Exploring a new home through social media

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Two weeks from tomorrow, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. I signed my lease (I’ll be in the Petworth neighborhood of northwest D.C.), I’m reading POLITICO Pro’s articles and briefs as “homework” and I’m wading through my benefits paperwork.

I’m doing homework of another kind, too. Namely, the homework of getting acquainted with the city in which I’ll be living. Even though I’ve been to D.C. twice in the past month, I want to make sure I know what I’m getting into when I move. I’ve done the D.C. tourist thing, so travel guides won’t really help. For this mission, I turned to Twitter.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve added food trucks, restaurants, clubs, media, sports teams and figures to my TweetDeck, with a column reserved just for D.C. stuff. I think it’s working well — I’m getting familiar with the lay of the land and what it offers, even though I’m not even there yet. I’m hoping that once the move is permanent, I can use what I’ve learned about the city so far to make the most of it right from the start.

I recommend this strategy to anyone moving to a new city. Find people and places that interest you, and follow them. See if Foursquare offers a city badge for your area and what venues are listed. Map everything and get a good visual understanding of your area. Download mass transit apps. Check schedules for the local sports teams. Message people already in the city and ask their advice about what’s good. In other words, be proactive. You can get into a city before you actually get into a city.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of the Lincoln Memorial, one of my last “tourist” shots of the city.

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How to use a Facebook cover photo

One of the biggest lessons I learned when first studying social media and multimedia production was, “Follow the eyeballs.” Know where your audience members are looking, what draws their attention and how you can take advantage of it.

Today, Mashable published an interesting piece about Facebook’s Timeline pages for brands vs. the old generic brand pages, using an eye-tracking study. The study found that viewers were less likely to notice sidebar ads on a timeline page, that there was less immediate interaction with the Timeline content (i.e. the new Wall) and that quantitative data measures (Likes, Followers, etc.) are now much more prominent.

The biggest takeaway, though, was the awesome power of the cover photo. Cover photos are new to Timeline, and are found on both personal and brand pages. The eye-tracking study found that everyone — everyone — looks at the cover photo. It’s the prime page real estate, choice material that on an old page would be dominated by the more content-rich Wall.

So why are so many brands wasting this space by filling it with nothing? Take the Huffington Post. The site’s flagship brand page actually has a decent cover photo, of the newsroom. Or more specifically, it’s a photo of people in the newsroom — the Mashable article also notes that cover photos with people in them are better at drawing and keeping viewers’ attention. A similar cover photo adorns its UK page. But on some of its other sub-section pages, the cover photo space goes to waste. HuffPost Religion, HuffPost Denver and HuffPost Books, for example, have generic titles on a colored backdrop. Gawker’s page isn’t much better, with a graphic of the site’s logo.

Considering the study, I offer up a few suggestions for brands looking to maximize the potential of their Timeline cover photos.

1. Don’t repeat anything that can be just as easily seen in your profile photo or in the basic information section directly beneath your cover photo.

2. Use people whenever possible. Even if they’re Muppets (yes, that page was one of those featured in the Mashable article).

3. Don’t be afraid to make use of text, especially if that text conveys information and/or cross-promotes the brand’s other social media profiles. The New York Knicks make great use out of points two and three with their cover photo — it includes both J.R. Smith (a face) and a hashtag for fans to use on Twitter.

4. Keep it fresh. Sports teams can include hashtags for games or playoffs, or information about their next matches. Companies can update their cover pages with newly introduced products, or craft them to fit new marketing campaigns’ visual styles. Newspapers and magazines can use actual staff photos that accompany prominent/centerpiece stories. No brand, be it a news agency, a sports team, a corporation or anything else, is ever completely sedentary. Neither should their cover photos.

The cover photo block is the biggest thing on the page and it will be seen, even if the viewer misses the Timeline, the ads or the metrics. Make sure that the photo does your brand justice.

HBO makes ‘Game’ worth playing through social media

Rather than drive people away from television, the Web has given viewers a larger water cooler around which to discuss it. Networks have taken notice and the savvier ones are taking advantage.

HBO’s handling of online marketing for “Game of Thrones” is the gold standard in social media management for a television show. It’s not just the breadth of its online presence, but also the depth — viewers who like the show’s Facebook page (and 2.6 million people have), for example, get regular access to behind-the-scenes features, photos, posters, quizzes, wallpapers and interviews.

