All free – online tools even the banks can’t stop you investing in

First of all an apology for my extended hiatus. We have been very busy here at webitpr towers on a number of projects (more about that in the near future) plus I have joined a band for the first time in over a decade and practicing for our first gig has been taking up quite a bit of my free time!

In the meantime the news has continued to be a little bleak on the economic front, to say the least, and I could choose from a whole string of big numbers to talk about e.g. £3,000bn. However I want to focus on a smaller number – £Nil.

I wrote the following articles for a recent Fresh Business Thinking newsletter about some of the free tools that exist that can aid your business’ online communications and reputation management. The social media experts out there won’t find anything new, but perhaps those of you that are less familiar with the Web 2.0 world might find something of interest.

What the world thinks is interesting about you! – Social Bookmarking explained

At the bottom of every article on the BBC website is a little box entitled “Bookmark with:”. In that box are some icons labelled deliciousdiggredditfacebook and stumble upon. I suspect most readers have heard of Facebook by now, but perhaps not the other four. In fact Facebook is actually the odd one out as it is a social networking site rather than a bookmarking one. The others allow users to tag, comment, vote for or in some other way save and recommend online content for both their own future use but also for all other members of that community.

A tag is where a reader uses a word or phrase to categorise a relevant piece of content such as a webpage or blog post for future use. The power of the social element of these virtual bookmarks is the potential for online word of mouth that this creates. Having tagged an article in Delicious with a specific keyword allows other people to find it – and other articles like it – by using that tag as a keyword search term. But equally useful, these tools also show the popularity of a webpage by counting the number of people who have tagged it in their own Delicious account.

For example take this article from the BBC’s website published just before New Year in 2005
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4566526.stm

This URL has been saved 642 times (at time of writing) and the list of those 642 people can be found here:

http://delicious.com/url/3ffb4f576a0b99b7979fe3a449618a8e

You can see from this page that the most common tag was news, but that a high number of people also found it relevant toculture and humour. You can also see by clicking on the names of the people listed what other articles they have bookmarked and therefore what other interests they have. For instance kappuchino who bookmarked the article on 18th July 2008 has bookmarked 391 pages and based on their top tags would appear to be interested in web design.

You will also notice the durability of the Internet. Over a third of the bookmarks were created after the end of January 2006  - over a month after the article’s publication and over 90 of the bookmarks were created in December 2006 the year after publication. Finally there is the ability to subscribe to updates via RSS that allows you to monitor when new people decide to bookmark this page in the future.

So how does this apply to my business you might ask? Well apart from being a great way to bookmark content yourself and find articles for research it is also a reputation management tool. I am sure many of you have thought to put the name of your organisation into Google to see what comes up, but how many of you have done the same with social bookmarking sites? Remember this is real people’s responses to online content – virtual word of mouth. What are they saying about you and your organisation?

Try visiting delicious.com and doing a search for your organisation’s name or products – you might be surprised to learn what people think is interesting about you!

A great overview of how social bookmarking works can be found in this video by Commoncraft http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=x66lV7GOcNU

Tweet Tweet! The wonderful world of Twitter

What is Twitter I hear you ask? Twitter is a microblogging platform. What is microblogging I now hear you ask?! Micro blogging is a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (140 characters in Twitter’s case) and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging from your mobile phone, instant messaging or the web.

The form of dialogue that this engenders is multi-faceted. It can be direct between two parties; a group debate about an issue; passive awareness about what people in your community are doing or thinking or a sharing of information or resources. This flexibility combined with the brief nature of dialogue makes for a very dynamic and sometimes chaotic conversation!

The tool has been used by a number of interesting organisations or situations. The Phoenix Mars mission operation used the tool to keep interested parties appraised on the mission’s progress resulting in nearly 40,000 followers http://twitter.com/MarsPhoenix. And perhaps the most famous Twitterer is Barack Obama whose campaign used the tool right up until his election and had over 140,000 followers.

A recent article in the US version of PR Week illustrates the growing use within the Communications industry at large “From a PR standpoint, Twitter is a great way to seek and create media opportunities. Reporters are now proactively tweeting to inform their followers of upcoming projects to help find spokespeople. It’s also a valuable tool to help monitor key trends, breaking news, and find out about reporters’ interests.”

It’s the same over here in the UK too. A recent piece of research by webitpr’s ex Social Media Manager, Stephen Davies, found a number of UK journalists and PR professionals actively using Twitter in their day-to-day professional lives.

But as with social bookmarking the benefit of this tool is both in its use as a way of communicating online and being part of a relevant community to either you and/or your business and also as a way to monitor the word of mouth about your organisation. In a similar way to social bookmarking you can track what people are saying about you in the Twitter community. Visit http://search.twitter.com and you can search for references to a search term that has been used in tweets – a tweet is the term used to describe a Twitter message. You can then subscribe to an RSS feed of future tweets that mention this search term and so track references as they occur. You can find even more ways you can use Twitter here.

So what are you waiting for? Start tweeting!

Really Simple Story Reading

RSS - Really Simple Syndication – is a form of web feed that supplies subscribers with a feed of new content. Think of them as your own virtual newspaper boy or girl, bringing you the news or information you select as and when it is published or updated.

The concept has actually been around in one form or other since 1999, but has become much more popular in the last few years. This is probably to some degree driven by both embedding the ability to receive RSS feeds into Internet Browsers, but also the growth in blogs. As bloggers often post erratically the benefit of an RSS feed is that instead of you having to keep checking the site in question for new content, the content comes to you when it is published. This saves the reader a lot of time potentially wasted checking sites when nothing has changed.

