Category Archives: Social Signal

Five ways sharing links can build relationships instead of breaking faith

Suppose you read a tweet or a Facebook update: an urgent message about something truly vile that a public figure has said. Outraged, you click through… and discover that, actually, what they said is far milder.

Or you click the “About us” link on an organization’s web site… and you’re taken to a rambling, vague philosophical essay. Or you search online on three keywords, click a promising result, and discover the page has nothing, nothing to do with your search terms. Or you tap a link to “Read more” on a mobile web page, and a 30-megabyte PDF begins to download slow-w-w-ly onto your smartphone, sucking the life out of your data plan.

Been there? Me, too — all in the past week — and it left me fuming.

What happened in every case wasn’t just a little wasted time, or a frustrated search, or a dent in my data plan. What happened was a little tiny betrayal.

Because a link isn’t just an URL or a little HTML code. A link is a promise.

On a web page, it’s a promise that if you click or tap here, you’ll go to the page, document or resource that the text inside the anchor tag describes. In a Twitter feed or on a Facebook page, it’s a promise that this link will be worth your while – that it was worth sharing because it’s worth reading.

Breaking that promise means breaking faith with readers and visitors. And the ways people do just that are depressingly numerous:

  • Letdowns: Site navigation that leads to “Coming soon!” pages.
  • Surprise downloads: Links that lead without warning to Word documents, PowerPoint files and anything else that doesn’t load seamlessly in a user’s browser.
  • Hype: Claims that the content at the other end of the link is far more controversial, significant, useful, factual or hi-LAR-ious than it really is.
  • Lockouts: Links to walled gardens that many users won’t be able to enter: paywall-protected news stories, for instance, or any service that requires you to create an account to see the content.
  • Lies: Outright deception about what’s at the other end. (No matter what the motivation is – whether it’s rickrolling, black-hat SEO tactics or something else – you’re making a withdrawal from your trustworthiness account.)

The result? Some pretty upset people:


http://storify.com/robcottingham/i-hate-it-when-i-click-a-link-and-it-leads-to" >View the story "I hate it when I click a link and it leads to..." on Storify]

The flip side? When someone clicks a link of yours and gets exactly what you promised, it builds trust – the same way that keeping any other promise does. Trust helps to build relationships, and relationships… well, they’re what social networks are built on.

Here are five ways you can be sure you’re keeping those promises:

  • Open doors: Avoid linking to content behind paywalls or registration barriers. And before you pass on a link to something someone’s posted on Facebook or Google+, check the sharing settings on it to be sure it’s public.
  • Fair warning: Let people know when you’ve linked to something other than a web page or an image. Label your link with the file format and, if it’s a hefty one, add the file size: Interview with Nancy Duarte (MP3, 5.5 MB)
  • Working links: The web is a living thing, which means bits of it die sometimes – bits you may have linked to. From time to time, give your site a check for broken links. (Looking through your analytics for common 404 errors is a start.)
  • Unvarnished truth: Sharing your honest excitement along with the link? Great. Puffing up mediocre content as life-shatteringly awesome? Less so.
  • Due diligence: Twitter and Facebook make it awfully easy to repost someone’s link if they’ve made it sound appealing. But have a look first – so you know what you’re sharing when you pass a link along.

Sharing links can do a lot of good for you and your audiences. Just remember that when you share content, it reflects on your reputation – for better or worse.

Social Speech Podcast, Episode 12: Mitchell Beer

Mitchell Beer has been a leader in conference communcations for more than a quarter of a century. His firm, The Conference Publishers, reports and repackages conference content – keeping it useful and relevant long after the closing gavel.

How does that change in the social media era? In this episode, Mitchell tells me how conference reporting is evolving to take advantage of everything from YouTube to Twitter. And along the way, we gain some insights into how speakers and speechwriters can help their messages find a prominent place in those reports… and in the ideas participants take home with them.

Alex’s ebook unlocks the professional power of Evernote

It wasn’t that long ago that “notebook” just meant the paper kind that you’d carry to meetings, refer to as you worked, and jot random thoughts down in… provided you had it with you.

Then came the web, and then smart mobile devices, and everything changed. Today’s web-based notebook lives on your laptop, desktop, tablet, smartphone and web browser. And the most successful by far is Evernote.