The show’s GetGlue profile is also extremely popular; check-ins for its season premiere were enough to disrupt the site’s service. It’s sailed past a million check-ins, and fans who love the show can earn stickers for watching not just the episodes, but also the various trailers that led up to the show’s premiere.

And of course, what self-respecting television show these days is without its own YouTube channel? “Game” has a YouTube presence loaded with content: recaps, interviews, features, maps, previews and more. The cross-promotion between Facebook, YouTube, GetGlue and Twitter (followers: 316K+) is nearly flawless. GetGlue check-ins show up on the Facebook feed; YouTube videos are promoted on Twitter. The cohesion of the social media strategy is very impressive, in terms of visual style and voice.

But surely any show with a clutch marketing team can make that sort of thing happen, right? Which leads to HBO’s ace up its sleeve: “Game of Thrones” knows who its fans are, respects them and gives them a role in the marketing.

An entire playlist on the YouTube channel is devoted to fan-submitted covers of the show’s gorgeous theme. My personal favorite is Jason Yang’s violin cover, which has racked up more than 2 million views. The guy who runs the show’s Twitter account says that he’s a fan of “A Song of Ice and Fire” in the bio, and his tweets demonstrate a love and appreciation of the source material beyond mere content-shoveling. He finds ways to appeal to both newer fans, those who just watch the show, and older fans, whose knowledge of the story goes beyond “Game of Thrones” and extends into the five books and their author, George R.R. Martin.

Where some shows would ignore fan-submitted art entirely, “Game of Thrones” embraces it, regularly featuring fan-made drawings, paintings and even posters on its Facebook page. Notably, two fan-made posters — one featuring a reimagining of  the Stark direwolf sigil, and another making great visual use of Sean Bean’s severed head — became integral parts of the show’s second-season marketing.

One does get the impression that, if you’re a fan, the show really does want to hear from you. And that, in turn, only cements viewers’ loyalty to the show. It is known.

A comment on David Cameron’s social media remarks

Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband both spoke in the House of Commons about the English riots. While browsing a timeline of the remarks, I was struck by something Cameron said: The government and the police were reviewing the “role of social media” in organizing the riots. At about 1 p.m., the Telegraph reported that Cameron went on to clarify, saying that sites like Twitter “could be closed down during periods of disorder.”

That general line of thinking set off my squick alarm. In the U.S., at least, speech that deliberately incites rioting or lawbreaking isn’t protected. On that note, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to A) single out social media and B) set a precedent of police and government interference in social media platforms. One night Twitter may be shut down to prevent rioting, but what else could a shut-down prevent? Who gets to decide what constitutes a “period of disorder”?

The Register took a similar tack, and wondered why Cameron wasn’t also chastising news stations for round-the-clock helicopter coverage. Such coverage, The Register suggested, gave as much of an idea as to which areas were unprotected as Twitter did.

Two years ago during the Tehran protests, Twitter was one of the only ways to get information into or out of Iran. It also played a large role in the recent Arab Spring uprisings. At its core, Twitter can be used by the disenfranchised to spread information and share their experiences. It has, I believe, a legitimate democratic underpinning, which is why I also believe that a short-sighted knee-jerk decision to shut it down in the face of yob rule is well-intentioned but ultimately misguided, if not overly authoritarian.

No one wants to see looting, rioting or property damage, but rather than simply cut off social media, the police would be wiser to adapt and use social media to infiltrate planned outbreaks. Eliminating all information would make law enforcement blind and deaf, too.

I see Cameron’s point, and I understand that much of it is the product of legitimate anger and frustration over the past few days, but if ever there was a “be careful what you (they?) wish for” moment, this is it.

Your Social Media Strategy Here

Fertilizer-pushing is not my strong suit.

I’m deep, deep into the job hunt at the moment. When I apply for a position, I do my very best to use direct, plain language. If I describe an achievement or a milestone, I use tangible markers. Kansan.com saw increased site traffic and expanded multimedia content, and won a Pacemaker from the Associated Collegiate Press when I was the site’s managing editor. See how simple that was?

No mention of “humanizing the brand.” Or starting “organic conversations.” Or “leveraging influencers.”

