Is “sexting” the problem?

Parents of teenaged kids have always faced multiple challenges, and things are no different today.

When I speak about social networking to school audiences, I try and hit a few key topics. Among them are the intersection of online and offline behavior, parental involvement and the application of common sense.

Sexting, or the practice of sending nude or semi-nude photos across wireless networks, is a new phenomenon enabled by ubiquitous cell phone cameras. A December 2008 survey of nearly 1300 teens and young adults found that 20% of teenagers and 33% of 20-26-year olds said they had done it. The consequences can be devastating.

I am not defending sexting as a wise thing to do. But some of the responses to it have been draconian and unproductive, in my opinion. The most high profile case comes from northeastern Pennsylvania where District Attorney George Skumanick threatened to bring sexual abuse charges against the girls who were discovered to have sent pictures of themselves in partial states of undress unless they attended a 10-hour class about pornography and sexual violence. If they declined to take the class and were convicted of the charges, they could serve prison time and might have to register as sex offenders. Oh, did I mention that the girls in question are 15?

Three of the girls and their parents, out of the 20 to whom the D.A. offered this deal, have filed a suit in Federal court asking the court to drop the charges. The three families assert that the deal was unfair, illegal and “retaliation” against the families for asserting their First and Fourth Amendment rights to oppose the deal. (The Fourth Amendment covers unreasonable searches and seizures.)

Again, I am not defending the kids’ behavior. But it does fall into the category of ill-advised, some would say stupid, behavior that every single one of us was guilty of during our teenage years. The difference is, before the internet, our stupid behavior did not become a digital  artifact left behind forever. THAT is the lesson that needs to be imparted to kids today, not bringing them up on felony charges for raging hormones and dumb behavior.

Before you engage in some questionable digital behavior, think about whether or not you would do it in the “real world.” An analogy in this case might be, would you lift up your shirt in the middle of math class? Use common sense and realize that there should be no difference between your online and offline behavior.

Parents, for their part, need to remain involved and engaged. This does not mean spying or snooping. But it DOES mean talking to your kids about the implications of our “always on” digital world. Once you send a text, e-mail or a photo, it’s out of your control forever. It’s not always easy for teenagers to think beyond 5 minutes from now. That’s where we come in, as parents, faculty, administrators and concerned adults.

In some cases, a good talking to is the sensible alternative to jail time, don’t you think?

UPDATE: A federal judge on Monday, March 30 temporarily blocked the prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against the three teens. See the updated story here.

SECOND UPDATE: On March 17, 2010 a 3 judge Federal appellate ruling came down deciding that parents could block the prosecution of their children on child pornography charges. Read more here.

Small businesses not using the full potential of the internet

I am always amused, and sometimes horrified, by cognitive dissonance. It’s the tension generated by holding two contradictory thoughts in your head simultaneously. The most recent online case I found has to do with small business owners’ use of the internet to market their own businesses.

According to recent research from Webvisible and Nielsen, while 63% of small business owners turn to search engines first when looking for information about local businesses, only 44% of these same owners have their own websites and half of them spend less than 10% of their budgets marketing online.

When I speak to business groups or other organizations, I often talk about how online and offline behavior really should not be all that different. This, however, is the rare case where we’re talking about online behavior and online behavior! What the study is showing is that most business owners use they web when THEY’RE looking for something, but they don’t think anyone else would bother with that internet thingy to seek them out. I realize the idea of putting up and/or maintaining a website or blog can seem daunting, but the cost of inaction and inertia is pretty darn high. As in, going-out-of-business high.

Is Hulu changing our online video habits?

Not sure how much higher the numbers can go, but the latest online video figures for December 2008 are out from comScore and they just keep on growing.

US internet users viewed a record 14.3 billion videos in December, up 13% over the previous month. Google sites, which include YouTube, accounted for 2 of every 3 users who watched video.

What is interesting to me is that Hulu made some big gains, meaning that the AMOUNT of time people spend watching video is also increasing. The average duration of online videos watched was just over 3 minutes, but that number jumps to over 10 minutes on Hulu. Not sure if Alec Baldwin’s Super Bowl commercial for Hulu will bump those numbers up any further- something worth watching (pardon the pun).

How and how much online video do you watch? Do you seek it out on your own, or do you rely on forwards? And what did you think of the Alec Baldwin ad? I thought Hulu missed a big opportunity by almost insulting us. Do you agree?

The message is the message

For companies and organizations considering adopting new media or social media strategies, there is one piece of advice I would offer above all else: have something to say!

