NOTE: This is a long and winding post, and you may be in a hurry. If so, let me ask you for a quick favor: my whole reason for writing this post is to better understand you. Here’s how you can help me do that:
Short version: In the comments, please list 3 things YOU would like to see discussed more often on my blog.
Slightly longer, yet ultimately more useful version: Take this short survey to help me better understand your experience level, what topics you’re interested in and why, so I can better provide you with discussions you’ll care about.
And now, back to the post at hand.
Writing in the Dark
As a writer, I like to be read. I also like knowing that what I’ve written is beneficial to the people who read it. And I like to converse and debate with my audience in ways that advance our collective understanding of the topics we’re passionate about.
The problem is, that potential never seems to be reached because we all spend too much time rehashing the same topics and polishing our own reputations, rather than collectively pushing the medium forward.
But for those of us who would like to discuss these issues at a more “advanced” level, there’s a catch:
Because our audiences come to us for advice and insights, we spend the bulk of our time educating others and far too little time pursuing the lessons we need to improve ourselves.
What we need is to do both at once. But how?
NOT by Biting the Hand That Feeds You
As our commenters have pointed out across these “improvement” manifestos, the vast majority of the people who read our blogs are the people who need to be educated by us. Forsaking them would be bad business and bad karma, because it’s unwise (and unprofitable) to turn our backs on those very people who have validated us as being “knowledgeable” in the first place.
Instead of lamenting what we perceive as a lack of quality in social media, we’re better off leading by example. This includes:
Producing the best media that we can create ourselves
Providing examples of work that we believe is exemplary
Explaining HOW to create work that matters, with examples
Interviewing the very practitioners that we would like to learn from
Conducting experiments to gather, analyze and summarize our own data
Focusing less on the quantity of our own output and more on the quality
Refraining from “doing it wrong” when we recognize our own bad habits
Innovating within existing tools and formats to show what’s possible
By doing so, we can continue to provide the insights we’ve become known for, while streamlining our own processes and minimizing the amount of white noise that we, ourselves, generate.
But there’s still one missing link: we need to know who we’re talking to in the first place.
Preaching to the Void
This week, I taught a two-hour “social media crash course” at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance. The attendees varied widely in their experience levels and their intentions for social media. Some wanted to sell their work, some wanted to network with peers, and some had almost no online experience whatsoever.
But they all had one thing in common: I could see them.
Online, we never really know who we’re interfacing with. We’re never sure how much attention they’re giving us, or when they lose interest, or why. All we know is that X number of visitors read what we write, and a subset of them share our media with others. Even the best analytic tools can’t provide the same context as a personal relationship.
So let’s try asking for one.
As I mentioned above, I’d like to know more about you. This is not so I can market to you, or place demographically-appropriate ads on my blog. As you may have noticed, this blog is ad-free and I don’t expect to change that anytime soon. What I am interested in is better serving you.
Because you want to learn, and so do I. And the more I know about you, the better equipped I’ll be to provide you with the information you care about, in a format that will encourage debate and discussion. When both sides feel they’re directly connected, that’s the first step toward improving social media (and our overall experiences), day by day.
Have a second? Leave a comment and let me know 3 things you’d like to see discussed more often on this blog.
Have a minute? Take this short survey, so I can wrap my head around the slightly bigger picture of me, you and “us.”
Last night, while I was conducting a Social Media 101 workshop at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance, my Twitter account was hijacked… by my girlfriend.
I’d logged in on her laptop before the workshop began, and then I forgot to logout. Since she’d accompanied me to the workshop, she suddenly found herself with two free hours to masquerade as me, and I’d be none the wiser.
And while anyone who didn’t see Ann’s original tweet probably thought it was bizarre that “I” would be tweeting about myself in the third person, my friends and my familiar Twitter conversationalists got a huge kick out of it because they were suddenly privy to a side of me that they wouldn’t otherwise see: me, as explained by someone who knows me a little too well.
