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What Boston Really Needs....

In The Devil Wears Prada there's this wonderful scene in which Meryl Streep tries to decide on a belt. Anne Hathaway, as her assistant snickers at the prospect of deciding between two belts that look very similar. What she receives next is a smack-down.

"You think this has nothing to do with you," Streep's Miranda Priestly says. She then launches into an evenly-delivered soliloquy that points out how the "blue" sweater Hathaway casually chose that morning is actually "cerulean," which had started at the height of fashion then trickled down through the fashion ecosystem representing "millions of dollars and countless jobs," until it landed in a discount bin and, eventually, this assistant's closet. "It sort of comical how you think you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing a sweater that's been selected for you..." she says.

Here in Boston engineers love to think that they make all the best stuff. That their technology is so great it doesn't need marketing. Because marketing doesn't make people take action. No, they say, it's the work that makes all the difference. Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Someone call Meryl Streep.

Often we dismiss this attitude as "well, they're just engineers" and we let it go. The issues trickle down even to those companies that do spend time and money on marketing. They resist messaging, insist they know how to tell a better story or refuse changes that could make a huge difference in their bottom line. It's all an effort to put technology first.

Ideally, they need to invest in marketing and PR. It needs to be factored into the funding rounds as a necessary part of the budget, even in small rounds.

Then there is the "celebrity" factor. Boston tends to shy away from that, but as a number of entrepreneurs point out in the Sunday Boston Globe, that's just what Boston needs. Says Ben Jabbawy, CEO of Privy:

Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.

This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.

So what does Boston need? We need to think more about marketing. We need to make our voices louder. In a way, we need our own "Mike Arrington" to lead the way.

Whenever I say this to people their response is "oh, we need a loud, arrogant, obnoxious guy that makes everyone fear his power?" No, I'm not saying that. But what we need is someone with the voice, skills and savvy to tell the world what Boston is all about. To hold up the great technology, ideas and companies that grow from the Boston ecosystem every day and tell the world why they need to pay attention. If this means that voice needs to be brash and obnoxious in order to cut through the clutter, then so be it.

Recently I spent some time hanging around with the guys at Evernote. This is a fascinating company made up of leadership that spent time running startups in Boston and then moved to the Valley. The company is growing like crazy and poised to make a leap from the technology world to the general populous. This is no small task.

Josh Kopelman recently spent some time in jury duty and used that as a way to get a focus group of non-tech folks:

Facebook is a great example of a company that made the leap, same with Apple (which doesn't consider itself a tech company) and Google. But what makes Evernote interesting is how marketing is so much a part of its DNA. Yes, Andrew Sinkov does a great job of marketing the company. He's an incredibly smart guy a lot of great ideas. But it's also a company churning out apps like Evernote Food and releasing Skitch for free as a way to extend its base.

If you listen to CEO Phil Libin speak, he doesn't tell you about the technology behind Evernote, he talks about bigger ideas of human memory and ways that technology can make our lives different. Sure, he spends time thinking about the technology itself, but the average person doesn't care about the technology. They just want it to do what you asked. They want a product.

But to get it in their hands, you need marketing. And so do we.

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Why I'm Negative on Google Plus

I hate to be the one who brings a skunk to Google's party, but I'm not as bullish on Google Plus as the rest of the world. Yes, it's interesting and, in some cases, shows a remarkable touch for creating a wonderful user interface. Like others, I'm impressed with how you can put people in (asynchronous) circles. But people are finding even those to be a bit of a chore.

Facebook's biggest advantage right now is its utility. By utility I don't mean how I interact with software, but that it allows me to see information about people and companies I care about without much effort. When Amy Winehouse died this past weekend my Facebook feed lit up. Over on Google+ I saw a smattering of reaction, but really people were still talking about Google+.

In Ken Auletta's New Yorker piece about Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, he notes that Sandberg "would tell people that Facebook was a company driven by instinct and human relationships. The point, implicitly, was that Google was not."

Related back to Google+, it's beautiful and it has the social media elite excited by what it offers in terms of both control and design, but the big question is whether it gains the true utility.