With all the talk in the media, and on this blog, about the Administration’s use of new media to both get elected and communicate with the public now that they’re in office, very often the news peg seems to be how well Obama team used social media and new media  to communicate their message to a large and previously underserved group. This morning on NPR, I heard a story that several GOP congresspeople were now using Twitter to talk to their constituents because, as the correspondent put it, they had “got beat [sic]” at the new media game.

What gets left out of this discussion is that perhaps the Obama MESSAGE was what resonated with people, and the whole social media thing was just a hook to communicate it better and mobilize people to act. Blogs, Twitter, YouTube, message boards- they’re all great. But they ain’t worth a damn if you don’t have anything of value or interest to communicate.

This is not a repudiation of the GOP platform. The point I am trying to make is you have to avoid the temptation to pick up every shiny new object and, instead, focus more on what it is you’re trying to communicate. There is no “delete” button on the internet, so you better make sure you are giving the folks “news they can use.” Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and all the TOOLS might all be gone in 5 years, replaced by something we cannot identify today. But the strategies and methods are here to stay.

Not sure if there are any Jim Rome fans who read this blog, but he is a TV and radio host who always warns his callers to “have a take- don’t suck!”

The medium is not the message. The message is the message.

Trouble figuring out your social media strategy?

So you’ve been hearing how social media can help with your overall communications and marketing plan and you want to get started. Maybe you’ve even got the boss to buy in and you’re beginning to see the opportunity to move the plan forward.

But it can be confusing knowing how to get started. You may even have technology issues. Or internal disagreements on messaging or who is going to manage the community. You think you got it bad?

At least you’re not the President of the United States!

The nimble and effective online netroots campaign that helped launch the Obama-Biden ticket into the White House is still feeling its way during the first days of the Administration. But the point of this post is not to point out the problems that they may be encountering as they try and turn what was a powerful campaign movement into an equally effective governing movement. But, rather, to illustrate that while the Obama team is operating on a scale larger than what you’re probably facing, the lessons are instructive to the rest of us, whether we run small, medium or large organizations or businesses.

Organizing for America is the Adminsitration’s attempt to redirect all that Facebook-Twitter-YouTube iTunes mojo into an opinion shaping entity. (No website yet for Organizing for America. I TOLD you this stuff can be hard!)

Just like in the “real world,” figuring out an effective social media strategy inevitably implies what some like to call “failing fast.” Not everything you will try will work right away, or work at all. But flexibility is critical. David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager said in an e-mail to around 13 million members of  “Obama for America” (notice how “Organizing for America” and “Obama for America” yield the same acronym? Clever, huh?) “This has obviously never been undertaken before, so it’s going to be a little trial and error.”

The weekly radio address is now also a weekly video address, and has been since Election Day. The YouTube channel, as of this writing, reports over 800,000 views in two days, with almost as many flame throwing and offensive comments. (The videos are also on iTunes, and probably lots of other places, too) Still, I wonder how many of you, even the most hardened politcal junkies, ever actually heard the weekly Presidential radio address since they began with FDR as “Fireside Chats?” (As a video guy, I have to mention the the quality of the videos have improved signifcantly from the President-Elect versions to now. Amazing what a couple of lights, a decent background and an HD camera can do for your image.)

The principal takeaways are these:

1- Starting, or in this case maintaining, an effective social media strategy is hard work and requires committment, dedication, attention to detail and continuity.

2- Be ready to shift on the fly if the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Just because something is not going how you planned, does not NECESSARILY mean it’s going badly. Your “perfect” strategy may be revealed as “imperfect” the second you launch it. Study the lessons and adjust.

Pay attention to the difficulties someone else is having, and use them to your advantage. But do SOMETHING. The success of your business may be at stake.

What to do with all those holiday pictures?

We came across a very cool app the other day that we wanted to tell you about.

It’s called
Animoto and they bill themselves as “the end of slideshows.” You upload your photos, select music that either they provide or a song of your own and POOF! out comes a professional looking video that beats the hell out of any other slideshow app I have ever seen. If you don’t like how the video comes out, you can keep remixing it until you get a result that you like.

The website mentions three steps: “it analyzes your images, it feels your music, it customizes a video.” I have tried it several times over the past few days and have been VERY impressed with the results. Images change on the beat and the videos are very cool looking. Creating a 30-second video is free and uses from 12-20 images. If you want to create something longer, you can either pay $3 per video or buy an annual subscription for $30. Each video ends with a super in the lower left corner just like a music video with the name of the video, the director (you), the song and the artist. AND they recently added an iPhone app, so you can create and share videos right from your phone.

