Tag Archives: Social Software

How To Attract 1 Million Unique Users Every Month By Being Selfish, Think Visibility 2009

On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending yet another great Think Visibility conference. My talk, How To Make Social Media Suck Less, was based on an ongoing discussion with Andy Theyers of Isotoma about trying to work out what makes some social media sites really work and some not.

Around a whiteboard we attempted to come up with a “Social Media Theory of Everything …. in a diagram”. We might not have THE answer as such, but we do have some inklings about what might be called (loftily) Engagement Architecture… about many sites fail to offer any form of interaction/engagement unless you are registered.

We also “discovered” that maybe, a social media’s strapline or branding message or proposition, should have a motivation that is ENTIRELY SELFISH and that the social aspects of your site should be a deferred benefit (not the reason to join).

I enjoyed Julian’s (from The Telegraph) talk because it reinforced some of my beliefs about the people-oriented aspects SEO. The Telegraph has seen a phenomenal growth adding a million unique users, month on month on month. He (rightly) says that using “traditional” SEO or PPC practices that this would at best be expensive and at worst be completely unsustainable.

So, how did The Telegraph achieve this ridiculously huge growth in visitors and rankings? By setting up what was effectively a very small in-house team whose job it was to “coach” the entire organisation on SEO concepts. It’s as simple as that. Reporters, understanding SEO basics and then doing the things they do ever so slightlyly (is slightlyly a word?) differently has made all the difference. A million users a month, every month difference.

I felt Julian’s (and my) talk might have been better if a little shorter (to be more punchy) but was kept entertained by his red trousers. I guess everyone needs a cheap gimmick 🙂

Of course, the real work and insight of any conference happens in bar afterwards and I vaguely remember being involved in the development of a genius screenplay (remember 5% of that idea is ours!), the birth of a public toilet doors that make fart noises and an art concept that involved wheelie bins…. and much, much worse!

The Think Visibility crew are now looking for speakers for the next conference, so if you know anyone with something to say about “the things that usually get left behind in the web design process”… give them a nudge. They’ll enjoy it!

Using Google Page Creator/Blogger and Other Free Services for supporting Small Organisations and Communities

I am always on the look out for new and novel approaches to supporting small groups of people have a presence and communication online using low-cost tools.

Many small organisations, such as Easingwold Running Club, need a web site to help promote their races, so paying visitors runners enter their races  and to support coordinating their members. They need simple functionalities such as calendars, news, passworded file stores, information pages and discussions. The site would need to be easy to use and maintain, very cheap, if not free, and ideally encourage the members themselves to participate in the creation of the content.

Having experimented using open-source tools such as WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Zope and other groupware tools I was never very comfortable about setting up a server for a small group like this because:

  • There are always on-going costs. These may be small, and whilst a small simple site is cheap, a site with the complexity of log-ins, WYSIWYG editors, calendaring and file uploads starts to need a bit more oomph.
  • There are always maintainance issues. The job of keeping a backup has to be done by someone. The job of ensuring the site is running needs doing. If the site needs updating I would always prefer it if the client can do it themselves.
  • There is always the problem of control. When someone “runs” a web site. They can always, on a whim or by accident, shut it down. With a background in education, I’m a fan of the “you can too” model and I like the idea of empowerment in general. I like shallow hierarchies and hate gate-keepers. When you have a situation in which there is a gate-keeper, at some point, you meet the gate, it seems especially in insecure geek circles.


This site is built using free services from Google, namely, Google Apps, Google Groups, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Blogger (owned by Google). The latest news from the Blogger blog appears on the home page using what Google call a “gadget” … as do the upcoming events in the calendar.

Because of a fault with the old site was re-created by rescuing data using Google-cache facility and the good old internet archive.

It took less than a day to build, starting from knowing little to nothing about the tools used. I spent some of the evening struggling with some CSS hacks but I’m no designer, that could have been quicker. The site isn’t finished yet but it works.


More people can contribute to the content of the site. Anyone with access and a browser can change the content using simple browser-based tools. The site can updated with photos and text, without any great technical knowledge. No need for HTML. The more people that “own” sections of the site, the more democratic and fair (in terms of time spent and effort) the process of running a web site becomes. I suspect that, as usual, few will take up that offer, but I like the idea that collaborative content creation isn’t ruled out from the start.

The Latest News Blog, where all the latest news will be posted, is open to anyone the club invites to post there and is a place you can put photos or race reports. Obviously, the more people that add news to the site, the more people it will attract via Google searches (the main way anybody finds any site) and in doing so will raise the awareness of Easingwold Running Club. I would encourage any member to maybe start a personal running blog at http://www.blogger.com if they are interested.

There is a secure Members Forum to which only members can enter. This is a space for private chat, say about finances or documents with sensitive documents such as members’ telephone numbers. Membership is granted by an administrator on request.