Almost a year ago, I wrote about social media strategy with the same level of annoyance, and nothing has really changed.

How can we, as journalists, put such a high value on clear, concise language, while simultaneously clogging our CVs, “About” sections and job postings with rhetorical nonsense? If I read a job posting and can’t even figure out what my daily duties would be, I move on.

In my earlier post, I hypothesized that maybe we use vague language to describe social media because even we haven’t really figured it out yet. Or we want to seem indispensable. I grimace when I see anyone describe themselves as a “social media guru.” There is nothing spiritual about Twitter, I promise. If you’re that good, you don’t need to hide behind flowery language.

Ascribing some higher level of importance or even mysticism to social media ignores or downplays the stone-cold truth: If you link to quality content and reply to your audience respectfully and helpfully, you will gain and maintain followers. If you ignore queries or rarely tweet or spam people, you won’t. From the perspective of a company like Foursquare, successful branded accounts will post tips early and often and reward their followers with badges and possible merchandise discounts. Foursquare is, at its root, a game. So give your customers that experience.

I love editing. I love the ins and outs of journalism on the Web, and I love social media and what it can accomplish in terms of connecting people and spreading information. I love those things so much that I can call a spade a spade. I can say exactly what I do. I hope others can do the same.

Stupid is as stupid tweets: Six tips for Twitter users

Yesterday, during a conversation with a good (non-journalist) friend, the talk steered toward the News of the World scandal and the Kansas City Star’s sacking of columnist Steve Penn for plagiarism. (Full disclosure: As discussed numerous times on this site, I interned with the Star last summer.)

He was angry about the NOTW’s alleged phone hacking, while I was flummoxed as to how any professional journalist could plagiarize in this era and expect not to get caught. The ending question was the same for both of us: How could anyone be so stupid?

Fast forward to this afternoon, when the BBC posted an updated list of social media guidelines. Included, verbatim, in the guidelines is the blunt advice, “Don’t do anything stupid.”

After laughing a little, I thought, “Well, what does that mean?”

The BBC guidelines suggest that its journalists should avoid overt partisanship on sites like Twitter, that any “official” tweets should be read by at least two people, and that “official” BBC personality profiles should be kept professional at all times.

The tips were common-sense enough, almost deceptively so. Social media — especially Twitter, but theoretically any such site — is fraught with potential mistakes and lapses in judgment. In print, your words go through an assignment editor, a slot editor, a rim copy editor and a proofreader. Any flagrant stupidity is, I hope, flushed out. If nothing else, there’s time to consider words and allow anger to cool off.

With Twitter, though, it’s easy to slip in a moment of hot-headedness. In 15 seconds, you could type and post something that you’ll regret for years. Journalists have been fired or asked to resign over tweets. So have spokespeople. Not to mention political candidates and public relations workers. Whether their terminations were justified is beside the point; their employers determined that their tweets were inappropriate to the point where they were sacked.

So how can you avoid this? How can you not “do anything stupid”?

1. If you tweet for your job, I’d consider having two separate profiles, a personal one and a professional one (example: @john_doe, @john_doe_kcstar). Many journalists I follow on Twitter have just one profile for both personal and professional use, and that’s fine. But it’s something to think about, especially if you’re new to Twitter or unsure about your company’s precise policies.

2. If you keep one all-purpose Twitter account, it’s worth using up biographic real estate to cover your butt. “RTs are not endorsements.” “A follow is not an endorsement.” “My opinions are my own.” Obviously this won’t be enough to save you if you’re flagrantly misusing Twitter, but it does create a conscientious wall between your personal views and your professional ones.

3. Avoid getting into Twitter spats with readers. I see far too many writers (a lot of them columnists) engaging in prolonged insult-fests with members of the public. A reasoned response or even a tart one-liner is probably fine. But it just looks childish if your feed is clogged with a back-and-forth argument. The longer it goes on, the angrier you’ll get and the likelier it is that you’ll say something stupid. Remember, if you’re arguing with an idiot, so is he.

4. For the love of all that is holy, know the difference between normal tweets and direct messages. Let’s not say that Anthony Weiner’s political downfall was in vain, yeah?