Sure, it boasts plenty of users, but the big measure of any social network isn't the number of people who signed up, it's the number of times a day people share something. How many "shares" per person does it have? What types of information are likely to be shared? Apparently I'm not the only one noticing this. Apparently visitors are down over on Google+ as is the time on the site. Granted, this is still early and not indicative of much long-term. But it's still an interesting development for the site.

I sent a few friends invites thinking that with more people close to me I'd see more sharing. One put up one picture and commented how much easier it was than on Facebook. But then when she took a few days off her updates only showed up on Facebook. So for me to find out about her life, that's where I have to be. So long as that remains true, then my time on Google Plus remains limited as well.

My wife had the best comment of all. After looking at it for a few minutes she said "What do I do with it?" Frankly, after using Facebook and Twitter the answer should have been obvious. It wasn't. Keep in mind that what attracted her to Facebook was her friends, not just that they were using it, but that they were sharing information she wanted to know. Conversations around her would include "Oh, I saw on Facebook...."

Can this change? Certainly. But it's not going to be overnight, it will take years. Facebook is in place, unseating it isn't going to be easy.

Right now my social media diet includes a constantly running Twitter feed and regular checkins on Facebook (for an intermingling of personal information and news). If Google Plus doesn't build true utility, we'll end up waving goodbye.

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Checking In is Still a Niche, but you need to worry now

I should be one of Foursquare's biggest users. But alas, I am not. Why? Well, it's just too complicated to check in.

A lot of Location Based Service (LBS) fanboys are going to say things like "But Chuck, it's so simple!" But you're wrapped up in the coolness of it. For most people, checking in has become a cumbersome and only occasional activity. That said, I think it's still going to be big.

Yes, that's right. Despite the fact that I don't use LBS all that often, I believe it's going to be huge. But it won't look like what it does today.

First, let's examine the problems. Checking in requires me to have a motivation. Early in Foursquare's existence I heard a lot about the gaming aspect of it, and for some early users that drove adoption. Now companies like Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla are turning to deals to get you to check in. Certainly better than earning a mayorship or points, but if the number of unclaimed coupons that still land on the doorsteps of people receiving the Sunday paper are any indication, deals only go so far. How many of you now ignore the Groupons and Living Social deals cluttering your inbox? Yeah, I'm raising my hand on that one too.

Foursquare has more than 6 million registered users, but I haven't seen many numbers that address the percentage of those users who are active. I have seen numbers about the number of checkins, but I'm not sure what percentage of users generate what number of checkins. If anyone has that data please let me know.

So what's my motivation to check in? On Tuesdays I like to check in at Taste to let people know that our OpenPR coffees are happening. Sometimes I check in to a restaurant if I love their food or to just give them a bit of promotion. Sometimes I check in so people in the area know where to find me, like if I'm at Sip in Post Office Square. But usually I go through life without checking in.

Mainly, my problem is that it takes between 4 and 6 actions to check in.

  1. Pull out phone
  2. Open application
  3. Find my location (sometimes made easier if it's a place I frequent)
  4. Check in
  5. Write comment (optional)
  6. Take picture (optional)

One of the things that made the Flip camera so successful was the single button operation. Who wants to go through 4 to 6 actions just to check in? (I'm not so crazy, Dennis Crowley brought the same issue up during his AdAge interview and they're experimenting with some different type of checkins as well.)

So what will change things? One word: payment.

Payment is the one action that everyone takes on a regular basis. There are exceptions, of course, like when you show your pass to get into a gym or yoga studio, but even that amounts to a sort of payment. The key is when payment moves from credit card or cash to the mobile phone. Square is probably the closest to making this a reality, considering its announcement today, but other (rather large) companies are, in fact, working on Near Field Communication-based solutions as well.

Regardless, one thing is for certain, we'll soon pay with our cell phones and, if all goes well, check in at the same time.

But, a funny thing will happen on the way to Foursquare nirvana: noise. Lots and lots of noise.