You can share the finished videos via e-mail and instead of sending a huge heavy file full of pictures, it is just a link that the recipients can click on. The videos have been optimized for the iPhone and, I must say, they look fantastic when you play them back from there. You also have the option to embed the video online (to your Facebook page, for example), download it, export it to YouTube or upgrade to DVD quality. You can also use it for business, real estate and education. All in all, a pretty cool and well thought out product.

Their website says that the service was created by TV producers who sat in a room and geeked out. It uses an artificial intelligence that “thinks like an actual director and editor.” As an actual director and editor, I am not quite sure what to make of that statement, but give it a try anyway. I think you’ll like it.

Happy 2009, everybody!


How a big company tried to make things right using social media

OK, this post wins the award for worst title ever. I did, however, want to highlight an example of a company doing it right at a very grassroots, down-and-dirty level: posting an apology/explanation in the comments section of their product listing on Amazon.

Intuit, the makers of QuickBooks and other financial tracking software, recently released the 2009 version of their product. I need to upgrade my version since a lot of useful features sunset after a few years. (I will leave out how annoying, and costly, that is because I want to stick to the point of what a smart thing Intuit did in this case.) As I shopped around online for the best price and read reviews to familiarize myself with what I might expect from this newer version, I noticed a LOT of irate customers posting about how Intuit had taken the inexplicable step of deleting one of the more critical features of the software, the one that allows you to match transactions online automatically with your bank.

“Just say no!,” “Don’t buy this upgrade until they fix it,” “I wish Amazon allowed zero stars” are some samples of what people were writing. As we all know, you are in for a world of pain when you take something away from people that they really liked- and don’t even bother to explain why!

Enter “Intuit Greg,” aka Greg Wright, director of product management at Intuit. He posted a comment on Amazon that is excerpted here:

Hi, I’m Greg Wright. In full disclosure… I’m a director of product management at Intuit and I wanted to provide an update on the new online banking feature in QuickBooks 2009. (I put in a midpoint 3-star rating because I couldn’t submit a response and leave the rating blank. Just wanted everyone to know that I’m not trying to “game” the review ratings.) 

As many of you know, we work very closely with customers and accountants as we design the software. When we redesigned online banking, we were hoping to provide an easy to use start-up experience because the vast majority of users were not using online banking in QuickBooks. Unfortunately, it looks like we are not meeting the needs of our existing online banking users, especially those with lots of transactions. You spoke, we’re listening, and we are responding to the feedback.

Here are some specifics and timelines for our online banking fixes. We have our engineers working nights and weekends to deliver as quickly as we can because we know many of you rely on online banking. We will be releasing some of the fixes via a downloaded update on December 11th for QuickBooks 2009 Pro, Premier, and Enterprise Solutions. The following updates are now available by a web download at the QuickBooks support site:

I won’t post all the fixes planned, but you get the idea. If you want to read the whole thing, here it is.

The steps to conversational media success:

  1. Loyal customers complained.
  2. Company listened.
  3. Company RESPONDED.
  4. Relationship (hopefully) salvaged.

Sometimes, you just gotta listen, folks.

Obama, Social Media and Top Down Change

In both the press and on blogs, much was made during the last election cycle about the mobilization of the grass roots to push Obama over the top. Even more was made of his campaign's savvy use of new media to motivate and engage voters to act.

A parallel meme has been floating out there among social media consultants and PR people about the ROI of social media implementation for companies and organizations. The uphill battle to convince the more set-in-their-ways decision makers can make SM adoption a frustrating sell, one that suffers from unfair and misguided comparisons to the old ways of doing things, such as direct mail, print advertising and other forms of top down communications. Spend a little time perusing the terrific blogs of good writers like Jason Falls, Amber Naslund and Mark Story and you will see what I mean. (And you'll also learn a lot.)

What do these two things have to do with one another, you're probably asking.

Despite what a lot of us would like to think, what happens in the Oval Office in particular and in Washington in general DOES have direct consequences on our day to day lives. I am not talking about waging wars or raising or lowering taxes or passing bills to make mountain lion hunting legal only on third Wednesdays of months that begin with the letter "A." (Hey, there MIGHT be a law like that for all you know.)