Synchronizing your notes across your various devices and the web is just the tip of Evernote’s iceberg (or, if you prefer, the flyleaf of the notebook). Evernote does everything from handwriting recognition to photo synchronizing to web clipping… and much more.

Work Smarter with Evernote by Alexandra Samuel

Figuring out how to harness all that power, though, can be a little daunting. (Your last paper notebook probably didn’t require help documentation.) To put Evernote’s features to work for you, it really helps to have the guidance of someone who not only knows the software itself, but how to make the most of it.

Enter Alex’s new ebook Work Smarter with Evernote, the first in the Work Smarter with Social Media series from Harvard Business Review Press. It’s available on Amazon, iTunes and HBR.org. (As of right now, it’s topping the time management category for Kindle volumes, and hit the number two spot for Amazon’s time management books.)

Work Smarter with Evernote isn’t a software manual. It’s a guide to using Evernote to make your professional life more effective, productive and satisfying. Alex shows you how to use Evernote to capture notes no matter where you are, and to organize your work and your priorities. And show you how to realize the full potential of Evernote’s social features — the ones that make it a powerful tool for collaboration.

Maybe best of all, you won’t have that long apprenticeship period where you have to patiently learn a tool’s intricacies before it starts being useful. Alex’s 30-minute setup guide can get a beginner up and running — or, if you’ve used it before but never really got it, let you give it a real try.

Alex draws on a wealth of experience and knowledge, both around the app itself — she was one of Evernote’s earliest adopters and evangelists, and is now Evernote’s research ambassador — and around effective online work and collaboration. (You can sample some of that expertise in a few of her recent posts for the Harvard Business Review, Vision Critical and Evernote.)

We hope you’ll check out Working Smarter with Evernote. And let us know what you think!

Terms of service changes deserve more than just a shrug and a click

Instagram terms of useThe debate simmering over Instagram’s pending terms-of-service changes shouldn’t come as a surprise. These days, changes to a site’s or app’s terms of service get a lot more scrutiny than they used to.

True, most of us just grumble a little at the inconvenience of a nag screen popping up, then click through without reading. (And who can blame us?) But with a growing awareness of issues ranging from online privacy to usage rights, more and more people give amended user agreements a good hard look.

And when they find something they don’t like, there’s a receptive audience of users ready to spread the word, often on those same platforms. Sometimes those concerns arise from overblown, out-of-context misinterpretations of legal language. Other times, they’re just plain delusional – and if you posted one of those Facebook-is-now-a-publicly-traded-company disclaimers, you probably got an earful from your friends to that effect. (I suspect the issue around Instagram using photos in advertising has less to do with conscripting your next coffee photo as a Starbucks billboard, and more with serving “Rob Cottingham also followed [insert brand here]“-style “social ads”.)

Yet many user agreements really are downright abusive. They’re drafted by the company running the service, and are pretty much always skewed in their favour. Reading them, it’s hard not to think that the company’s legal department drafted them with one mandate: “whatever we can get away with.” The site Terms of Service; Didn’t Read documents the ways a range of services put users at a disadvantage (along with a handful that actually do a pretty good job of balancing conflicting interests).

The issues are real. But when people complain about changes to user agreements, as many are doing about Instagram today (the EFF outlines its concerns here), there’s often a backlash. They’re accused of whining about the free service they’re receiving, trying to prevent the company running it from making a profit, and having way too high an opinion of their content’s value. (If you’re looking for a post that hits the trifecta, with a trollish dollop of sneering, try this one.)

To take the first two arguments on quickly:

  • It’s a free service: Yes, a service like Instagram doesn’t charge a fee. You don’t pay in money. Instead, you pay in time, creative effort and attention. And that, in turn, creates the community without which the service would be worth far, far less. (See “Just because there’s no price tag doesn’t mean you aren’t paying for it,” a post I wrote three years ago.)
  • Companies need to make money, you commie freak: Of course they do. Even the most co-operatively-owned company needs to bring in enough income to keep the lights on. (Unless it realizes an indirect return for its owners in some other way, an idea we’ll set that aside for another day.) But one-sided exploitation isn’t the only business model out there (and in the participation business, it’s a risky one). Companies and individuals strike mutually advantageous arrangements every day; Flickr’s deal with Getty images treats its users as partners.