The Tables & Results section is a file store into which administrators can upload or create spreadsheets and documents. This is a quick and easy way to publish any public information members have made quickly and easily. Simply upload and view.

The Events Calendar is subscribable. This is a feature I find particularly useful as I can view events alongside work commitments using Outlook or iCal or similar. The events are also “shared with the world” meaning somebody visiting the Yorkshire area may discover one of your races via Google Calendar and pay their £2!

The alternative to using free tools is writing your own software and/or using open-source tools always require hosting and maintainance. Whilst this can be very low cost, free is always cheaper and the site benefits from Google’s excellent hosting track record. Additionally, Google’s services have many advanced features that are often missing from home-grown solutions, such as RSS newsfeeds, subscribable calendars, easy to use editing etc.


When one uses free-tools it could be said that you are handing over control to a third party. There is an element of truth in this and yes, their servers may be struck by lightning but that could also be said of using one’s own hosting. I feel that the benefits in terms of ease of use and functionality out-weigh this particular drawback.

Branding and looking professional can be a challenge when technologically pulling different services together. When using your own code, everything is easily editable, this doesn’t guarantee that the site will be well designed though, but in terms of ease-of-development it can be a lot simpler when you have total control.

Some of the tools, such as the file store and calendar aren’t brandable but the functionality they offer is so great, I don’t mind so much.


  • I am most disappointed with the “Gadgets” which for the most part don’t work or are pretty useless. Would you really want “Depression News” as a gadget on your web pages?
  • The poor Google Calendar gadget looks a bit goofy, I’m surprised that the means to integrate other Google services aren’t more elegant in terms of styling.
  • The Google Page Creator has no concept of shared content, so navigation has to be copied and pasted across multiple pages which makes making a change to the navigation a bit of a chore.
  • I discovered that you can’t rename pages
  • The lack of Blogger and Google groups integration is astonishing. I can’t imagine any web site without a blog nowadays. There seems to be a confict within Google about where they are going with publishing and collaboration.
  • There is no access to the Google Page Creator templates. I managed to implement a stylesheet hack so that the Blogger blog and the main site appear similar. It needs a little more work to add the finishing touches.
  • I logged a myriad of small usability glitches that Google are free to pay me for. If they need any help with their publishing/community strategy they can find me on Google 🙂

All this said, the Google toolset is very impressive, at times a little slow, but it offers most of what a small, non-profit organisation might need. I didn’t mention that you also get email accounts for members but in this case isn’t something that they needed.
Wiring Google’s services together could be made a lot easier with easier-to-use more configurable gadgets and stylesheets that work between Blogger and Google Page Templates.


Using a “free tools” approach means that an organisation is free to either swap in different services as an when they see fit or jump ship to a different service altogether. Whether that is feasible depends on them having a friendly tech person.

The header is used on both sites and could be edited to include a logo or strapline or use a different image. It is available here . Anybody is free to improve or offer suggestions on how to improve this, it’d make a great club competition! Deleting the old header and uploading the new file will update both the Blogger blog and the main site.

The site uses a stylesheet called style_override.css that any web developer worth his salt could improve on, particularly with regard to integration with the blogger template.

Your Space isn’t My Space

I love the idea of collaboration. I love drawing. Collaborative drawing is a rare thing…  it hardly ever works…. for me at least… and one of the main reasons is because of the lack of ownership within the collaboration. Collaboration shouldn’t be about letting some random idiot ruin your stuff (or the other way around).
Doodle-board is ok but you very quickly want your own board. Having anything collaborative where there is more of a motive for vandalism will always fail.
I wonder why the drawing tools themselves are so laggy. Drawing isn’t drawing when there’s a lag, it’s a bit like when a phone has a delay and you find yourself stultified, unable to speak…or chat rooms when the delay makes nonsense of the conversations…
This BBC One Twitter board reminds me of PlasticBag Tom’s social telly watching mock-up, an idea that I still think has legs. The BBC site should let me create a space on top of their Twitter space so that as well as babbling on in real time in-tune to the programs, I and my friends could too. It’d be like been able to heckle the shows with your friends as audience/fellow hecklers.

The Wallright project actually takes another collaborative painting tool and makes it appear on a real wall. I like this idea… and this one rations your paint, presumably to limit vandalisation… but it instantly feels like you are working under a miserly teacher not handing out the red and pink because of what they might draw. The colour palette is too limited… and again, the drawing experience is horrible.

It seems that as someone else paints, my strokes are taken off… which is interesting, like there’s a finite amount of paint that keeps getting recycled.