Presidents set the tone on many issues that influence our business lives and interactions and it seems to me that the incoming Administration has the potential to be a real boon to those of us in social media who have been beating our heads against the wall in trying to get others to see the light as it pertains to the adoption of new media into PR and marketing plans.

The story of Obama's usage of these tools during the campaign has been well told. What remains to be seen is how his Administration will keep the new media home fires burning. There have been a lot of pie-in-the-sky predictions, but as Mark Story points out, there ain't gonna be no Wiki White House. But that's OK. In the embedded video from Mr. Obama's most recent fireside chat, he outlines 5 things that need to happen right away:

  1. Make Federal builidings more energy efficient. (Something that will likely trickle down to the building industry at large.)
  2. Upgrade roads and bridges.
  3. Upgrade our schools, both in terms of their physical plants as well as technologically.
  4. Broadband. "It is unacceptable that the US ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.”
  5. Connecting hospitals and medical records via the internet to cut red tape and cut down on medical mistakes.

Note that points 3, 4 and 5 all involve technology, internet and broadband and this message was delivered via the good old fashioned radio, but also YouTube and iTunes.

It is my contention that these tough economic times as well as this kind of leadership from the White House bode well for the implementation of social media strategies for all kinds of businesses, organizations and brands. But don't try this at home, folks. Make sure to consult your social media doctor before taking any prescriptions. The harmful side effects brought on by unsupervised new media dabbling can be painful.

Just ask Motrin.

The future of digital media

Here in the US, we are all getting ready for Thanksgiving which usually means eating so much you can barely stand up. So as not to fill up your heads, as well as your stomachs, here a few bite size observations for you to chew on over the weekend. (Have I beaten the metaphor into submission yet?)

1- Atlantic Records announced that for the first time in its history, more than half of its US music sales came from digital products like iTunes downloads and ringtones. Digital revenue now accounts for 18% of Atlantic’s parent company Warner Music Group’s total revenue. Atlantic is all by itself in this regard as physical CDs still make up two thirds of all music sales at the other labels. Digital revenue will not make up for the losses elsewhere, so they will have to continue to seek out other revenue streams, which is a lot easier to do once you remove your head from the sand.

2- New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority announced that it will begin offering customized e-mail or text message alerts to its riders on the subway, Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North commuter lines. Now riders will be able to find out about service delays and at least know why they’ve been standing on the platform forever without a train coming. Hey, knowledge is power, right?

3- eMarketer predicts that the online video audience will surpass 88% of the internet user base by 2012 or, roughly, 190 million users. The production and distribution strategies are mirroring the traditional TV models and more ads are coming, folks. But, as it becomes easier to transfer that video on your computer to your TV in the living room, it will redefine the notion of “on demand.”

Just a few examples of how the digital world we live in is changing everyday and even the unsexiest organizations (that’s right, MTA, I’m looking at you) are figuring out new ways to stay in contact. Are you?

By the way, if you enjoy the content on this blog do me a favor and sign up for e-mail alerts in the  little box up there under my picture. Better yet, encourage your friends or co-workers to sign up, too. And thanks for your support lo these many months.

E-mail is not dead

As a follow up to our last post, I wanted to give a tip about how to extend the reach of your video content. This may seem like a no-brainer, or perhaps even unfashionable, but there is really no substitute for e-mail. We have seen the tendency within corporations to create a series of videos and then “post ’em to YouTube,” as if you were casting breadcrumbs on a duck filled pond. If you’re not in the pond where the ducks are, you are looking at a long, slow build to getting your video content seen and shared.

There is a parallel argument out there that “no one uses e-mail anymore.” I am loathe to even address this argument as it is demonstrably false. All the consumer trends indicate that we are using it more and it’s more pervasive in our lives than ever. Sure, there is texting and Twitter and other things that in certain instances may offer a better option than e-mail. But just think about how big a role e-mail plays in your own life.

There are lots of reputable, reliable e-mail marketing services out there that you can sign up with and they offer lots of wonderful features for not a ton of money. (We have used ConstantContact with great success, but there are others.) Tracking open rates, stats, good looking HTML templates or the option to create your own, if you’re so bold. As a business owner, you probably have a pretty solid e-mail list and you probably do a good job of communicating with your customers already. Adding video to an e-mail makes it that much more likely to be opened and maybe even forwarded. So along with the “post it to YouTube” strategy, I would take a long hard look at e-mail marketing, too.

The lesson we try and hammer home on this blog is that in this ever fragmented world of content creation and distribution, you can no longer force people to come to your content. You need to deploy it to where the audiences are.