But it’s that third “Get over yourself and your crappy pictures of food” argument that I find especially toxic. (This is apart from the objection that, if the content users are generating have no value, why put the rights to use it commercially on the table at all?) The backlash against user advocacy plays into the idea that all that time and creative energy we’re pouring into Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Cheezburger, Flickr and the many other services out there, and all of the images, videos and stories we’re sharing are worthless.

Sure, a lot of the content being shared is frivolous and silly, or executed with little thought and effort. So is a lot of human conversation and activity; we’re playful by nature, and we’ll sometimes dabble at things without ever being good at it. (Also, if you ever have a look at some of the drek that often gets pawned off as children’s entertainment, you’ll look at LOLcats and Twitter memes with a whole new level of respect.)

And all that light conversation keeps the channels open for the more significant stuff. I discover deeply moving personal stories, glimpses of awesome beauty, laugh-out-loud humour and unexpected insights through my social networks every day. They come from people who don’t always have the talent and experience to craft a polished, professional piece, but whose distinctive perspectives and voices outweigh those deficiencies.

One of the most powerful things about the social media revolution has been to give those voices an audience. And whether that audience is a small circle of friends and family or a network of hundreds of thousands, it has opened up the world of creative self-expression to hundreds of millions of people, drastically lowering the barriers to participation.

One barrier remains, of course: creating something and sharing it with the world is still an act of courage, especially with the “so… what do you think?” of a comment field or a Like button. There are still many out there who delight in running down things other people have created, and still plenty of opportunity for a first-time creator to experience shame and embarrassment for caring about what they’ve created. Easier and safer, then, to do that ourselves pre-emptively, to be the first to describe our content as trivial.

But we sell ourselves short, and lie to ourselves, when we dismiss what we’re creating and sharing as worthless – and shrug off our rights as creators as being just as unimportant. Which is why it’s deeply gratifying to see the protests that arise over terms-of-service changes: we’re starting to take our time and self-expression a little more seriously.

And just as important is the way that the platforms themselves are responding. While I was writing this post, Instagram published one of its own, featuring – among other points – an overdue explanation of the most contentious terms-of-service change, governing the use of photos in advertising and promising clearer language on that point.

Instagram’s owners clearly understand and respect that, clever and innovative as their technology may be, it’s the community and the content they create that gives Instagram most of its value. We should show our time and creativity at least as much respect as they do.

How right-sized graphics can lend a whole new dimension to your online appearance

Most organizations would never send their leaders to a news conference in pizza-stained sweatpants and a moth-eaten Planet Hollywood t-shirt. But a startling number of them do the digital equivalent.

They stretch low-resolution logos and graphics to serve as cover images. They shovel photos online without noticing that the call to action is getting cropped out. Use intricate, complex images as pinkie-nail-sized profile photos.

The result is a blotchy, pixelated, distorted, unreadable mess.

If you’re swallowing hard as you read this, and recognizing your own organization in these words, take heart. Because even if you aren’t a graphic designer, there’s a simple way to take a huge step toward a better first impression.

And that’s to learn the pixel dimensions that your social platform uses… and then stick to them when you create your graphics.

Do that, and your profile photo will suddenly look crisper and cleaner; your logo will be recognizable; your infographics will still contain all their info.

These tips and resources can help:

  • When you’re creating graphics for the web, set your app’s measurement unit to pixels instead of inches, picas or centimetres (which don’t mean a lot when you’re dealing with screen measurements).
  • Always preview your graphics at their actual size (also known as 100%) before uploading them.
  • Don’t keep hunting down the same specs over and over again. There are some lovely folks who’ve done that work for you and shared it online:
  • Store that information where you can get it when you need it. Scroll past Dan’s infographic, and you’ll find a table with all the values listed as text. I’ve copied that table into Evernote, and now it’s at my fingertips when I need it. (That feels especially clever when I have Photoshop open on my laptop and Dan’s table open on my tablet.)
  • Can’t find the specs for a particular image? You can measure it yourself.
    • Install a browser extension that gives you an on-screen ruler (such as MeasureIt for Firefox for and Tape for Chrome).
    • Or if you have a little HTML and CSS knowledge, right-click on the image and choose Inspect Element (or your browser’s equivalent).
  • The good folks who build platforms like Facebook and Twitter often change their interfaces, and that means changing image dimensions, too. So when an update comes out (like those banner images everyone’s been introducing over the last year or so), check to see if you need to rebuild your images – or create a whole new one.