Imagine how useful your Facebook feed will be when all you see is "Chuck just bought a 2-shot small cappuccino at Taste." So the trick for companies will be to figure out when to encourage sharing and when to hold back. The same will be true for individuals. If I clog my friends' feeds with junk, then they're more likely to block me.

The interesting thing is, in order for any organization to understand how a tool works and what makes it effective, they need to begin working with it BEFORE it takes off. So if you have a business that relies, in some part, on location (like a retail store or a well-trafficked office) I would encourage you to play with Foursquare or one of the other services. See what incentives motivate your audience to check in. Measure the reach of those checkins, then see how you can drive traffic through them.

The goal is to avoid being background noise later.

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Stop! Please Stop!

Can we please stop comparing Boston to San Francisco and New York? Please? I'm getting sick of this discussion. It doesn't mean much.

I grew up just outside of New York City, I went to grad school there and remain a loyal fan of the New York Jets (no, that doesn't make me all that popular in Newton). But I chose to live in Boston. Two of my three children were born here,

Let me repeat that: I chose to live in Boston. Boston didn't choose me. Todd is also a transplant (though, I hear he gave up rooting for the Detroit Lions, can you blame him?) and he also chose to be here. There is something about this city that we love, something about the people, the culture and the environment that makes it important enough to start a company here.

Each city has its advantages and different culture. Yes, New York has a 24 hour culture and a vibrant financial market that keeps much of the rest of the city humming (the taxi drivers and Broadway producers all feel the boost when Wall Street gives out good bonuses). Silicon Valley has a vibrant startup culture with great weather and entrepreneurs who become celebrities. But Boston has a quiet confidence that I find endearing. We are who we are, we're not something else.

The main reason I hate these comparisons is that we look to the companies we lost (Facebook, Microsoft, TaskRabbit, Pixable, etc.) and ask "why! why would you leave us? We could have loved you!" Frankly, it's a bit embarrassing. Love the one you're with. But the problem isn't that those cities are cooler, it's that the companies (and their founders) were better fits for those cultures. Rather than focusing on that, maybe we should be focusing on creating companies that fit OUR culture.

Many years ago Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that Silicon Valley is better for consumer-facing companies while Boston is better for research-based companies that feed government and defense contracts as well as enterprise technology. Of course, we also have a vibrant healthcare and biotech community. Why fight that? Why lament when a consumer company leaves and we're left with very interesting technology that could help create a cure for cancer or change how we get power?

Zigging when everyone else is zagging can be a very good thing. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that enterprise technology in the Valley has fallen out of favor with VCs while investment in consumer technologies has increased. Sure, fine for them, we can benefit from that by focusing on our core.

As for being "cool," we shouldn't feel bad that we lost consumer-facing companies to other regions, we should be trying to point out how enterprise tech companies that innovate, build jobs and build revenue in Massachusetts are cool, even when they're doing something that seems mundane to the average eye, like helping organizations switch to IPv6. I sat next to a guy on the bus yesterday working on that very problem. No, it's not as easy to understand as a company that helps you get errands done, but it impacts a LOT more people.

Let's embrace who we are and stop worrying about who we aren't.

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Stephen Baker on Life, Journalism, Numbers and His New Book

Thanks to event sponsor and, I'm happy to disclose, Fresh Ground client Netezza, members of the Boston Social Media Club were fortunate to be able to enjoy an intimate evening with author and former BusinessWeek Senior Editor Stephen Baker. Steve's most recent book, The Numerati, looks "at how a global math elite is predicting and altering our behavior -- at work, at the mall, and in bed." He was invited to present a keynote at the company's Enzee Universe 2010 User Conference, and was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to meet with the group and share his thoughts on life, journalism, numbers and the new book, expected out next year. You can listen to his session (just under a half hour) below.

I'm also pleased to announce that we'll have an exclusive interview with Steve for next week's Fresh Ground Podcast. (We did not include this interview in our podcast feed this week -- stay tuned for a great interview with a creative young PR pro in this week's podcast episode.)