In order to gain the most from RSS feeds it is a very good move to subscribe to an RSS reader. There are many of these out there – Google Reader, Bloglines, Feed Demon are some examples – some are free and some charge a fee. I personally use one of the free ones – Bloglines, www.bloglines.com. The power of a service such as Bloglines is that not only can you bring together and organise all of the feeds that you subscribe to in one place, but you can then access these feeds from anywhere where you can access the Internet. In practice this means I am able to catch up with my feeds at work, home and even on the move via my mobile phone. This flexibility means I can read the stories it delivers to me pretty much anytime and anyplace – even while out walking my dog!

So what sites can you subscribe to? The answer is pretty much any. From mainstream editorial news sites such as the bbc.co.uk or guardian.co.uk to blogs such as techcrunch.com or gigaom.com. You can also subscribe to the kind of reputation management RSS feeds mentioned in the earlier social bookmarking and microblogging articles. That way you can stay on top of what people are saying about your organisation online. In fact Bloglines itself is a community and as with the other community tools you can even search within Bloglines for particular terms and so harness the RSS feeds of the community as a whole for your research or reputation management purposes. In a nutshell, if someone somewhere mentions your company on one of the many millions of blogs out there, RSS will let you know as it happens.

Given the power of this tool it is perhaps unsurprising that a recent piece of research put the number of people who subscribe to RSS feeds in the US at around 30million.

Watch out newspaper boys and girls, your days could be numbered!

Another Commoncraft guide to RSS can be found here http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=0klgLsSxGsU.

YouTube – Its all about the kids isn’t it?

In the last few years the concept of User Generated Content (UGC) i.e. content created and published by consumers themselves has taken off like the proverbial rocket, but many people mistakenly see this as something only relevant to the young. The most obvious example of this is YouTube. YouTube was only created in February 2005 and yet was sold to Google in November 2006 for $1.65bn and is now ranked as the 3rd most visited website on the planet by the website tracking site Alexa (after Yahoo and Google). The site is so popular in the US that ComScore reported that in July 2008 over five billion videos were watched on YouTube in the US alone by over 92 million people. Staggering figures for a site that didn’t exist four years ago.

The influence of YouTube has been seen most recently in the US presidential election where many commentators attributed a significant amount of Barack Obama’s success to the video sharing site. With some going as far as to suggest that George W. Bush may not have been successful in the previous election had YouTube been in existence at that time.

But YouTube isn’t just about kids uploading funny videos or even politician’s speeches (or bloopers). It can also be a powerful business tool. As well as major content providers and broadcasters such as the BBC now having channels on the platform, a significant number of organisations have been using YouTube as a way of sharing their message and reaching new audiences though the medium of video rather than the written word. The sharing nature of the platform also means that content can be passed around easily between communities and can be posted on external sites using YouTube’s embed code that references back to the video itself.

Setting up an account is simple and subject to some size constraints you can then upload your videos, give them titles and descriptions and then start to share links to the video or embed the code on your own website or blog. If others find they like the video or want to comment on it then they can do likewise.

Sites such as YouTube have made it possible for any organisation to be its own media company. My own company, webitpr, has used the platform to share our video (below) about the Social Media News Release (SMNR) concept. The SMNR is a new form or press release which combines traditional press release text content, with multimedia and social media elements, and is used as an online PR tool to allow news content to be easily shared and discussed. The video we created last summer has been hosted on YouTube since it was produced and has to date been viewed over 8,300 times and linked to by 34 blogs. The effect of this has not only been to increase our profile but has also brought search engine optimisation (SEO) benefits with the video being ranked on the first page of both google.com and google.co.uk for a search for “social media news release”.

All of which hopefully proves that this isn’t just about the kids after all.

RSS subscriptions reach 100 million?

According to Forrester Research the use of RSS has reached 11% of US online adults. Steve Rubel and others have discussed the other main finding that of the other 89% only 17% are interested in adopting RSS in the future. The implication being that RSS is running out of steam and needs mass education to continue its growth rate.

However I wonder if this discussion is potentially missing a relatively obvious numeric point. What does 11% of US online adults equate to? With an estimated 220 million US internet users applying 11% gives 24 million that use RSS (and another 26 million who apparently aren’t sure if they do – 12% responded thus). However this assumes that minor users follow the same proportion which may not be the case but for the purpose of this calculation lets accept this limitation. To put this in context this compares with around 60-70 million US users of Facebook and Myspace. Unfortunately the study was only based on a survey of US internet users so it is not possible to extrapolate this analysis across global internet users on a rigorous basis. However if we make the (over?) simplifying assumption that this study is indicative of general RSS use then based on approximately 1.5bn internet users worldwide this would give approximately 165 million RSS users worldwide. As penetration rates go I would say that was still pretty impressive. Obviously these calculations are more back of a postage stamp than back of an envelope :) but they illustrate the point that this percentage implies some fairly big numbers in absolute terms.

The other point to consider is the potential influence implications of RSS subscriptions. What would be really useful to know would be the detailed makeup of the 11% and the sites that they subscribe to. Were it the case for instance that this analysis showed that key influencers and decision makers in certain markets are proportionally more likely to receive their news via RSS its importance in influence terms would be magnified. If anyone has access to the full report and any information on this I would be delighted to hear from you.