Social Media Uses and Usefulness

2008 has been the year of social media for me. Embracing Facebook, Twitter, LiveJournal, LinkedIn and other networks, I’ve finally gotten my personal social media usage down to less than a half an hour a day. I spend more time trying to haul my sleepy head out of bed in the morning than I do on social media, yet all my accounts remain updated and my followers know where I am and what I’m working on.

How I Use Social Media Tools

How do I use social media tools? Simple! I use the tools to integrate my online content and help keep my friends, readers and network up-to-date. My Twitter account feeds into my Facebook and LiveJournal accounts. I’m also currently looking into a plug-in that will update my Twitter account when I post here, on my blog. For Facebook and LiveJournal, I have email notifications set up for things that are important to me, so I know when someone is trying to get a hold of me. From all outside appearances it looks like I am extremely active in the “social media” space, spending hours upon hours on these networks.

I use social media to stay on top of trends, knowledge and people for my professional position during the day, and for promoting my writing at night. I do not use it for creating content or for wasting time. Yes, my tweets can get a bit random, but that’s also because it’s a great way to keep links you find in one place and share them instantly with other people.

What is Social Media?

While my story about how I use social media is not a very glamorous one — other people may have a different take on what social media is and how the tools apply to their lives. The key word here is “tool.” Although social media is about being social, it’s also about how different people interact with the tools. Make a social media tool that allows for better interaction with other people, and you’ll get more people using it. Which is one of the reasons why Facebook continues to do better than MySpace.

On Facebook, a user can more easily get involved with a niche community by helping others on a particular topic, and making e-friends organically – instead of simply spamming the entire Facebook universe. “Fan” pages have created a great way for businesses or products to setup a way for users to keep up-to-date on related events. All-in-all, Facebook is a much more usable TOOL, which has caused people to migrate.– Quote by Elliott Kosmicki, GoodPlum.com

As Elliott had pointed out, Facebook is more usable than MySpace, which is why people are flocking to the tool. I haven’t logged in to Facebook in weeks, yet because it acts as a content aggregator for me (i.e. Allowing me to add all my RSS feeds and other social media tools) it appears as if I’m on Facebook hours each day.

Just like author’s intent matters, whatever your intent is for using a tool matters because it’s your preferred method to connect with the world at large. It’s what “personalization” is all about.

Social Media Opinions Run Rampant

The drawback of this personalization, is that there are thousands of opinions out there about social media and what it may or may not be. Like this prediction Twitter will die in 2009. Put the idea of monetizing social media aside for a second, because that’s a whole ‘nother conversation. This writer has a few beliefs that I’d like to share with you, and my counter-points.

# Content – “If ‘content is king,’ as even entry-level marketers know, then Twitter’s limit of 140 characters doesn’t even get you started. It’s not possible to present an emotionally compelling story in just one or two sentences,” Garber notes.

    MLV: I have a hard time understanding how anyone would think Twitter would be used to create meaningful content, though writers have embraced Twitter as a new form of writing. Read How to Start a Twitter Novel to learn more.

    Remember that you can, however, push out that great content you are writing to your network and the world at large. With one Tweet, you can update all of your friends and readers on MySpace, LiveJournal and Facebook at the same time!

# Rapport – Twitter doesn’t facilitate the bonding that’s needed to stand out among all the buying options in today’s marketplace. “Rapport comes from getting to know someone on a more intimate level than ‘Who likes chicken?’ or ‘I am the Lord of cats,’ and all the other inane comments that make up the lion’s share of communication on Twitter,” Garber argues.

    MLV: Not sure I agree with this one, either. I’ve made several networking connections, made one-on-one connections with our customers via Twitter and have found that “rapport” has more to do with “intent.” I’ve heard this criticism before, usually spoken by someone who doesn’t use the tool and has just heard about it anecdotally.

# Trust – Effective marketing happens when rapport develops into relationships. “With skepticism at an all-time high, it’s critical to focus on credibility and believability,” says Garber. “This requires sharing meaningful information and having dialogue over time. The trivialities shared on Twitter do not build into anything else.”

    MLV: Twitter has been used to promote acts of giving like Tweetsgiving, contests from companies that have included Starbucks, ThinkGeek and HARO guru Peter Shankman, deal-of-the-day announcements from places like Amazon.com and in my case, exclusive coupons.