5. If you retweet anything — especially if it’s a photo or a link — make sure that it says or displays what you think it does. Never retweet anything blindly (I admit I’m guilty of this when I’m in a hurry). If you think you’re linking to a Times story, make sure you’re linking to a Times story. Nothing is more annoying and embarrassing than unknowingly retweeting spam or something else that’s inappropriate. In the same vein, if you’re following people and reporting on their tweets, make sure that what you’re following are their real accounts, and not parodies.

6. The adage that it’s better to be correct than first is true with Twitter as well. Before you fire off a tweet, edit yourself. Without a copy desk, the responsibility is even more on you to make a good decision. Let it sit for a few minutes, however long it takes. Is it something you’d say face to face with someone? Would you include it in a print or Web story with your byline? Does it target anyone based on religion, race or gender, even in jest? Does it contain profanity? When in doubt, don’t hit send.

Twitter at this point is an absolute necessity for journalists, politicians and most major companies, but it can be a double-edged sword. So tweet smart.

Google+ — a plus, or a minus?

It’s been about 32 hours since I accepted my Google+ invite, and I’m ready to give my initial reaction.

My signed-up friends — most of whom are former journalism school classmates — and I have used Google+ to debate the merits of Google+. How meta. One of my friends called it “Facebook built by the post-Facebook generation.” Others praised its cleanness and ease of use.

While I maintain a pretty far-flung social media presence, it’s rare that I join a platform this early on (although my Facebook account, from June 2005, is relatively ancient). So I thought I’d take advantage of that and offer up my impressions. Here it goes.

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  • The design is remarkably clean and straightforward. It doesn’t have a signature “look” like Facebook just yet (although it dovetails well with Gmail, Reader, Docs and other Google goodies), but nor is it an eyesore like MySpace tended to be.
  • I love, love, LOVE the idea of circles. My friends’ opinions vary somewhat — some praise it, others think it builds walls needlessly. My one hangup with Twitter is that it’s hard to separate personal, non-DM replies to friends from more professional/serious tweets. With circles, you can easily keep professional items professional and personal items personal. You can do this with Facebook, too, but in my experience it’s a much bigger headache.
  •  It seems to take the best parts of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr and combine them. You’re free to shape your profile however you want — one of my friends is off and running with GIFs, others are sharing videos and photos and others are having conversations through status updates. It has a definite “it is what you make it” feel.
  • The simple yet aesthetically nifty way that Google+ displays photo albums is something I like, but I haven’t seen much said about it. Instead of cycling through individual photos in an album or seeing a wall of uniform thumbnails (like Facebook), photos are displayed with their cutlines in a crisp mosaic. Thumbs up.
  • I like the idea of Sparks, where you submit subject tags of interest (politics, economics, news, whatever) and receive a filtered newsfeed as a result. It’s nothing that Google Reader and a Twitter feed don’t already do, pretty much, but it’s nice having an in-platform option.
  • I’d like to see photo- and video-specific postings that allow URLs and not just file uploading. You can share online photos and YouTube videos, obviously, but as far as I can tell it’s treated like a generic post. Given Google’s ownership of YouTube, this is kind of awkward. EDIT: Google+ actually does allow for photo- and video-sharing using URLs. For some reason I was unable to locate it earlier, but it’s definitely there. Consider this shortcoming deleted.
  • The hangout feature, which is basically a sprawling video/chat meet-up (either planned or impromptu) has potential, but I confess I haven’t tried it yet. It looks like some outlets, like The Huffington Post, have used it already with some success.
  • Unlike Twitter (which allows one “official” URL) and Facebook (which buries them), Google+ lets you link to multiple personal and social media profiles, and displays them prominently on your page. I have links to this blog, my LinkedIn profile, my Tumblr, my Twitter and my Foursquare. Nifty.
  • The biggest complaint: so few people. With about 4.5 million users (last time I checked), Google+ has less than 1% of the registered users that Facebook does. It seems content to follow a pace of steady, gradually increasing growth. I think its real test will come when “normal” people — not journalists or technology enthusiasts — start migrating over, if they do. Google+ has to offer them something that they’re not getting with Facebook or Twitter. What that might be, I think, depends on the user. But Google+ can’t rely too much on exclusivity and being a journalistic utopia, or else it could easily go the way of Google Wave.
So there you have it. Frankly I’m pretty impressed, but only time will tell if the novelty can successfully segue into indispensability.