Then, in order to illustrate a point, I pulled up my Twitter account during the presentation. Ann’s cover was blown. And the audience (and I) got a handy reminder that you should always log out of your personal accounts when you’ve accessed them from a public computer.
Afterward, I finally had time to read back through what “I’d” said, and see what others said in response. It was entertaining. And (mostly) true. And surprising, because I never would have expected so many people to be so interested in the arbitrary details or commentary about my life…
… and yet, that’s what I already share with the world on a daily basis.
It took me awhile to realize that what Ann had been saying in my name isn’t all that different from what I already say myself. But she was able to offer a slightly different viewpoint that I wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have provided because… I’m me. And because she channeled her commentary as me, the people who follow me got to be in on the joke in a way that wouldn’t have happened if Ann had tweeted from her own account (which she doesn’t have).
I’m happy to have my own account back, but I’m also thankful for my out-of-twitterbody-experience. Not many people get to attend their own funeral, but hearing what they have to say about you (or as you) is priceless.
Now all we need to do is convince Ann to rejoin Twitter (which she quit years ago), and then I can patiently await the day when she leaves her account logged in on my laptop…
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In 2003, I launched Something to Be Desired (or STBD), a creative outlet that eventually became the web’s longest-running sitcom. The series remained active until 2009 when I moved to Baltimore and the cast remained in Pittsburgh.
While STBD remains indefinitely on hiatus, awaiting the right opportunity to be rejuvenated and / or properly concluded, I hope the lessons I learned during the show’s first 6 years of existence can help other content creators avoid the pitfalls that so often lead to frustration, disappointment and failure. (Not that failure is always bad; but I digress…)
10 Tips for Creating Successful (and Sustainable) Web Content
1. Keep It Simple.
When STBD began, it was derived from a 60-minute script I’d written, which we subdivided into 5 shorter chapters. It was the story of Jack Boyd, although he was primarily a passive observer in his own life. The show had 8 recurring characters, a few extras, and was filmed exclusively in locations where we had direct and unquestioned access (with one huge exception; see tip #3).
By 2009, we were producing a new 5 to 10 minute episode every week, drawn from a cast of 15 recurring characters and another two dozen veterans who’d left the show but still made occasional guest appearances. We filmed all around the Pittsburgh area, at all times and days of the week, which made scheduling so many (unpaid) actors a nightmare.
Despite the increased breadth of the show, many longtime viewers still cite our first few seasons as our most narratively coherent years, partly because the show was then focused on a smaller cast and a simpler plot.
Growth can be good, but don’t grow faster than necessary or you’ll lose time, energy and focus.
2. Tell the Story That No One Else Can.
As a former college radio DJ, my experiences on-air and behind the scenes were the inspiration for the creation of STBD. Jack Boyd was a radio DJ, and the success or failure of his ever-struggling station was the overarching catalyst behind many of the show’s plot twists.
But I also knew that by offering viewers a glimpse inside a world they themselves would rarely experience — even something as seemingly mundane as a radio station — it would keep them interested in seeing “what happened next” in a social circle they’d never otherwise be able to peer into.
When you consider other forms of media, from TV and movies to podcasts and blogs, ask yourself: which media do I consume because it invites me into a world, a job, a topic or a personality that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to? There are plenty of reasons why creations like Mad Men, Achewood, Homestar Runner and Dooce have been so successful, but part of their charm is their inability to be replaced by inferior imitations.
Be original, because anything less is replaceable.
STBD began as the story of Jack Boyd, his workplace, his friends and his city.
Then a funny thing happened: the actor who played Jack left the show (and the city).
So we adapted the concept. We shifted the focus to Jack’s closest friends, and told their story of “life after college.” As long as we still had the radio station as our anchor, we had a subtle branding element that would tie the various themes together.
Then, three years into production of STBD, the radio station we filmed at came under new management and we were informed that we were no longer allowed on the premises.
So we adapted again.
STBD now became the story of Jack’s sister Caroline and her roommate, Dierdre, each of whom got new jobs (in new, more reliable locations) to open the show’s 4th season. The central theme of “life after college” was still intact, but now we’d lost all tangible reference to the show’s initial concept. And yet, as long as we had a past, we knew the show could have a future.
