Bright Matrices

Writings & musings of Mike Zavarello (a.k.a. brightmatrix), a "red mage" web developer.

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Need to Help Others Understand Twitter? Have an “Elevator Pitch”

You’ve heard it all before: “Why should I join Twitter? Who cares what I had for lunch?” or “What am I supposed to talk about?” or, even better, “We don’t have time for our staff to be playing around on Twitter all day.” It’s not like Twitter is the new kid on the block anymore; with over 500 million users and several years of robust growth under its belt, it’s becoming more and more a staple social communications platform.

So what is it about Twitter that makes it so hard to understand?

Its premise is incredibly simple: send a short snippet about what you’re doing for others to read, and read snippets others have written for the same purpose. Sometimes conversations ensue, most times, they don’t. You can be a chatterbox with everyone who’s decided to follow you or an ivory tower who talks to no one. It’s your choice.

Beyond some basic etiquette rules crowdsourced by its users, there’s really no right or wrong way to use Twitter. It can be a real-time news feed, a community of interests, a message board, a chat room, a virtual classroom, a professional development tool; whatever you need.

Twitter is simple, and that’s where the trouble comes in.

In my experiences, many neophytes and first-timers who join Twitter feel lost, despite Twitter’s helpful attempts to ease the sign-in process with suggested topics and accounts to follow. They don’t seem to know what to say or how they should say it.

It’s also a challenge for businesses, who can struggle to understand how to use Twitter to its fullest in listening to their customers and promoting their wares. If clients read about how celebrities use Twitter or who among them are considered “influential,” they can get the false impression that tweeting is frivolous or a plaything not worthy of serious consideration.

I’ve learned that you need to have an “elevator pitch” for Twitter. If you want your friends, family, colleagues, or management to really feel the energy and potential of Twitter, you have to be able to explain it in one or two sentences. Back it up with good examples of people or businesses that really make Twitter shine, and save the arcane jargon (such as retweets) for later.

What’s your “elevator pitch” for Twitter?

Image credit: Unknown

The Social Media Neophyte Who Flew Too Close to the Sun

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Image credit: Unknown; source: http://englishihonorsmythology.wikispaces.com/Icarus

I love social media. Ever since my first tweet in June 2009, I’ve learned an immense amount about the mechanics, arcana, and vagaries of these networks and their inhabitants. I’ve become an “expert neophyte” of sorts, and my experiences have become beneficial for both my career and my colleagues. Along with my first love, Twitter, I hold digital citizenships in Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn, Foursquare, Tumblr, WordPress, and Google+. My time spent in social media been equal parts amazing and enriching, but I’ve also found how overwhelming it can be if you’re not careful.

Around July of last year, shortly after I joined the hordes charging into the virgin wilderness of Google+, I had enough. I’d spent too many hours stressing over whether I was as knowledgable, “authentic,” and influential as I should be. I flipped back and forth between networks constantly, checking what I missed since my last visit and who had interacted with me in the interim. I was also in the midst of a years-long, strenuous redesign project where I was a key technical lead, and I simply had fewer and fewer cycles to spare for my alter egos. One day, I simply dropped off the grid. I posted nothing to Twitter for weeks, kept a lazy, glazed eye on Facebook, and put all my other presences, including this blog, in stasis.

I had burned myself out. I had flown too close to the sun.

It took me eight months to understand that my personal limit for fully-engaged social networks is two. I can maintain a presence in a few ancillary networks as well, but if I spend more than a cursory amount of time there, I feel the psychic strain from spreading myself too thin. I realized how easy it can be to get mired in keeping up with the digital Joneses: crafting the next clever blog post or witty comment, absorbing all the latest articles on Pinterest, getting the next Foursquare badge, or sustaining a Klout score. One simply can’t read, write, like, comment on, or share everything. It seems stupefyingly obvious, but I found that you really do start seeing trees instead of a forest if you’re not careful.

So, I’ve narrowed my focus back down to the essentials: Twitter for news, trends, professional connections, and real-time conversations, and Facebook to share life’s little snippets with family and friends. LinkedIn is delegated to my digital Rolodex; Foursquare an idle curiosity best suited for waiting at airport terminals; Tumblr a rare time waster; Google+ purely for research on how it works. Don’t even get me started about my feelings on Pinterest, Instagram, or the other new kids on the social media block.

I’ve invested a lot of time in Twitter and Facebook. To me, they’re now among the “established” social networks. As much as the landscape has changed over the past several years (AOL to LiveJournal to Friendster to MySpace and so on), I can’t shake the sensation that they’re here for the long run. As such, it will take a great deal of convincing for me to pull up stakes and move to another digital country. Because that is the choice I’m making from here on out: rather than collect more and more social profiles, I’ll replace them, swap them out. But it has to be worth it.