    I absolutely agree that trust is important for branding, but in my opinion trust is a luxury that many companies may not have right now because of the economy. Why is it Walmart and Amazon.com had their best retail holiday ever while dozens of other stores are feeling the pinch? (Hint: Perhaps it’s because Amazon.com offers both new and used products and Walmart is “known” for low, low prices?)

Is social media a tool to build trust in a company or a brand? Potentially, but it again depends upon what the tool is used for and when it is being used. Social media can be a very effective, timely tool but — like attracting visitors to your blog or website — it takes time to build a network and it doesn’t happen overnight. In our case, social media is one aspect that we are building for our overall marketing approach online. Creating great content is just as important as reaching out to people for us; social media allows us to share our content and interact with others.

In the end, social media is really all about you. What do you want to get out of it? How do you need to use it? It can be very powerful but — like attracting visitors to your blog or website — it takes time to build and it doesn’t happen overnight.

When it comes to social media, it is hard to get a clear and direct view regarding its future because (as I mentioned earlier) some of these tools are “free.” One of the reasons why MySpace ended up extremely ad-heavy is because MySpace needed to pay for what it was offering. As any developer will tell you, hosting, maintaining, developing, and promoting a social media platform isn’t cheap.

My prediction for 2009 is this: social media tools that are able to monetize their efforts wisely and can keep on top of web development trends without alienating users will be the social media tools that will come out on top.

Agree? Disagree? Love to hear your comments and ideas.

Web Analytics Stats: Fact or Fiction?

2008 has been the year of web analytics. In the world of “Web 2.0,” we’ve read a literal flood of stats, analytics and reports. Articles written about everything from statistics in social media to website traffic and usage projections for 2009 and beyond. Stats, numbers and more stats everywhere. What do they mean? Should we believe them? I’d like to put it out there that you really need to take any analytics stat with a grain of salt. Here’s why…

Web Analytics Tracking Differ Greatly from One Program to Another

Google Analytics, Hitwise, Omniture, Woopra, Urchin, the list of proprietary tracking programs goes on and on and on. Every program tracks differently from one another, which is why a lot of professional web analysts will tell you that they use two or three different programs when they cite a problem. While some platforms have more inherent trust for writers to cite stats, there is little to no standardization across the board. Additionally, many tracking platforms require customization so that all of the data they track is “good” data. (Typically, customized so they ignore your interaction with your own website, block spam visits, etc.) In some cases, two tracking programs that are utilized on the same service could report a twenty to thirty percent difference in numbers.
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My Predictions for the Economy and Freelancing in 2009

Every day we read more and more headlines. Layoffs. Record numbers of foreclosures. Bailout. Inflation. While many of these headlines come as no surprise to us, when the word “recession” turns into something that affects our shopping habits, we tend to feel the pinch on a more personal level. Economic recovery is not a “switch” that can be flipped, however. It could take months, maybe even a few years before we see true, steady growth. The idea that the economy takes a long time to develop is something we all know, but sometimes forget — especially since the way we communicate is so rapid and instantaneous.

Regardless of your opinions about how long the economic recovery might take are, we can all agree that it will affect us in different ways. (Like my April post where I described ways freelancers can navigate a recession.) Already we’re seeing activities that directly affect freelancers, so without further ado here are my predictions how the economy will affect freelancers in 2009.

Top 15 Ways the Economy will Affect Freelancers in 2009

1. When Jobs Get Cut, Outsourcing Goes Up – The biggest expense any employer has is payroll, which is one of the reasons why there have been so many layoffs as of late. Unfortunately, when workers are cut the business may experience a different kind of cost — the cost of smart, intelligent, capable people that know their business and can get the job done. Watch for more businesses hiring and outsourcing contractors in 2009 as a way to cut costs and prolong hiring full-time employees.

2. More People will try to Break Into Freelancing – The flip side to layoffs, is that there are a lot of unemployed people out there. Qualified, skilled workers who may (or may not) have freelanced before will ply their hand at it. Already you can see this might be the case based on natural search trends for the term “freelancing jobs.” (I used Google Trends and tailored my results to the US.) Additionally, more people will be attracted to freelancing as a way to cut down on their cost-of-living (i.e. car, clothing, etc.).

3. Freelancing Rates Will Drop – Content networks are offering pennies on the dollar now for posts that either require research, as a result of a bidding service or a large social network to be able to monetize your writing. Associated Content, eLance, Demand Studios and oDesk are just a few of those places. With more competition, expect a lack of clarity as to what clients will expect to pay. This is especially true for writing; I can’t speak for the other fields.