When your success hinges on the whims of your audience, your sponsors or your collaborators, always remain flexible.
4. Provide an Entry Point for All New Visitors.
From TV shows to comics, whenever I first dive into a new (to me) serialized creation, I always start with the episode or issue at hand. I like to know how interesting the creation is now, and then I’ll backtrack as necessary to figure out any plot holes or character questions I may have. For me, half the fun of exploring a long-running creation is understanding how it’s changed over the years, and experiencing plot twists and character growth out of order.
Evidently, I’m a rarity.
By an overwhelming margin, new viewers of STBD almost always decide to begin at the beginning. Never mind that we’d been online for years, or that we’d produced more than 25 hours of content over the course of 150+ episodes, or that our most recent episodes bear scant resemblance to anything from our early days; humans are apparently hardwired to begin at the beginning and work their way forward.
This was always a problem for us, because our series is so different from season to season. Newbies would poke their heads in, get confused, then overwhelmed, and flee. Or they’d wade in at the beginning, be underwhelmed by our creative juices from 6 years ago, and leave without bothering to fast-forward to the present and see how we’d improved.
When producing content for the long-term, always make sure that your roots remain relevant. Otherwise, you’ll need a fresh introduction that brings people up to speed quickly, or perhaps an entire re-brand to divorce yourself from your history. Because online, time is precious and playing catch-up always feels like work.
5. “Not Starving” Isn’t the Same Thing as “Selling Out.”
We never made a dime on STBD. Yes, we earned a few dollars off donations, t-shirt sales and other incidentals, but the sum total of that income was never more than a few hundred dollars. Over the course of those 6 years, the only things that kept the show afloat were my own invested income and the graciousness of the cast to labor without pay.
Granted, making STBD was (usually) fun, which helps alleviate the sting of working for free. But not paying a cast means not being able to complain when their schedules get complicated by paying work. And not actively pursuing advertising revenue, sponsors, partnerships and merchandise sales meant that we’d never generate enough independent income to pay anyone — or to replace damaged equipment, purchase props, license music, or do any of the things we’d like to have done in order to keep the show growing.
You don’t have to say “yes” to every monetary offer that comes your way. But you do need to budget for success, and pursue avenues of revenue that will ensure your creation can stay afloat on its own power.
Trust me: there’s no shame in not starving.
6. Be Consistent.
Audiences want quality media delivered to them in a timely fashion. Ideally, they want the same thing at the same time in the same place, for as long as they find it interesting.
“But this is the web,” you may think to yourself in a moment of misguided anarchy. “Time is irrelevant; Google is always.”
Yes, Google is always. But Google needs to find something when it goes looking for you, and so do the people who enjoy your content enough to subscribe to it. If you miss enough self-declared deadlines (as we did), it’s an excuse for your audience to take you less seriously, and to make them think twice before recommending your work to someone else.
7. Get Ahead.
Once you master the art of producing quality on a regular basis, you’ll want to get ahead. The more free time you have away from production, the more effort you can invest in promotion; otherwise, you spend all your time producing work that never gets seen.
On STBD, we were rarely ahead in any capacity. We frequently filmed Monday’s episode on Sunday night, and I was up overnight editing it before passing out on the couch. Not a good way to instill self-discipline, much less to keep enough energy in the tank to promote the show adequately.
If I’d been smarter about producing STBD, I would have written multiple scripts (or even an entire season’s worth) in advance, and then filmed and edited the bulk of the show before any of that season’s episodes aired. Then we wouldn’t have been at the mercy of weekly schedules, we wouldn’t have had plotlines that dangled for months on end while we tried to sew them up, and I wouldn’t have lost sleep patching holes in plots and coverage that wouldn’t have existed if we’d had more lead time.
If you love something, do it right.
