing in online news is the “experience” of finding and absorbing news.  With print, generations enjoyed the tactile feel of paper, the smell of the ink, the ability to sort out sections on the floor and read at your pace and choosing, the ability to find something new while looking for something else. What is missing on the web sites is that ability to create similar experience. We can offer more through videos, visual galleries, searches, etc., but — let’s face it — web structure was never designed to mimic the print experience … and that includes PDF versions of the printed page.

But the development of the iPad and the expected introduction of similar tablet devices in the future, the opportunity presents itself for news organizations to once again create an “experience” current and future generations can pick up and enjoy … if you know what to do with it.

We’re already seeing some development towards that. Sports Illustrated’s iPad app — while not at the standard set with the company’s tablet demo unveiled last year — provides a user experience not found on its other platforms. MLB.com offers a fantastic user experience, and New York Times is starting to pick up on it with its iPad app.

Keep in mind the content found in all three of these applications can be found elsewhere, either in print or on their web sites, through RSS feeds or search engines, or as in the case of MLB, through other media channels like television and  radio. The content itself is not unique, so why would people be willing to pay $4.99 a month and up for these applications?

Simple: these sites are an experience to the user. Some of the things they offer:

1. User preferences: The sites target a specific crowd, so the interest is already inherent in the user. They also allow the user to customize the experience, allowing to rearrange and prioritize the site to the unique user’s interests. In effect, the user becomes the editor and picks what he wants and how he wants it.

2. Interactivity: They take the user to a level unavailable elsewhere. The ability not only to interact with the organization, but with other users as well. They can communicate and share with users within the app’s distribution group, as well as their common-interest communities through social networking.

3. Convenience: Again,  the content can be obtained through various other means, but the apps provide a convenient conduit to channel this information.

4. Sensory: The apps utilize functions that treat the sensory levels of the user.  The user can touch, view,  listen and utilize his cognitive skills while moving through the app.

It’s how you use these and other features that make your organization’s platform unique, and if your readers appreciate it, they will be more than likely to pay for it.

As the news industry creeps closer to pay-for-view, it’s imperative to realize that readers will resist having to pay for something that has been free … and especially if they can find similar information from other sources. If you are planning that route, give your readers a reason to come to their site. Your content isn’t enough anymore.

Remember, walls turn away people. Experiences draw them in.

It’s news when they say it’s news

I had the privilege to be the guest of Nancy Kirby’s media class at North Central College in Naperville this week. I always enjoy speaking to college students because it gives me the opportunity to learn firsthand the media habits of our young adults.

What I found with this group was that young adults, in general, are very much interested in what’s happening in their world, keeping in mind that their world may have a different view than our world. The majority of the class are still tuned in to and seek out news, but how they do that has significantly changed.

As I had expected, few read newspapers or watch TV news. Many get news through the use of  Google, Yahoo or various RSS feeds. More are going mobile in their news gathering. Many more find and pass along news through social networking.  In other words, the young sample I viewed acted as their own gatekeeper in obtaining their news.

But our discussions took us into the concern over the quality and credibility of the content they find. Many were concerned about how media — both mainstream and new age — produce content that can be trusted and credible. The concern about posting incorrect information for the sake of immediacy, correcting stories on the fly, or trusting stories from sites with a defined agenda.

I noted recent studies that show that news organizations that had trust and credibility in their print and on-air products will see that trust translate to online. Most of the class seemed to agree with that — that is good news for the traditional media.

However, this microscope of young readers may reveal the fatal flaw in the argument for online pay walls. While readers may trust your content, they are not necessarily loyal to your product. Google, Yahoo and RSS have made our sites simply dishes in a giant smorgasbord of content, and our young readers are selecting pieces from each dish to satisfy their news hunger.

So should you charge by the slice? Or charge the spoon that taps into your dish? I’m not sure what the answer is here, but I do think the industry needs to examine this pattern further before they rush to throw tollbooths in front of their sites.

It’s no longer news when you say it’s news. It’s news when the reader says so.

Addendum: It was also encouraging to also see a couple of members in the class who were still serious about getting into journalism after graduation. It’s a tough time in the industry right now, but it was refreshing to see there are still young people who have the idealism and tenacity to stick it through.

The Times of London last weekend had an article about this new flood of journalism grads into the marketplace. Although it was written for the British market, I believe this story should be read at every journalism school commencement ceremony, as it is encouraging but realistic. Here’s the link.

Update: Miami Herald pulls the tip jar

The Miami Herald this week decided to pull the plug on one of the more unique experiments in paid online content — the voluntary pay program, or as it was known among media critics, the  ‘tip jar.’

The program started last December with the paper politely asking readers to make a donation whenever they read a story on the Herald’s Web site. Although the Herald did not disclose just how much money it collected through the program, it is assumed that it barely generated any cash for the paper.

Give the Herald credit for trying it. But as we’ve seen from other attempts at soliciting payments to read online news, the public isn’t ready to give up free content the way they gave up free television to cable and satellite in the ’80s and ’90s.

I think tip jars do have some merit for garnering minor revenue, and in hindsight maybe the Herald went about it all  wrong. Tips tend to be of a personal nature, a reward given to a person for a job well done. They rarely are given to aid a large, faceless business. For example, when you go into a Starbucks, you’ll find a tip jar at every counter. But people who put money in the jar are not doing so to contribute to Starbucks’ corporate success. They are contributing to the hard-working barristas behind the counter as a way of saying thank you for excellent service.

Would people tip a big, faceless newspaper for a well-done story, or would they be more likely to tip the reporter writing the story, or the photographer who took the photo? If the Miami Herald said in its plea that the donation would help reporter Joe Smith keep his house and ward off his creditors, would readers be more sensitive to tipping?

Like the barristas — and waiters, bartenders, barbers and all those who receive tips on a regular basis — I wouldn’t expect to make a decent living off such a tip jar. But, it may be a way for journalists — especially freelancers or independent bloggers — to make a few extra bucks to help support their work.

In the midst of a storm, Gannett builds a rudder

One of the things that worries me most about the newspaper industry is that, once the recession is over and the profits return revenue losses cease, many companies will be scratching their heads saying “OK, now where do we go?”

Gannett Co. seems to have recognized that with the recent creation of its list of  ‘content priorities’  to focus its editorial mission in the wake of numerous reductions of editorial resources and personnel. Gannett officials describe it as a way to “get our swagger back,” but, more importantly, it gives the chain a road map to follow to keep it viable and potentially successful in maintaining current readers as well as in building new ones.

The priorities range from improving watchdog journalism to repositioning its print and web operations to building Sunday audiences and being community leaders. I particularly love the revelation that newspapers are no longer a breaking news medium, therefore focus should be on developing and building content that differentiates them from other media. This is something every print organization needs to recognize, but I’d bet very few are willing to admit it.

Gannett’s statements are no means a guarantee to success. There are a few shortcomings, such as developing new products and methods to deliver content to niche audiences (thats readers, not advertisers. Build readers, and advertisers will follow). But in an industry where there is no clear-cut model for reversing decades of customer decline, too many are sitting and waiting for someone else to come up with the answer.

At least the Gannett Co. has built itself a rudder to weather the storm and find safe port in calmer waters.