Listen Now:

Update 23 June 2010: Tim Allik captured some video of Steve talking specifically about his BusinessWeek experience. You can read Tim's thoughts on the Tech PR Gems blog, and have a look at the video below:

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Facebook’s Death by 400 Million Cuts

I don't share my information with Facebook and I bet you don't either.

I share my information with my friends, I just happen to use Facebook to do it. It's a distinction that I wonder if Facebook really understands. Today in a conference call, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to Facebook's continued success by noting that people are still members, the mass quitting that so many discussed never truly materialized, though "Quit Day" still lies ahead. "We have seen no meaningful uptick in the number of people who deleted their accounts," he said.

And I doubt it ever will. But what I'm hearing anecdotally is that with each privacy concern, people share LESS on Facebook. The problem for Facebook is that if people put up less information, then I have less of a reason to go there to see what people are doing, and so do you. Think about how you use Facebook. If you're like me you log in, check out the newsfeed and see what's in people's lives. If that newsfeed doesn't interest you, and continues to be uninteresting, then you'll slowly move away. It'll become a place to grab some basic information (birthdays, locations, jobs, etc.) but its true utility will be gone.

I believe that Facebook is measuring the wrong thing. I believe a better metric would be the number of posts per person over time. You would have to examine their activity and create a standard, then measure how each user stacks up against that.

A drop in this usage would be the biggest threat to Facebook; it would be death by a 400 million cuts to the information we put out. If we stop sharing, Facebook stops existing. Not tomorrow, but slowly, over time, until it's that site you used to visit but doesn't have much pull any longer.

Will the privacy controls unveiled today keep people from fleeing? I'm not sure. In conversations with friends, mostly non-techies, their trust in Facebook has been shaken. While a change could help, rebuilding trust will take much longer and include many, many more steps. We all now realize that we're sharing with Facebook as much as with our friends, and that little change will change our behavior.We'll see what impact that action has on Facebook itself

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Facebook Blues: Will YOU Quit?

Trying to figure out what all the Facebook fuss is about? Considering signing off of Facebook for the last time yourself? Here's a video roundup of the Facebook fiasco, courtesy of Greater Boston (and featuring our own Chuck Tanowitz):

Chuck I think makes a very good point: "Facebook is a business and it's sitting on a treasure trove of valuable information ... demographic data that the advertising industry has been asking for for generations." As the Australian Broadcast Corporation's Stilgherrian points out:

Facebook's business model is best served by exposing your personal information as widely as possible. To advertisers, so they can target advertising more accurately and pay more for the privilege. To other users, to encourage them to share more as well. To search engines, to bring more traffic to Facebook. To anyone who wants to pay.

If you want a better understanding of how Facebook makes money, incidentally, Nicholas Carson has a good, short write-up.

PC World's Brenon Slattery summed it up perfectly:

Facebook has had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month, and it's only getting worse.

Where to start? E-mails leaked, private IM conversations exposed, apps sneaking into profiles, creepy geolocation additions -- the worries mount. It's hard to distinguish what Facebook is actually doing right.

The privacy concerns at the root of Facebook's bad month were nicely laid out by The Wall Street Journal's Jessica Vascellaro today, and its corresponding (and evolving) privacy policy has been beautifully visualized by Matt McKeon.

This has supposedly led to what some are characterizing as a mass exodus from Facebook. While it's true that the 6,000+ committed quitters of May 30th's quitfacebookday.com have been joined by some technology thought leaders like Engadget co-founder Peter Rojas, podcaster Leo Laporte, comedian and The Onion editor Baratunde Thurston and ZDNet columnist Jason Perlow, as ReadWriteWeb's Marshall Kirkpatrick points out, "it's hardly a torrent of quitters in the face of more than 400 million Facebook users."

Until there are real live alternatives, users will simply take steps to regain a little more control over their privacy, and wait to see what Facebook (or the government) does.

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DEMO Debrief

I spoke with Chip Griffin today, giving him a recap of my DEMO experience, including some of the highlights from the event. You can listen to my recap on Chip's Pardon the Disruption blog.

While we were there, Chuck had a chance to catch up with Steve Wildstrom. We'll post that podcast interview later today.

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Social Media DNA: Does Your Company Have It?