8. Promote, Promote, Promote.
If you’re spending all your time producing media, you’ll never have time to promote it. That means everyone’s investing their energies producing content that’s unlikely to be seen, because you don’t have the same dedication to sharing your work as you do in perfecting it.
Despite a healthy following on MySpace (yes, MySpace), the occasional front-page recommendation by YouTube or Yahoo! Video, and a dedicated group of longtime fans, we rarely promoted STBD with any efficiency, urgency or consistency. I always knew what I would do if I had the time, but then I perpetually failed to provide myself with the time I needed.
Yes, ideally, your content is so amazing that it speaks for itself and the world becomes your word-of-mouth oyster. But realistically, you’re producing media that’s roughly as good as anyone else’s, give or take. Your work won’t succeed unless people are talking about it, and the first person who needs to talk about it is you.
9. Listen, Listen, Listen… to a Point.
When your fans and trolls speak up, you should listen. Just make sure you strain their praise or criticism through the filters of their personality in order to find any real, actual, objective information. Your goal here is to discover what is or isn’t working for your audience and why, not to be told you’re wonderful or horrible. (You do that yourself already.)
But the people who love (or hate) your work aren’t always able to articulate why. Maybe they’re too busy, or too disinterested, or too embarrassed to engage you directly. This is where surveys and forums come in handy. This is why metrics, analytics and data need to be reviewed, and choices made based on the unspoken habits of your audience.
And yet, in the end, you need to create media because you enjoy the process of that creation. Success is something we’re always pursuing, but the external validation of a raving audience pales in comparison to knowing that you produced something you’re proud of, traffic and ad rates be damned.
10. Know When to Quit.
When you first start creating a new piece of media, it helps to have an idea of what “the end” might look like. If it’s a self-contained story or experience, you know when it’s over. If, like a blog or a podcast, it’s a living, breathing, ongoing experiment, the end can be a bit less definitive.
Maybe it’s over when it becomes too hard to continue. Maybe it’s over when you’re out of money, or when no one else is listening.
When you no longer enjoy the act of creating something, it’s definitely over.
I often wonder if we shouldn’t have ended STBD years ago. For us, it could have been over when Jack left, or when the radio station was written out, or when the process of organizing and executing a weekly episode took more effort to pull off than our day jobs did. And it absolutely could have ended when I moved to a different state, four hours away from the rest of the cast.
But it hasn’t.
Not yet, anyway. And when it does, it won’t be because anyone else has decided it’s over.
That’s the one lesson you have to learn for yourself.
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Lately, I’ve been ranting (again) about social media’s need to improve. This usually happens every 6 months or so, and then I get distracted by paying work and holidays, only to return and find that nothing much has changed.
So this time, instead of shaking my fists at the sun, I thought I’d explain 5 ways YOU can get better at social media. Keep in mind that my idea of “better” may not match yours, because I may have different social media goals and expectations than you do. In fact, that’s almost a guarantee — so why don’t we start there?
1. For God’s Sake, Have a Purpose.
Years ago, everyone was telling you to “dive in” to the social media fishbowl and “join the conversation.”
“But why?” you’d reply. “I have nothing to say.”
“You don’t have anything to say… yet,” they’d respond cryptically.
Looking back, this is entirely logical: the early adopters of social media were altruistic, but they were also keenly interested in driving traffic to their own blogs and podcasts in order to validate this burgeoning medium. If you bought into it, they’d look like geniuses who were years ahead of the curve.
We’re a little past that point now.
Today, the white noise is excruciating. The tools we could be using to revolutionize communication are instead being used to complain about bad hair and shoddy customer service. People blog, podcast, tweet and Flickr because they feel obliged to, or because they’re aching to be noticed and validated by others, desperate for a rewteet to prove they’re still alive.
Find a purpose. Set a goal. Decide what “social media success” would mean to you, personally. Then make choices that support your pursuit of that goal.
And if you don’t have something to say, it’s okay. No one’s making you talk anymore. The conversation has been joined to death.
2. Stop Confusing Media with Marketing.
Media is something you make. Marketing is something you do.
Media is communication. Marketing is sales.