Let’s be clear: how you look on a social platform like Facebook and Twitter isn’t nearly as important as what you do.

But as with the rest of life, a little attention to your appearance often makes a big difference. First impressions matter: looking crisp and professional can get you through the front door of people’s attention, and allow the conversations to happen that lead to deeper engagement.

You don’t need drawing skills to create powerful images that amplify your content

Across the social web, organizations are discovering the power that the right image – including an apt cartoon – can lend to your content. And there’s never been a better time to not be able to draw.

Okay, let me back up. It’s not that it doesn’t matter how well something is drawn, or how visually attractive it is. If you’re great at drawing, or you have a good eye for color and composition, you’re way ahead of the game — all other things being equal.

But all other things usually aren’t equal. (Try measuring them if you don’t believe me. I know of a rather good book on measuring things.) Exacting design standards can work against you if they keeps you from posting a less-than-perfect visual so long that the conversation has moved on to another topic by the time you hit “Publish”. And slick production values may not have the same impact as something that’s crudely drawn, but reflects an authentic voice conveying an important, resonant idea.

So here’s how you can add some visual cartoon-flavored impact to your story, blog post or report, even if you’ve never so much as doodled Snoopy on a high school notebook.

First, remember that the underlying content trumps everything else. What’s the message you want to convey, the story you want to tell, the fact you want to get across? What’s the emotional reaction you want your audience to have? What action do you want it to drive them to? Start by answering those questions, then start thinking about the visuals you want to create (and how you’ll make them). That can save you a lot of wasted effort, and you’ll avoid wasting your audience’s time and attention.

And tying for first, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t draw. Most of us actually can. We just have limits to what we can draw and how well, and beat ourselves up when we trip over them. But bumping up against our limits is how we learn to do better. And even if you never get to the point where gallery curators are banging on your door, there’s a lot more acceptance online of pretty rudimentary drawing skills… as long as they get across a great idea.

If you can draw two circles and make them overlap, you can make a Venn diagram. (If you can draw three circles, you can draw a more complex Venn diagram than most of the ones you’ll see out there.)

Cartoon about Venn diagrams

If you can draw a triangle on top of a square, and add a rectangle…

Shapes of a house

…then with a little practice, you can draw a house…

finished houst

…and if you draw a line or two coming out of it, pointing to a few words (no shame in doing those with your computer, by the way!), you have a cartoon.

House with caption

Two pointy lines, a circle, two dots and six straight lines,

Cat shapes

… and you can make a cat…

Assembled cat

…which, if you play your cards right, might volunteer to help you with fundraising.

Cat with caption

The point isn’t to convince you that you can, in fact, draw Tippy the Turtle and should enroll now for an exciting career in illustration. It’s to say this: everyone has limits. See what you can do working within them, and every once in a while, press those boundaries gently and try to learn something new. Because those limits can bend and shift, and the more (and more often) you push against them, the more they’ll move.
(Bonus silver lining: Constraints in your drawing ability can force you into the kind of simplicity that focuses your message onto what really matters. If you can’t draw the cluttered, distracting background, you won’t.)

So that’s my pitch for learning to draw — or, more accurately, learning what you can draw now, and learning how to draw more down the road.

In the meantime…

Still can’t draw?* You can still create great pictures. Sites like Bitstrips.com and apps like Comic Life have amazingly simple interfaces that let you create comic strips and cartoon panels — and you’ll never have to draw so much as an eyebrow. Online charting and data visualization tools like Easel.ly are can let you pull together charts and info graphics quickly and easily.

Countless online meme-generating sites can let you whip up a sharable text-on-photo image in seconds; a mobile photo captioning app like Over for iOS lets you do it yourself right on your own device.