LaunchCamp divided pretty easily into two camps, companies and executives who:

  1. Understand social networking technologies inherently; and
  2. Know they need to do something, but are not sure what.

This divide isn’t new and frankly, it’s not going to end any time soon. In the past I’ve been asked to design training programs only to find that some people within an organization understand social technologies and concepts very well and wanted to move on beyond the basics. Then there are those who are still figuring out how to sign up for a Twitter account or maybe have just dipped their toe into Facebook.

With this type of audience one size never fits all.

But for LaunchCamp it wasn’t just a division among individuals as Isis Maternity Community Manager Cindy Meltzer noted during our recent conversation. It could also be felt in corporate culture.

During the startup panel it became apparent that most tech-based companies being founded today are steeped in social networking tools. Not just because the founders are young, in fact their ages run the spectrum, but because the genesis for their ideas come from first understanding social networking. In other words: the aspect of marketing that takes conversation into account is built in. It’s part of their DNA.

Jules Pieri, CEO of the Daily Grommet

Take the example of the Daily Grommet. When moderator David Beisel asked about how much each company spent on launch marketing, the answer came back as nothing. Though, as Jules will tell you, it was nothing EXTRA. Frankly, marketing is baked into the idea of “Citizen Commerce,” which is the idea that the customers drive the direction of the products featured each day. This isn’t a one-way system of “we produce, you buy” but community conversation of “we find what you want.”

Since the community members are, by nature, excited by the products they’re more likely to take action and talk about them.

The same goes for Runkeeper, which factored sharing right into the product. From the start the idea wasn’t only to use a mobile device to track your routes and save information about you, but to share that information with your friends. By doing that you are, in fact, sharing the product you’re using. If friends want to share back they need to get that product too. The viral nature is built in, not tacked on later.

By contrast I hear from companies that have traditional business models and are looking for a way to build social networking into their marketing programs. This isn’t a bad thing (in fact, it’s great) but it’s also just the start.

To truly engage in this world each company must look beyond their marketing departments and find their communities, then use the tools to engage them. After all, that’s how new companies are finding their way.

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Why the iPad Won't Save the World (and why it might)

Fifteen years ago I sat in the World Room at the Columbia Journalism School and watched as a digital expert from Knight Ridder showed off a piece of cardboard.

Really, it was a mockup of a type of digital content delivery device (video below). The hope, he said, was that the device would have a touch screen and use a form of electronic ink. People would receive their "newspaper" overnight via telephone line and have it in the morning. The pictures would come to life as videos at a touch and it would save the newspaper industry.

Though, he admitted, the technology just wasn't there to make the vision possible.

I don't need to tell you that iPad achieves that vision. Only, there's one problem: it isn't cheap enough. Well, that's not really a problem, but let me get to that.

Back in the World Room my classmates went nuts. They were terrified of the digital divide, that the device would be expensive and that because of it newspapers would be available only to those with means and not to the majority of Americans.

No, the Knight Ridder people assured us, the only way this would work is if the device was cheap enough to be almost a giveaway item, like one of those cheap calculators you get at the local bank.

Obviously the iPad isn't going to be that cheap. And on one level that's a problem. But on another, not really.

The history of communications is littered with haves and have nots. In fact, it relies on it. The 1950s is often called the "Golden Age of Television" because the shows tended to be written for a more literate audience. Well, that makes sense when you consider that TVs were expensive, so only people who were wealthier (and more educated) tended to purchase them.

Flash forward to the 1970s and 80s and you see the same thing happen with cable television. Move into the early 90s and it's the Internet. All along the way advertisers tout the next media as having a "more educated demographic" and the fact that they have a higher disposable income.

As a particular medium becomes more saturated and reaches a broader audience, it's more difficult to find the desired demographic. Not to fear, another communications for (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) comes along to save the day.

So yes, iPad will have its adopters, and copies. People will design content for this class of devices, just as they design content for smart phones, in order to reach the desired demographic. Over time, the price will come down and the audience will expand.

Though, I doubt my bank will give me one any time soon.

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