4. Clients Will Want More “Value-Add” Service Than What They’re Paying You For – A flood of available contract positions in the market, coupled with more competition and a larger disparity in pricing will push clients in the direction of asking more for their money. Whether this be an additional layer of edits or consulting time, freelancers will not only have to prove why they charger higher rates, but negotiate more.

5. Clients Will Look for “Proof” of Delivery and Work – Based on how freelance writers charge, clients will be watching more closely what is delivered (and when). I predict that this will be especially true of any project where the budget is based on how many hours that are billed. Clients will want to know a) how long does a project take and b) what did you do during that hour.

6. Clients Will Learn about Quality – The flip side to hiring a writer on the “cheap” side is that the quality can suffer. I feel that eventually clients will come to understand this after going through the painful cycle of hire-and-fire a few times before understanding that hiring the right writer for the right job may mean looking for an experienced freelancer.

7. More Freelance Writers Will Become Web 2.0 Savvy – In order to become more competitive, existing freelancers will research ways to enhance their writing skills and learn more about search engine optimization, social media and other “value-adds” to integrate into their work and find better positions.

8. New Freelance Writers Will Work More for Less – The natural tendency when freelance writers just start out, is to undercut their profit by charging less to get more work. If new freelance writers are in dire financial straits, they will take whatever they can get.

9. Good Freelance Jobs Will be Harder to Find – Because there will be a flood of new freelance jobs on the market, coupled with the assumption that companies will ask their existing employees to do more than they have in the past, good freelance jobs will be harder to find. The time that it will take to find a freelance job does have an impact on the overall profit margin of a project, and seasoned freelancers may find they have to look longer than they have in the past for work.

10. Clients Will Initially Hire Based on Specialization – If a financial business lays off two dozen people in their business publications divison, they will probably look for someone with a background in writing for financial publications. To that business, they want someone who understands the industry and its language — even if it’s not expressly written in the communication a freelancer is delivering — because they want to save time “educating” someone new. To them, a financial background might also ensure “quality.” This may change, however, when companies realize that their demands are too specific. A writer who only writes about junk bonds, for example, may not exist.

11. Expect a High Turnover Rate for Freelancers – Burn out, job placement, life… Even though there will be a flood of freelancers in 2009, don’t expect every one of them to stick around. Much of this activity is directly related to economic conditions, and will continue to be in flux until the full-time job market improves.

12. Seasoned Freelance Writers Will Work Smarter, Not Harder – From asking for referrals to making smarter decisions about what they’ll work on, seasoned freelance writers will use their experience to their advantage. In other words, the economy will have less of an impact on seasoned freelance writers than on those who are new to the fold.

13. Freelancing Projects Will Be Shorter – Depending upon how challenging things get for some clients, you may see shorter freelance assignments. Word conservation will be increasingly important this year, depending upon whether or not the project is for online work (i.e. related to natural search) or offline. To a client, a shorter project equates to less money they have to pay a freelancer.

14. Freelancers Will Be More Competitive Amongst Ourselves – Unfortunately, I think that if things get really desperate, there will be more competition between freelancers than teamwork. Healthy competition is a part of freelancing, but it can also turn ugly when inexperienced writers come into the fray, undercutting prices and services. I would like to think that there won’t be more competition among freelancers, but when quality jobs are harder to find I do think you’ll see more, not less.

15. More Freelancers Will Pursue Start-up Websites and eBooks to Make $$$ – On the flip side, I think that experienced freelance writers will move beyond “just” freelance writing this year, offering more additional services including niche websites, non-fiction eBooks and How-Tos. You’ll probably see even more eBooks from savvy professionals geared toward “how-to-break-into-freelancing” as a result.

Agree? Disagree? How do you think the economy will affect the freelancing business in 2009?

Free, Freemies and the Undervaluation of Goods and Services

Free services, free products and free samples have been the cornerstone of marketing ever since the first snake oil salesmen peddled their magical tonics, promising to cure all of your ailments by drinking the contents of their bottles (which was usually alcohol).

In the early days, you might say that “free” was also considered a “gift” by the customer. The balance of power seemed to be set squarely in the hands of the retailer whose generosity encouraged customers to “try before they buy” early on, in part because there weren’t as many retailers as there are now. In this retail history timeline, you can get a general idea of when different retailers formed their business. Arguably, there seems to have always been a push-pull relationship between the retailer and the consumer which, in many ways, has been affected by marketing techniques that rely on simple, human psychology.