The lack of ability to keep a bit of the canvas for yourself is a shame… if this was a real wall I could at least use my elbows to keep you from messing my bit up.
I’d forgotten about this drawing-based image search engine (retrievr). You paint what you want… and it fetches similar images. I painted an Apple and got this. This would be really interesting for porn… perhaps generating a whole new collection of primitive art works that would describe our collective sexuality. At worst you’d have an hilarious comic to which people could suggest captions.
I’d love this site to…

  1. work with Flickr or Google images, more is always better.
  2. Be able to take text input such as tags, more modalities is often better
  3. Work with a collaborative site such as the ones above, more people can be better if done well.
  4. Show a list of recent searches/drawings

Now goofing off at shit jobs doesn’t just waste your time…

(via headshift)…

 How does a PR department deal with this, and how can management of a low-end Supermarket that pays low wages to teenagers for menial jobs prevent it happening again? It’s a tough one, with potential echoes in a lot of companies that depend on undervalued casual labour.

For my part, having worked briefly in a Supermarket as a spotty teenager, I can confirm that all you need for late night bowling action is a long aisle, a stack of cans and some good, round Watermelons. If only we had mobile phones with video cameras and YouTube in those days!

Go watch the Extreme pallet lifters or Ladder Jump or The Somerfield Gap (videos)

…ha…. exactly….

IBM tries to turn your workspace into MySpace

In this article, IBM tries to turn your workspace into MySpace, at the Register we hear of the plans afoot from IBM to “socialize” Lotus Notes.

To be honest, I haven’t used Lotus Notes ever for a very long time, but doesn’t it already have all the features of MySpace already? Notes has (as far as I can remember) everything you’d ever want from an online shared space… profiles, discussion, media, comments, messages etc. and even then… everybody I’ve ever met who uses it… hates it… really bloody hates it. I don’t think MySpace succeeded because of the features, there were (and still are) better Social Software tools out there.
So I wonder, how are a big old boring company like IBM going to go about adding likeability to Lotus Notes? I don’t think they can, can they?

Mixing-up “Selling” with “Social”

Although Hugh kinda has it right when he points to Stowe and agrees that public relations is “getting social media all wrong”, what the real problem is they are both hanging out with the wrong sort…. and anyway, when have public relations ever got any media right since 1994? Maybe that’s putting it too strong but there have been some hilarious attempts to engage with all this new stuff hasn’t there?

Sure, they all maybe went and read “The *trains” and almost grasped the conversations thing, then went and created really lame blogs… and now the really cutting-edge public relations idiots are planning to storm Second Life or any other MMRPG and will undoubtedly discover they’ve pissed off another community just by being there.

Just out of interest, have any blue chip CEOs got a Myspace album out yet?

Like… dur!

The article How to Get People Linking and Commenting on Your Blog has some great advice about blogging for people who really will never ever get it… ever… not even slightly….

Here’s another tip. If you want people to talk to you, find out where they are and talk to them. That one’s for free.

Here’s another (I’m on a roll). If you want people to comment, make sure your comment form works. You’d think that’d be easy but the people at Lockergnome’s comment form doesn’t work no matter how hard I hit the “Send” button.

I’m kind of angry with myself that I bothered to read that lightweight “article”… but then it highlights the importance of saying something people want to hear and having a catchy linkbait title (see how my “Like… dur!” blog title really draws you in?)

Social Web Application Design

Luke has made some great slides about Social Web Application Design, saying some very sensible things very well. I particularly like the “System” diagram that shows how, when thinking about a simple photo, how it can be connected to other entities and related, aggregated and re-presented.

I wonder about the last slide though…. bury the submit button? Seriously?… Make it harder to contribute so that only the clever get to do it? Is that really what you’re saying Luke?


I’m very interested in Geowiki, where you can add your own points and comments.

From a usability perspective… it only lets me enter points by clicking… a very inaccurate way of adding them… especially when I know the exact point… the points aren’t draggable either… It’d be nice to have allsorts of tools, like postcode-to-lat/long to make “getting stuff into” the wiki easier.

Interesting though…

Valencia Workshop and Las Fallas

Yes, it’s time for the inevitable “hoilday” photos of us all working really hard and some belated history of the las fallas festival which is completely insane. I don’t think there was much more than a 1 minute interval when firecrackers or fireworks weren’t going off… it feels really deadly silent back in the UK.

During the workshops I used a wiki to collect the brainstorm/discussion “topics”. Everyone round the table could add/alter my notes on-the-fly. I then used xSort to “taxonomize” these items to help me “tidy up” the wiki nodes into headers. This was sort of creating a pattern language in real time and very useful to me as a reminder of what the two days in Valencia were all about. With a memory like mine, I need that.

Las Fallas Fire Festival


I’m heading off to Valencia for a few days to brainstorm a few improvements to Microsoft’s Virtual Learning Environment. I’ve been looking at it over the last few days and I’m amazed at how, for me, very basic online design concepts have not been implemented… not being cruel, but it’s kinda crude… so lots to do.

But more importantly, it’s the festival of las Fallas which sounds like a cross between Spitting Image and Bonfire Night. What could possibly go wrong?