Archive for the 'theory and audience analysis' Category

Preparing for Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet

November 22, 2009

Most of the time, job-seekers merely must convince potential employers of their own ability. Those looking for work in emerging fields like interactive media often must also convince them of the value of their would-be job itself.

The jobs my peers and I are preparing for don’t necessarily exist yet. We can hope they’ll be at least enough for us when we wade into the job market this spring, but shouldn’t count on it.

Given the economic downturn and lagging mainstream awareness of the tools we’re learning to use, we should prepare for that second sell. Both of these points were reinforced in class discussions this past week.

My Public Opinion professor flagged an Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication survey indicating that last year’s communications graduates had a tough time finding work. Among both bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients, about three out 10 graduates had zero job offers upon graduation, the nonprofit reported in its November newsletter (.pdf).

Are this year’s graduates faring any better? Perhaps. Nationwide employment figures would suggest otherwise, however.

Anecdotally, several of my classmates said they enrolled in grad school in part because of a lack of attractive job options. And some are saying now that the titles listed on job boards are the same ones from a few years ago — new media responsibilities are merely tacked on to the list of duties, without a corresponding bump in pay.

Whatever the data are, one can tell just by looking out the window that the economic weather’s still crummy. Employers are inclined to rely on proven core positions to carry them through the storm.

Still, recovery seems less abstract than it did a year, or even six months ago. Smart employers are already planning for it. Smart job-seekers will articulate how they can fit into these plans.

The other problem is that even if employers have money to spend, many aren’t aware that they could be — and, my classmates and I would argue, should be —spending it on establishing a presence in social media or in virtual worlds. In detailing her research on the future of nonprofits, one of my classmates said that numerous nonprofit leaders told her they had never heard of Second Life.

The best job-seekers can do is show organizations that their competitors are doing these things, and that they’re working, and that they successfully applied them themselves, either in the classroom, or, ideally, for a real-world client.

If the economy and their own persuasion skills fail them, job-seekers should be ready to bite the bullet, accept a job that’s less than ideal, then work like hell and let their actions talk for them. It’s a tried and true approach. Get your foot in the door anyway you can. If you’re as great as you think you are, you’ll quickly differentiate yourself from your peers and your bosses will reward you for it.

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Analytics Grounded in Goals

November 12, 2009

hockeygoalGetting into any business today means getting into the Web business. As an online marketing expert put it in a presentation to my Theory and Audience Analysis class this morning, “It’s sort of weird now if you’re a business and you’re not on the Web.”

Look at or listen to any advertisement. Chances are there’s a url somewhere in there. Companies count on the Web to make them money. Show them how to do it, and you’re likely to make some yourself.

Enter Web analytics, which is what Mark Tosczak, an account supervisor at RLF Communications in Greensboro, N.C., came to talk about. With its acronym-laced jargon, sophisticated-looking charts and rapid pace of change, Web analytics can seem intimidating. Smart business people regularly mix up basic terms, like hit, page view and site visit, Tosczak said.

Those executives know analytics better than they probably realize, however. At analytics’ heart is Business 101. I’m talking about goals. Specific, measurable, verifiable, achievable goals.

Tosczak offered five analytics commandments that revolved around these most fundamental of management fundamentals. He stressed to evaluate results — pay-per-click ad click throughs, for example — not activities — PPC ad views — and added the always helpful reminder to never put all of one’s faith in machines.

Settling upon a goal, Tosczak said, can sometimes be the most difficult part. A manager sees that competitors are on Twitter or reads some press about the microblogging service and decides “My company has to be on Twitter.”

Yes, like Hansel in the 2001 comedy “Zoolander“, Twitter’s “so hot right now.” It is in my world. It seems that whenever I need a generic social media example, I go with Twitter, as I did here. Man, that cute little bird really cast a spell on me. Oh well, Flutter will be along soon enough.

Anyway, point is, Twitter is not necessarily relevant to company X’s world. And, even if it is, it’s not enough to just “be on it.” It’s a medium. Just like a magazine. No business person would in his or her right mind say “We’ve got to get into magazines” without offering specifics, but some business person somewhere every day says this with regard to social media.

After some prodding, a company might decide that it wants to use Twitter to drive traffic to its Web site. OK, that’s a goal, but it’s not specific. How much traffic? What kind of users? What kind of content should users see? What should they do once they get to the site?

Analytics advisers can then tell a company whether the goal can be recorded by current software, whether its accuracy can be tested and whether it’s realistic. If the suits need convincing, the consultants should tie it back to money. That’s something business people never have difficulty understanding.