The Internet’s Impact on Valuing Goods and Services

I feel that that “traditional” push-pull relationship has been severely impacted by the internet in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Instead of walking into a store, the customer now visits what stores they want to, when they want to. You can’t force a “clickpath” through your site like you can with a retail store, because if a customer doesn’t want to shop or buy your services all they have to do is close their browser. Indeed, many disreputable sites grab onto your browser tightly, trying to pull out all the stops before they let you say “No.”

In my opinion, the internet has played a much, larger role in the valuation of goods and services than we might think. Part of the challenge, is that the internet is too accessible and too fast, which allows savvy users (a.k.a content creators) to take advantage of the tool. Over time, tiny, niche markets of illegal products and services pop up to fill a void when traditional businesses don’t (or can’t) move fast enough to meet demand. Other businesses support the “free and cheap” model, however, by undercutting realistic prices. For example, wholesalers sell goods without any sort of mark-up, setting a lower bar for products that are normally priced higher elsewhere to cover a store’s costs. Bartering systems and online auctions also deflate prices, but also inflate them in some cases when the product is rare and unavailable elsewhere.

When used appropriately (and legally) the internet is a powerful marketing tool that offers a different model than traditional, brick-and-mortar strategies. The challenge with the internet, however, is that accessibility has a hidden cost. If not diligent and managed correctly, easy access and constant “clearance” prices can breed familiarity, raise typical expectations and blur the production value for the consumer. As a result, everyday people who do not make their living as an artist or a writer or a professional blogger don’t understand the cost involved when copyright is violated. People who once saved for that Rolex watch or pair of Manolo Blahniks either find them for next-to-nothing, or use credit (another form of accessibility) to fulfill their immediate need.

Used to getting what they want (when they want it), a new breed of consumers has cropped up that is negatively impacting businesses that make money on intellectual property (i.e. content or artist creation) in this economy. I dub them the “freemies.”

What is a Freemie?

A “freemie” is a consumer who believes that because they want a product they should have it for free because the business or individual is making enough money without them. They are the rebels of the consumer generation, the ones who will knowingly (or unknowingly) pirate intellectual property because they believe that they can’t be caught.

YouTube!, for example, expressly states in its rules an official policy about copyright. Yet, there are movies offered on YouTube! in twelve minute chunks that can only be removed by “the official copyright holder.” Besides YouTube!, there are file-sharing sites, image search engines, blogs, etc. that offer the “free” product of the day which (from what I’ve found) not only violate the original copyright — but cite Creative Commons.org as the copyright on holder for the person offering the freebie. Using CC in such a way is, in my opinion, incredibly heinous because not only is the person in question offering the product of someone else’s work — they are taking credit for creating it, too.

Couple this underground market with the sense of entitlement that “freemies” have, and it ends up killing a creative professional’s chance of profiting on their work. We’ve seen “freemies” either set out to create a better mousetrap for next to nothing, undercutting the full-time professional’s cost of doing business in unreasonable (and unrealistic ways) — or they take that same mousetrap and post its designs for free believing that they are providing a favor for those that want those designs.

How to Avoid the “Freemie” Impact on Your Business

Although the battle to protect copyright is far from over, I believe that there are ways to resolve the “freemie” experience peacefully. Since I am more familiar with writing, in my mind the answer to turning a freemium into a premium, is to avoid what conventional wisdom might tell you.

    DON’T Try to Correct or Get Angry with a Freemie — As someone recently put it, “Would you walk into a McDonald’s and steal a hamburger? No? Then why would you steal (insert item) from me?” While that is tongue-in-cheek, it’s a bit less threatening than “I’m going to sue you.” There is a risk with attacking a freemie, and that risk can be your online reputation. A negative online reputation may steer paying customers away from your store even if the freemie was “in the wrong.” Although, if you have a legitimate copyright challenge with what someone is doing, by all means act accordingly but proceed with caution. You don’t want a legitimate complaint to turn into a “he-said, she-said” scenario.

    DON’T Ignore the Freemies Completely — Instead, build “free” as part of your business model to offer free samples to new customers and allow for easy distribution. Accessibility should be a consideration in any online business — personal or otherwise — because it is a function of the internet.

    DON’T Try to Compete with a Freemie — You have to eat, pay your housing costs and get something nice for yourself every once in a while. Just because freemies exist, doesn’t mean that you should try to compete with them by undercutting your prices or waste time trying to create something that’s better than what they’ve done. Consider the time you have as precious, and dump that into energizing your business rather than competing with “free.”