You can create media, and you can market the media you create. You can even create media in order to market the products and services featured in that media.
But believing that this guy and this guy are both “doing social media” is like believing that Damien Hirst and your five-year-old are both “revolutionizing art.” The tools may be the same, but their intentions are completely different. Lumping them together does a disservice to both sides.
3. Let Someone Else Be the Expert.
You probably have some amazing insights to share with your audience, right? Or maybe you have a solution to a problem that no one’s ever thought of before. And now you can’t wait to post about it and then immediately buff the pixelated star on your digital door that reads “expert.”
Do us all a favor: don’t.
In social media, everybody’s an expert, and they’ve been writing for years about the exact same thing you’re writing about now. There’s absolutely no reason to write the same post your peers have already written a hundred times, except for the pleasure of hearing yourself say it.
If every author in the history of mankind had decided that they were going to publish their own book of fairy tales, simply because they wanted to be known as Fairy Tale Experts, we might not have needed The Brothers Grimm. But we sure as hell wouldn’t have needed 33 million volumes of fairy tales either.
4. Comment Selflessly.
Remember when I told you to stop talking if you had nothing important to say? I still mean it. But if you resent being shushed, here’s your loophole: say something that matters.
Blog comments have long been the wasteland of linkbait from attention whores and meaningless accolades from people who can’t otherwise improve the dialogue.
So improve the dialogue.
Mark Blevis has a great policy: he strives to leave five meaningful comments a week on the blogs he reads. Five meaningful comments doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider the time it takes to actually read the posts he’s commenting on, evaluate the information, develop a response and type it up in a thoughtful manner. It might take a grand total of an hour, but that’s an hour Mark spent helping his peers improve, rather than insisting they read the blog post he just wrote about that exact same thing last week.
Comments are intended to be about something. Try making your comments about something other than your own inbound traffic.
5. Kill One of Your Channels.
Thanks to social media’s continued convergence, you can now tweet from Facebook, watch YouTube on your blog and Flickr your way through Google Buzz. As a result, all channels have become one large funnel, and it’s impossible to decide which of a person’s channels you should follow because they’re all essentially the same.
Tim Maly suggests unlinking your channels, so that each one has merit unto itself. But that creates another problem: no one is interesting enough to pretend to be interesting differently across multiple platforms.
So kill one.
Maybe it’s the one you rarely use, or the one where you get the least amount of feedback, or the one that takes the most time to maintain. Google makes you omnipresent to begin with, so how many additional ways do you need to be found?
Will the world really miss your Flickr stream? Will your unwatched YouTube channel be mourned? Will orphans wail in the street if they can’t find you on LinkedIn?
If you’re not using something, or you’re not benefiting from the use of something, kill it. The time and effort you save can be put to better use being legitimately interesting elsewhere.
And that’s the kind of “better” I’d like to think we can all agree on.
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In most forms of art and communication, the practitioners strive to excel. They understand what constitutes success, and they work together — whether as collaborators, friendly rivals or fierce competitors — to reach ever-greater heights of creative, technological and financial achievement.
Yet, in social media, we’re mostly content to simply co-exist in an ever-widening fishbowl. We all aspire to “something greater,” but few of us can honestly articulate what that something might actually be.
And so we swim in circles, trying to decide if the same peers we see every day are doing better or worse than we are, and no one’s ever willing to point out the obvious:
None of us are doing as well as we should be, because none of us are willing to insist on doing better.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Talk About Yourself
As a haven for narcissists, the only thing most “experts” are truly passionate about is themselves. This makes it nearly impossible to offer anyone constructive criticism, because their chief export is almost always their own personal brand.
In addition, “we’re all in this together,” which also means we’re all in competition. In terms of consulting, content creation and “personal branding,” this means your friend is your rival; helping them improve only hurts you in the end.
A Useful Thing I Learned in Art School
When I was a student at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, my roommates and I shared a serendipitous bond: we were all incredibly driven to succeed. As a result, we were continually competing with each other, not because there were a finite number of As or Bs to be earned but because each of us was capable of achieving those As and none of us wanted to be the one who didn’t.