No more double-ended candles for me. I love social media too much to burn out again.

Another New Social Media Network? Sorry, But I’m Not Pinterested

Over the past several weeks, the dominating social media trend has been Pinterest, an “online pinboard.” In essence, Pinterest allows you to share and organize batches of images in a multi-column format. Like other networks, users can like your images, follow your feed, and comment. My initial impression of it is a Tumblr blog on steroids, showcasing a virtual parade of photographs, illustrations, and diagrams in streams of Polaroid-style boxes.

Pinterest is yet another “niche” or “boutique” style social network. We had plenty of those last year, most notably Quora (a knowledge-sharing service similar to Yahoo! Answers) and Empire Avenue (where you could buy and sell “stock” in key influencers). The social media echo chamber was full of folks talking endlessly about how individuals, companies, and brands needed to pay attention to the influx of activity here and how they could make the best use of them.

Pinterest is the new Quora, it seems. There’s plenty of fervor about it, with many chiming in with their thoughts, projections, and predictions. Much has also been discussed about reports that Pinterest is “driving more referral traffic than Google+, LinkedIn, Reddit, and YouTube.”

Pinterest seems nice enough. The layout is clean, and it’s easier to scan through than Tumblr or similar services. Here’s the thing, though: I have to confess that I’m not really interested (or, should I say, “pinterested”) in taking on a new social media network.

I remain a relative newbie to the social media multiverse. I only joined Twitter and LinkedIn in July 2009, Facebook in September 2010, and Tumblr and Google+ in June 2011. I maintain a presence in Foursquare, have an Evernote account, and, of course, this blog you see here. Midway through last year, I came to discover how monumental the effort of maintain multiple social personalities can be, especially if you’re being present and engaged on each one versus auto-posting.

I get that companies need to be aware of new opportunities, and that exploring new avenues to share ideas, expand brand awareness, and building revenue are quite important. For me at the practitioner level, however, taking on new networks is less desirable purely by virtue of time and resources. Social media is not free, and folks like me (who wear quite a lot of hats) feel that pinch more than the “ideators” or marketing experts out the in wild.

These networks are communities. I’m not being social if I’m simply taking up digital space with land grab accounts and one-way, automated postings. I need to be quite certain that the time and energy that I’d invest in learning and participating in a new network, especially for my company, is worth the effort. I have no interest in half-hearted efforts. There’s also the danger of success to be mindful of. As Margie Clayman warned in her latest post, “Before you try something, you need to consider what will happen if it actually works really well.”

So, will Pinterest be the “game changer” that many think it will be? Like anything else, time will tell. Saying that anything is the next big thing is a risky venture at best, and I’m not partial to crow. I’ll certainly key an eye on the horizon for what’s next, but you’ll have to excuse me if I’m not as enthusiastic as others. I have lots to do.

Update (2-24-12): Hollis Thomases wrote a superb article for Inc. titled “4 Things Pinterest Isn’t Saying” that ties in nicely with some of the points I’ve outlined. Pay close attention to the “fair warnings” section, in which Hollis offers level-headed advice on proceeding with Pinterest, or any new social network for that matter.

Some Helpful Advice from a Nitpicky Web Developer

Ever heard the phrase “the devil’s in the details?” I’m here to tell you it’s true!

For every clean, elegant, and professionally designed website or web application, there are droves of slipshod, sloppy, or just plain lazy pieces of code I encounter every week. What pains me most is that many of these quirks are really simple to fix and can go a long way to adding to your reputation and credibility.

I’ve put together six examples of detail work that you should include in your digital design and development. These suggestions may seem nitpicky, but as a professional web developer who’s been coding and designing websites for over a decade, these “fit-and-finish” items are the ones that always jump out at me when browsing a site or web application.

1. Display Current Copyright Dates

Most websites these days have copyright dates in their footers, usually followed by the formal name of the company or organization and legal text such as “all rights reserved.” Make sure the year displayed here actually matches the current year! Nothing says “out of date” like a mismatched copyright year. This is especially glaring following New Year’s Day. Scripting languages such as ColdFusion, JSP, PHP, and JavaScript can easily handle dynamic dates, as can content management systems.

2. Match Link Names and Page Titles/Document Names

Your users want to get to your content as easily and quickly as possible, so don’t make the process more complicated or confusing by using mismatched names in your website links. Make sure the language you’re using in the link text is a good match, if not exact, to the document or resource at the other end. You want your users to be confident that what they clicked on is what they needed. And please, avoid acronyms or business jargon! Simple language is best.

3. Use Accurate Singular/Plural Descriptors

This is one of my personal pet peeves: if you’re going to display a list of items, show a group of updates, or otherwise show a collection of objects dynamically, always add a condition in your code to change the descriptors from plural to singular when there’s only one item. I can’t stand to see phrases like “1 search results found” or “1 new tweets.”