    DO be Realistic about Your Prices — Do yourself a favor, and price yourself out competitively. Find out what other people are charging for the same services and know who your real competitors are. The more competitive your prices are, the less chance you’ll have of sticking out like a sore thumb.

    DO be Honest about Your Production Value — A professional resume writer may charge in upwards of four hundred dollars for a resume. If you’ve never written one for another person before, can you be honest with yourself about the quality of the product you provide to charge the same rate? Again, this comes down to knowing not only what you are selling, but how realistic your expectations are of selling it at the quality level you provide.

    DO Flaunt Your Specialty or Talent — By having a specialty, you are proclaiming that this is the area you either are an expert in, or one that you are proficient at. Avoid the over-used “expert” tag, and opt for speaking to your vast body of experiences that support your rate, your product quality and your reputation.

    DO Remember that the Freemie Customer is Not Every Customer — You know your customer best, and if you do you should know that not every customer is a freemie customer. Here’s where your web analytics and other business metrics can really help you define and cater to your existing market.

    DO Learn from a Freemie — What are your freemies telling you? Did your product get delayed in shipping? Did you miss hitting a trend at the right time and place? Take a lesson from your experiences with a freemie and try to anticipate the next time something like that might happen.

What about you? What are your thoughts on how “free” has changed the way we look at the value of a product? Creativity?

Who Do You Write For?

As a follow-up to a few conversations I’ve had with other folk this week, I wanted to broach the question of “Who do you write for?” In an ideal world, where money grows on trees and coins spew from an eternal fountain, we would write for ourselves. When money is involved, however, this question gets more complicated because we have to manage our wants and needs with our clients. In my case, I started out solely as a post-modernist writer. Well, what the heck does that mean?

The term Postmodern literature is used to describe certain tendencies in post-World War II literature. It is both a continuation of the experimentation championed by writers of the modernist period (relying heavily, for example, on fragmentation, paradox, questionable narrators, etc.) and a reaction against Enlightenment ideas implicit in Modernist literature.–SOURCE: Wikipedia

Basically, I enjoy playing around with language and format to create and allude to different types of character developments, while not revealing everything about the plot. It’s a classification that others tagged my work with in college, but the experimental part of writing is what drew me to it in the first place.

In addition to that sort of writing, I focused on other more business-focused avenues that other writers often do. Do I enjoy writing a press release? Well, it’s not as enjoyable as writing a song lyric, but it’s not something I hate doing because now I appreciate its function. Still, I’ve moved past the point of writing what I want to write all the time (and being okay with it) because what I want and what words or projects will sell are two, very different things.

It comes back to that old argument put forth years ago about author’s intent. Should I writer write for the audience or what they want to write? My argument used to be that a writer can’t possibly know what that audience is without trying something first. But the problem with that philosophy, is that time and cost have to both factor into your decision whether or not you can afford to experiment. Some clients pay for writer’s works based on what their expectations are of what you’re working on. Others pay for the writer’s expertise, trusting them to put strategy and other elements into their writing to make that project sparkle.

Say that someone hired me to write a romantic short story similar to a Harlequin novel. If I delivered anything other than a Harlequin-esque short story, would the client be happy? Probably not, because my client is modeling their sales and marketing off of their expectations about what that story should be. The same can be true in business, depending upon what any given company’s expectations are. If someone hires me to write a grant, then my finished project should look, smell and read like a grant.

In order to write what I want, I have to find time to have my own project that I can experiment with. This project should cost me next-to-nothing but my own time, and it should be something that I can afford to play around with. This “experiment” for me has been Argentum: Book One of the Violet War Fantasy Series. The project allows me to write what I want to write, experiment with new trends in internet technology, stretch my marketing skills a bit, and forces me to do the thing I hate more than anything else in this world — promote myself.

Of course, the flip side to writing for myself is to find projects that I want to write for. I’ve only started to do this, because in the past I relied on what was available to write for (and get paid for) rather than looking at it from a “fun” perspective. In my opinion, people who rely on freelance writing for full-time income have less freedom to pick and choose what they want to do than people who have a steady stream of income flowing in. One writer’s path may differ from another writer’s, but in the end — I’ve found that asking yourself who you’re writing for, can help put things into perspective for yourself and your longer-term goals.

When was the last time you asked yourself who you are writing for? What do you want to write versus what are you getting paid to?

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