One Good Thing About The Great Recession

November 9, 2009

It may not look like it now, but the past two years have been good for journalism. As ugly as it was, The Great Recession hastened the process of uncovering new models the industry already desperately needed.

Among those supporting that process is the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, whose grants are reinforcing the dwindling ranks of state capital press corps, including in my native Maryland.

Led by a Maryland journalism veteran who was State House bureau chief at the Baltimore Examiner when it closed in February, just-launched nonprofit MarylandReporter.Com plans weekday state government coverage through its Web site and subscriber-based newsletter.

Reports by its now two-man team are already getting picked up by mainstream sources, and should only increase in breadth and depth once the state’s General Assembly convenes in January. Given its narrow focus and experienced staff, MarylandReporter.Com should get its share of scoops.

Also encouraging, and something one might not expect from legacy journalism refugees, is its early embrace of social media. Even before its site went live, and even before, by their own admission, its Tweeters were fully comfortable with the tool, MarylandReporter.Com was on Twitter reporting news, establishing its brand, and engaging in conversation about both.

The rub is that MarylandReporter.Com and other organizations like it will have to find a way to earn money on their own before their seed money runs out. Even those who fail, however, won’t fail in vain. At least they’re experimenting. And, importantly, experimenting in ways that would never be feasible at larger, for-profit outlets. As journalism reinvents itself, pushing the limits and learning what doesn’t work is a necessary step for discovering what does.

Go From Good To Great, One Half-Hour at a Time

November 6, 2009

Clock.The Mozarts, Bill Gateses and Tiger Woodses of the world aren’t as successful as they are by plain accident, Malcom Gladwell argues in his 2008 bestseller “Outliers: The Story Of Success.” Yes, such peak performers are naturally talented, and, usually, relatively privileged. But they also invest a tremendous amount of time honing their craft.

Try 10,000 hours. That’s the amount of practice Gladwell says the best of the best put in. I’m under no illusions I’ll reach this threshold in my newly chosen field of interactive media. Extraordinarily few do. That’s Gladwell’s point. But, that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t practice as much as can. To that end, it’s safe to say I’m behind on my hours.

To my credit, I’ve kept my head above water in an accelerated master’s program with my physical and mental health in tact. I’ve even taken on extracurricular projects, exercised regularly, and, I like to think, maintained some semblance of a social life — the fact that I’m blogging on a Friday night notwithstanding.

Getting in that little extra professional practice, however, that which separates the good from the great, has been difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. Like with physical exercise, short, intense mental workouts can pay large, long-term dividends.

In the time it takes to watch a “Seinfeld” rerun, I could be making my way toward great. I envision occasionally completing this routine toward the end of the day, but it could be done anytime:

  • 11:00 p.m. to 11:07 p.m. — Browse a favorite news source. It can online, or off, mainstream or alternative, professional or amateur, about interactive media or about something else, so long as it’s something you’re interested in.
  • 11:07 p.m. to 11:11 p.m. — Pick a story that especially captivated you and share it via social media. It’s fine to just favorite it on Delicious or Tweet a link to it, but try to add value. What did you like about it? What didn’t you like? What did you learn? What were you confused by? How does it relate to another concept? Also, try to favor tools you’re less familiar with. Always Digging your favorite links? Give Reddit a try.
  • 11:11 p.m. to 11:17 p.m. — Pick an interactive media problem that is vexing you — Web site color scheme, advertising tagline, interaction design snafu — or the industry — monetization of online content, information overload, the digital divide. Try to brainstorm 50 solutions. Yes, 50. There are no bad answers. Just keep writing.
  • 11:17 p.m. to 11:23 p.m. — Think of a skill you would like to improve. Ask an expert you know in this area to teach you a bit about it. (E-mail, Tweet, Facebook, text message or call, whatever seems most appropriate.)
  • 11:23 p.m. to 11:27 p.m. — Go to Pandora or grab your iPod and put on some favorite tunes. Now, just think. Don’t read anything. Don’t write anything. Don’t surf the Web. Throw your mobile on other side of the room if you have to. Just let yourself have a uninterrupted stream of conciousness for four minutes.
  • 11:27 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. — On a Post-It write two new things you want to try tomorrow. Sign the bottom and put the note in a place where you’ll see it the next morning. This is a mini-contract with yourself.

I’m yet to test run this exercise, but will share my experience in this space once I do. If you try it out, let me know in the comments how it went.

Learning For A Lifetime

November 5, 2009

Less than seven months from now, if all goes as planned, I’ll receive my second degree from Elon University, this time a Master of Arts in Interactive Media. I expect this to mark the end of my formal education. Of course, that’s what I was leaning toward after undergrad. And here I am, back in school. In any case, in this fast-moving field I’ve chosen, what is certain is that my informal education will never be complete. 