We also had an agreement: if one of us noticed that another was slacking off, we promised to call him on it. Sure, we might all be competing for the same jobs on graduation day, but we also realized that maintaining our collective momentum was the best way to ensure that each of us would keep pushing the envelope individually.
The way we saw it, if one of us succeeded, all of us succeeded.
Sounds like a winning formula, right?
So why hasn’t the social media fishbowl adopted a similar approach?
Everyone’s (Already) a Winner!
As always, I can’t speak for everyone in the fishbowl, but I do have a few guesses…
We all have fragile egos.
We’re afraid to rock the boat.
We don’t want others to criticize us.
Social media is overwhelmingly opinion-driven, which renders debate meaningless.
None of us are ever sure if anything is really “better” or “worse” than anything else.
“It’s just a hobby,” AKA, “If I have to think about it, it’s not fun.”
We’re part of a medium where bloggers continually offer generic advice on how others can get better at blogging, yet they rarely take the time to personally critique their peers and offer specific suggestions that could help someone improve directly.
Ditto for podcasters, marketers, SEO experts and other social media “gurus,” who are always more interested in befriending the influencers and burnishing their own reputations than in raising the bar of the industry as a whole. With rare exception, the entire fishbowl can be boiled down to sycophants and the easily-impressed, and it makes me wonder…
Why on Earth would so many of us engage in a daily habit that consumes so much of our time, has so much potential for growth, introduces us to so many people, and yet never take the initiative to demand more from our peers?
How are we supposed to learn if we don’t teach?
How are we supposed to improve if we don’t admit we need to?
And there’s your answer.
More than anything else, I truly believe that our reluctance to engage in constructive criticism stems from the fact that, for most of us who practice social media, this is the first time we’ve been accepted so easily into a (nebulous) social grouping. Once you’re “in,” it feels like we’re all one big happy family.
If so, why risk deflating the egos of your peers and being ostracized from the tribe?
Because a mediocre tribe is going to be defenseless against a predator with teeth.
Why We Can’t All Just Get Along
“Social media” isn’t new anymore. It’s media. It’s everywhere. You’re on Twitter? So is half of Hollywood. Differentiate or die.
Six years ago, only the hipsters were on MySpace. (Yes, MySpace). Today, every brand you’ve ever heard of is on Facebook. These tools you once thought were exclusive to self-important communicators like yourself are now being deployed by multinational corporations.
We’ve swirled around inside our social media fishbowl for nearly a decade now, ceaselessly debating ways to monetize, ways to compete, ways to collaborate, ways to hook the mainstream. And in that time, despite TIME Magazine telling you that YOU were the most important person on the planet, you still haven’t cashed in. You haven’t succeeded. You haven’t escaped the fishbowl, and gone on to Do Things That Matter with these democratic tools that were supposed to level the playing field and give college kids the same means to change the world as corporations.
We had authenticity on our side. We had individuality. We had originality. But we squandered it by not insisting that everyone do better.
With no gatekeepers, we had no one to impress. We sought niches, which are really just hiding places for when the mainstream swims by. We refused to adhere to a hierarchy, and those who assumed the mantles of mentors were reluctant to puncture the dreams of the people whose adulation made them tiny stars in a nascent universe.
So no one got better, because there was no one to dictate the terms of “better” and “best.” No one improved, because there was no reason to. And the mainstream never swept us away and turned us into household names because we’d burrowed too deep in our niches to be dislodged.
We’ve reached the point where both “old” and “new” media are insisting that we drop the “social” modifier and just call it what it is: media.
Now we all make media.
And that means you’re in direct competition with Viacom, Clear Channel and Disney.
The tide may finally have risen, and all boats may have been carried with it. But, unfortunately, we never insisted on building larger, stronger, faster boats that could compete outside the fishbowl. And now we’re swimming in a very different ocean.
The sharks have taken the bait, and the bait was you.
Is it too late to start demanding more?
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