4. Link Banner Graphics Back to the Home Page

Users have come to expect that clicking on the website’s banner or logo will take them back to the main page of the site. Make sure your banner is linked this way so users won’t get frustrated, or, at the very least, give them an obvious way to get there using a “Home” link or icon (a house is typical). For mobile applications, a “Home” icon in the contextual menu can help solve this problem.

5. Use Clear and Distinct Timestamps

If you’re managing a news website, blog, or any site or application that has time-specific or time-sensitive content, always show the publication date or the “last update” and make sure it’s easy to locate. This is especially important for users arriving at your site from search engines; they’ll want to know that the content you’re providing is the most current or up-to-date for their needs. I personally prefer to see timestamps right below the headline/byline, or, if that’s not possible, at the bottom of the article before any comments.

6. Make Your Social Channels Prominent or Easy-To-Find

Is your organization or corporation on Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube? That’s great, but don’t curtail your efforts by burying the channels in your “Contact Us” or “Resources” pages. If you’re actively using these channels, place social icons in prominent locations, such as the header (near the search box is a great spot for visibility) or anywhere where other contact information, such as phone numbers, is displayed.

What Advice Do You Have?

What about you, my faithful visitors? What common mistakes or omissions do you come across in your browsing that you would suggest as improvements to the site’s owners and developers? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

There Are No Social Media Gods

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with several talented folks involved in the field of social communications. At an in-house digital communications event in Dallas last week, I enjoyed excellent conversations with Barbra Rozgonyi of WiredPRWorks and Deidre Walsh of Jive Software. Today, at a meeting of the Social Media Club of Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of connecting with SMC Philly organizer Gloria Bell, blogger Cecily Kellogg of Uppercase Woman, and author and co-founder of Zoetica, Geoff Livingston, among others. The presentations and sidebar discussions with each of these good folks were informative and inspirational for me. All of them were warm and willing to talk.

This post isn’t about name dropping, however. Each of these individuals helped to cement a new perspective for me: there are no social media gods. There are only people.

I’ve been involved in social communications for almost two years now, and I continue to feel like a relative newcomer when interfacing with folks in this circle. There are a bevy of brilliant luminaries from every industry and skillset, and it can become daunting when you see a rapid-fire set of ideas, concepts, and opinions in your social streams each day. I confess to being a bit over-enthusiastic at times (“geeking out”) when talking to these folks, but, more so, I’ve unconsciously treated some as though there were deities: masters of their domain, untouchable. I see the same patterns in others and have heard stories of backlash when expressing differing opinions to the social gods.

For us folks invested in the social space, we have to remember that we are dealing with human beings, all the time. Not just the individuals who we’re reaching out to (and helping others do the same), but each other.  That’s the “social” in social media, of course, but I get the feeling the “human” aspect is lost from time to time. Respect and professionalism are prerequisites, but we can’t be afraid to share stories, offer contrasting opinions or constructive criticism, and give praise where deserved. We each have strengths, weaknesses, and our own unique personalities, but turning social communications into a “cult of personality” is not where we need to go.

My recent interactions were positive precisely because we all treated each other like people, not figures, metrics, or influencers to be courted. I hope to see more of this as my knowledge and network grows and fewer instances of “false idols.”

So, what’s the moral? Be warm, be generous, be fair, but, most of all, be human. I will.

Where Users Fear to Tread? On the Heels of Great Footers

Of all the elements in a modern website, the footer is probably the least appreciated. Users have come to expect basic contact information, privacy policies, and other legal-oriented details to live in the footer, but that doesn’t mean footer designs need to be dull collections of links or tiring repeats of the main navigation. Done well, footers can be helpful, informative, and even mischievous elements in a website’s overall visual design.

In this post, I cite four examples of well-crafted and thought-out footers I’ve come across, leaving room to expand the list as I discover other fine specimens. Of course, suggestions are welcome!

1. Marketwire


Marketwire is a Canadian communications corporation that offers unique solutions to help organizations listen, monitor, analyze, measure, and connect with their audiences in both traditional media and “new media” channels. Their suite of tools and dashboards allow their clients to gather valuable insights into their customers and competitors and make actionable results to increase their value, influence, and reputation.

Marketwire chose to let their website’s main content sections do the talking, so the footer is tasked to show essential contact information with a few informative links. The sweeping gray stripe offers a clear separation from the main content and neatly caps off the overall design. Critical touchpoints, national and international phone numbers and social media channels, are presented in a clean and prominent fashion. Large, colorful social media icons pop nicely off the monochrome background and into focus.

This is a simple but effective design that gets straight to the point and doesn’t leave current or potential customers wondering where to go next.

2. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City


The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City is one of the twelve banks that make up the Federal Reserve System, the central bank of the United States (Disclosure: I work for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, part of the Federal Reserve System). Alongside their dual mandate of monetary policy and bank supervision, the Federal Reserve Banks promote community development in their districts, enrich financial literacy among the public, and publish research data and documents on a wide array of economic topics.

The Kansas City Fed’s footer displays their site’s major website categories, a listing echoed in the top navigation. These categories, however, are shown in alphabetical order vs. the more topical choices in the top navigation, and surface the next level of content to help users find what they’re seeking. All titles are short (no more than four words) to ease scanning.

Bold category headings stand out nicely and draw the eye to key starting points. Common footer elements, such as a link back to the home page, contact information, privacy policy, and FAQs, are centered and offset from the primary and secondary categories to be easily discovered. The bank’s address and phone number have a third distinct style to complete the typography in the banner and headings. Seals at the top and bottom of the footer provide nice visual breaks.

Most Americans aren’t familiar with the inner workings of the Fed and can get lost amidst the vast amount of online content they offer. The Kansas City Fed’s footer delivers a lot of options, but does so in a roomy, clear presentation that can help ease information overload.

3. Wall Street Journal


One of the most recognized news publications in the United States, the Wall Street Journal delivers a staggering array of financial, national, and international news to its readers.

Offset in tones of deepening gray with ice blue links, the five columns of links in the WSJ’s footer are easily scanned and digested despite the fineness of the font size. The reversed contract color scheme is easy to read and distinct from the otherwise busy conglomeration of content in the main section of the site. As with the Kansas City Fed’s footer, key sections are in boldface. The WSJ’s RSS feed and social media links are embedded with small icons whose colors help them to stand out in the crowd. Alternate editions of the WSJ are collected together in the rightmost column and ruled off with a thin, dashed white border.

With nearly 100 links to various content pieces throughout the WSJ’s digital empire, the footer possesses a clean and pleasing design that gives a great overview of the wealth of available information.

4. ThinkGeek


A veritable gold mine of geeky goodness, ThinkGeek is a Fairfax, Virginia-based company specializing in collectables, apparel, games, and all manner of merchandise appealing to the geek in all of us. ThinkGeek is well known for its infectious creativity, whimsical demeanor, inventive products, and outrageous April’s Fool fake-outs.

ThinkGeek’s footer is another clean arrangement of major site categories divided into easily scannable lists. Bold, bright color gradients give richness and depth without sacrificing readability. Timmy, the impish monkey mascot of ThinkGeek, directs your attention to the company’s Twitter stream, videos, and blog from his vantage point at the footer’s left edge. Random “customer action shots” offer additional bursts of fun, user-contributed content that keep the experience fresh.

Best of all, the scene of rampaging robots that grace the bottom of each page turns into a mob of marauding zombies upon reaching the footer. It’s a subtle touch, but an extra bit of awesomeness to reward users for adventuring this far below the fold.

If Social Media is “Free,” Personnel Hours are a “Hidden Tax”

This week’s #smmeasure Twitter chat, held by Marketwire, the company behind Sysomos, focused on dispelling common myths about social media. The first myth raised for discussion was “SM is free, everyone should do it!” Besides the notion that you shouldn’t get involved in social media just for the sake of it (tactics come second to strategy, not the other way around), it’s the amount of time your staff will come to spend working with social media that takes a bite out of the “free” notion.

I likened this notion to a “hidden tax,” especially for instances where social media is taken on as an additional task versus changing existing roles or hiring new talent (the latter of which has a more defined, upfront cost).

Regardless of exactly how your organization gets involved in social media, hours will be spent. Listening, learning, reading, engaging, responding, and measuring all take time, and we all know time is money. Consider this: if your analyst Suzy Creamcheese makes $50,000/year and is now spends 15% of her time focused on social media efforts for your company, those efforts are now costing you $7500/year. Twitter’s not so “free” anymore, is it?

That said, you can help reduce the “hidden tax” of social media by thinking about efficiencies. Will entering this space give your business more visibility to potential customers and increase the loyalty of your existing buyers? Could the knowledge you gain by monitoring give you the ability to respond to industry conditions and customer needs, saving money over the long run? Can you avoid a meltdown and negative press by responding to complaints or controversies as they happen, sparing your company and your stockholders the agony of lost revenue?

Social media certainly isn’t a silver bullet in and of itself, but set up and managed effectively, you can turn those “costly” personnel hours “lost” to social media into gains for your business.

Shout-outs: The #smmeasure chat happens on Twitter every Thursday at noon Eastern time. Follow @smmeasure or @marketwire to tune in; Marketwire also has a Facebook page where they post questions ahead of time. Also, I recommend reading “The Now Revolution” by Jay Baer and Amber Naslund, which is filled with excellent advice and counsel on ways to make your business more nimble and effective in the era of real-time communication.

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