My program, just 10 months long, is designed for this pace. The idea is to keep students from getting too detached from the professional world and to get them back in the field while their skills are still fresh. 

Still, a lot can happen in 10 months. Twitter, for example, has exploded in popularity since January, gaining tens of millions of users. 

To keep up, I’ll continue to read as much media and technology news as I can find time for, seek out opportunities to learn from talented colleagues and probably drop in on the occasional weekend workshop. 

Where these means fall short or are impractical, online training is an attractive option. Structured, up-to-date instruction from experts the globe over when and where I want? I’ll take it. Sure, it’s not as personal as classroom learning, but next-generation video conferencing and virtual reality could help it come close. 

Certification is another benefit of many online training programs, offering professionals a level of authority that saying they know a new skill or even talking about it intelligently just doesn’t. 

One such example is Google’s Conversion University. Since March, the search engine giant has administered an analytics certification program based on its approximately 230-minute online course. Applicants pay $50 to take an online test, and, if they score 75 percent or higher, are registered as Google Analytics qualified. 

I was assigned today to complete the course for one of my classes. Since I’ll be putting in the study time, I figure I might as well aim for the certification. If I get it, thanks to a just-introduced feature, I’ll be able to prove it with an official link. I’ll update my progress and share what I learn in this space. Stay tuned. Or, perhaps I should say, “be a returning visitor.”

What Happens to Our Online Lives After Death?

November 2, 2009

Death. Taxes. Button rollovers. There are few certainties. But those are three of them.

On Friday, I aimed for a fun blog post. Today’s Monday. As good a time as any for a morbid one. Despite its inevitability, death isn’t something online companies and users consider as fully as they should.

A reader recently wrote the blog The Consumerist complaining that she had been “asked twice this week to improve the Facebook existence of someone who passed away this summer, despite e-mailing them several times to alert them of this person’s untimely demise.”

The Consumerist notes that setting the deceased’s profile to memorial mode would prevent others from receiving such suggestions. But this option is available only to persons close to the deceased.

In other online spaces, the bereaved are fighting to access and preserve their loved ones’ online property, which, given how much of people’s lives play out online these days, can hold as much sentiment as material belongings.

An article in today’s New York Times detailed how Yahoo, citing terms of service privacy stipulations, prevented the family of a solider killed in Iraq from accessing his account.

The newspaper also interviewed a widow who lost the Second Life island she lived on with her husband — whom she met in the virtual world — after deciding she was unable to afford the maintenance fees.

As the line between people’s real world and online identities gets blurrier, it is the shared responsibility of users and companies to adopt procedures to avoid situations like these. Though no one likes to think about death, what happens to their online holdings after they pass is something users will have to confront. And as legally convenient as it is, it’s in poor taste for companies to hide behind their terms of service and deny the bereaved control of their loved ones’ spaces.

A technology law professor the Times quoted suggested users name a digital executor to receive their log-in information after they pass. But he cautioned that using this information without the service provider’s knowledge could be considered fraud. As the Times observes, this is a “murky legal realm.”

Publishing the Process

October 30, 2009

It’s Friday. It’s been a long week. How about a cool music video? Radiohead’s “House of Cards” certainly fits the bill. Check it out. It was made with lasers! 

Lasers and rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve always gone together, haven’t they? This isn’t your father’s laser show, however. Here, lasers stood in for the camera, continuously scanning the set to form 3D images. 

The presentation was as progressive as the production. And that’s what I want to talk about. A collaboration between the band and Google visualization wunderkinds, the video has its own page on Google’s developer site, Google Code. Not exactly the natural habitat for a music video, is it? 

There’s more than just the traditional video, however. In addition to the one aired on MTV (I’m actually making a dangerous assumption here. I don’t watch MTV. And whenever I surf past it they’re never playing music videos.) there is a behind-the-scenes “making-of” video and an interactive version users can manipulate. 

This is a model that we’re likely to see more and more of — in entertainment, in software, in journalism, in politics, wherever communication is happening. Don’t just share the finished product. Share the process. And invite others to join in that process. This is true interactivity. Those who get this will be the ones who get ahead. 

Take this example from the world of journalism. It’s an oldie but a goodie. In 2007, left-leaning politics blog Talking Points Memo beat the mainstream media to the U.S. Attorneys purging story. Jarring for the Bush administration, yes, which would have preferred media never connected the dots. Just as jarring for new media critics who insisted blogs follow legacy publications’ lead.

So, how did TPM do it? It posted original reporting based on sources not typically consulted by the mainstream press and invited its readers to become sources themselves. In between the usual “Here’s what we know” posts, it asked “What do you know?” It told readers what information to pay attention to and often, how to go about getting it. 

And, from the world of software, another classic: Mozilla Firefox. The Internet browser achieved 25 percent market share just five years after launch thanks in large part to its open source approach. It allows developers to customize the browser and shows them how. As a result, it’s more versatile than its competitors. Firefox boasts a vast library of extensions that do everything from manage downloads to speed navigation to translate text.

Content creators: Users are going to want to adapt, add on to and comment on your content anyway. Given enough time, they’ll find a way how. So, why not leverage user participation to increase the value of your product? 

Got it? Good. Go on enjoying the wonders of lasers.

Designers’ Invisibility Cloak

October 28, 2009

I blogged previously about how computer engineers are out to make their product invisible. So are information designers.

Well, they want users to notice their design, of course. But they don’t want it to be obvious it’s been designed.

Users who easily find what they’re looking for don’t think about design. They move on to the next thing they’re looking for. Users who get confused or overwhelmed notice design. So, designers want their product to be invisible.

No wonder people think designing is easy. The harder designers work, the less obvious that work is. Kind of thankless, I suppose. Perhaps that’s why there are so many design contests. Designers can at least pat each other on the back if no one else will.

As a former copy editor, I can relate. If a copy editor does his job and stories are readable, thorough and free of mistakes, readers aren’t going to say, “Wow, what great copy editing.” But if an editor misses an error, or, God forbid, adds one, one can see readers saying, “Where was the copy desk?”

I edited this post. Did you notice? I hope not.

The Culture of Change

October 26, 2009

This is the first of occasional posts based on my research on the future of the interactive newsroom.

On the gridiron, a high octane offense or a stingy defense can get you to the Super Bowl just the same. Indeed, recent title games have showcased some vastly different styles.

Building the newspaper of the future isn’t any different. If it works, no one approach is better than another. Every successful team, and every successful company, however, shares at least one thing: a winning culture.

This was manifested throughout my research.

Get the culture right, and changes to organizational structure, newsroom layout and workflow have a much better chance of succeeding. Get it wrong, and they’re likely to fail. The other variables are easy enough to change on the fly, culture much less so.

Curating a culture means asking how process and personnel changes will complement or contradict existing attitudes, then nurturing the connections and pacifying the conflicts.

Process changes can include adding tasks to — mid-cycle Web updates — or removing tasks from — gavel-to-gavel meeting coverage — workers’ routines. To nurture connections, managers can portray the 24-7 news cycle as a means to more aggressive reporting. To pacify conflicts, managers can insulate fundamental areas, like investigative reporting, from cuts.

Personnel changes can include bringing in workers from rival media — hiring a broadcast veteran to produce Web videos — or from outside of journalism — hiring a Web developer with a background in e-commerce. To nurture connections, managers can demonstrate that changes advance the public interest values common to all platforms. To pacify conflicts, managers can promote collaboration between journalistic and technical workers and honor their contributions equally.

Once managers decide on a direction, they have to decide how aggressively to pursue it. Do they force workers to reapply for their jobs and become multimedia proficient? Or do they encourage workers to modernize their traditional roles at their own pace? An organization with a relatively young staff whose short-term survival is dependent upon finding a new model might choose the former; an organization with a core of veteran journalists whose short-term survival is not under threat might choose the latter.

Sometimes the Best Tools in Life Are Free

October 23, 2009

My fellow students and I are privledged to have acceess to some of the top software on the market. The latest version of Adobe’s popular Creative Suite — which comprises image editing, Web development and multimedia software — was included with our tuition and professional programs not part of that package, such as video editing client Final Cut Pro, are available on campus.

Still, our school can’t afford to buy us everything we need. And, many of us knee deep in student loans, we certainly can’t. So, quite often, we depend on free tools to get the job done. This is good practice as many of us can expect to be working for startups or nonprofits with relatively small budgets.

Free tools, we learned today, sometimes are preffered even by companies that can afford paid ones.

Elon Unversity alumnus Travis Lusk, who was to particpate in a School of Communications networking panel later in the day, told us this morning that most of the Web sites he oversees for WCBS-FM in New York will soon be produced using WordPress’s open-source content management system.

Lusk, as part of a talk on audience analytics, praised WordPress’s clean interface and its customizability through Cascading Style Sheets and widgets and called it the “most out-of-the-box SEO friendly [CMS] on the market, hands down.”

WordPress, for example, makes tweaking urls to match keywords a snap.

While Lusk depends on paid analytics tools like Clicky Web Analytics and OneStat.com for real-time audience information, Google’s free analytics software is a tool he regularly uses.