Or find some inspiration from the way webcomics like a) Dinosaur Comics, b) the profanity-laced Get Your War On and c) Wondermark use artwork created by others. Specifically, they use a) exactly the same clip-art in exactly the same positions in every single strip, adding dialogue; b) a very few different pieces of really awful clip-art, adding dialogue; and c) vintage public-domain 19th-century illustrations, adding dialogue. Just be sure you aren’t running afoul of anyone’s usage rights. (By the way, at least one of these artists actually can draw very, very well. So can Randall Munroe, who draws the stick-figure-centered, wildly-successful xkcd

* By “can’t draw”, I mean “Your drawing skills aren’t yet to the point where you feel comfortable sharing your creations with the world, but you’re working on them and any day now, you’re going to post that first doodle.”

If you don’t want to use a pen, you can still use a camera. Whether it’s a top-of-the-line DSLR or the nearest smartphone, a camera coupled with your imagination can take you a long way. Trying to dramatize the impact of overfishing and habitat degradation on wild salmon stocks? Get a few discarded fish bones from your local fish store, lay them on a sandy beach and (with a little chopping and arranging) set out the panels for a cartoon. Snap it, Photoshop in a few dialogue bubbles once you get home, and you have your cartoon.

You can do the same thing with all kinds of visual communication, of course. Those salmon bones could become a bar chart, tracking the decline in population. Or engage your inner pre-schooler to chart changes in education funding: make a line graph by gluing macaroni onto construction paper. Or if you want to draw attention to a word or phrase, write it in big letters on a blackboard or a lined flip chart, or draw it on a napkin — whatever context makes sense for the underlying idea. Take a picture of your creation, and you’re set.

In a bind? Let someone else do it. There’s the absolutely lovely way of paying a cartoonist to draw a custom cartoon (thanks, Beth!), or to license an existing one — but there’s also a trove of cartoons and illustrations out there available under a Creative Commons license. You can search for them on Flickr, or just Google “creative commons”, “cartoon” and various keywords. Or you can start bookmarking cartoonists you come across who post under an open license. (Modesty forbids suggesting a starting point.) Just be sure you respect the terms of that license, which may require attribution, using the image without modification, or using it in content that has a similar license.

Finally, keep working at it. Use your emerging skills — in drawing and in the alternatives — to create cartoons, but also to explore other ways to communicate visually. Try new things, see what works for you and for your audience… and keep learning. Read great books like Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin, and follow folks like Sunni Brown. Add Information is Beautiful and Sketchnote Army to your information diet. Watch Beth’s Pinterest board on visual marketing.

And please doodle. On your meeting notes, on your grocery list, on the draft annual report you’re editing… because sooner or later, you’re going to look at one of those doodles and see a cartoon — the kind you’d be proud to post, publish or share.

A version of this post originally appeared on Beth Kanter’s blog.

Measuring the Networked Nonprofit has arrived

A few weeks ago, I let you know that Measuring the Networked Nonprofit was on its way, bringing with it the combined wisdom of Beth Kanter and Katie Paine on how nonprofits can measure their impact in an era of free agents and networked activism.

It’s a momentous book. Organizations from governments to businesses to community groups to nonprofits have all struggled with whether and how to engage with the networked social world, especially when resources are scarce and stakeholders are feeling skittish. Measuring the Networked Nonprofit opens up new possibilities for accountability, learning, innovation and greater impact.

Today, Beth officially announced the book’s availability. It’s already been topping Amazon’s best-selling book on nonprofits for days because of advance purchases, which speaks to the hunger out there for this kind of practical information, framed in a hope-filled vision for the future of the nonprofit sector. (Beth and co-author Allison Fine articulated that vision in their previous book, The Networked Nonprofit.)

As Beth puts it, “The book is about how nonprofits can measure and improve results from leveraging their networks.” The advice you’ll find there has been “field tested in real-time as part of my work as Visiting Scholar at the Packard Foundation with 60 of their grantees who participated in a peer learning/focus group and contributed many of the case studies.”

And Beth will help you do a little extra good when you buy your copy:

I am donating my royalties to support the Sharing Foundation‘s college education program for young people in Cambodia. My family is sponsoring Keo Savon, who we met this summer in Cambodia. She is second year engineering student and by supporting her education she will have better economic opportunities.

In the interests of full disclosure (by which I mean deliriously excited bragging) here’s one more excerpt from Beth’s post:

To help those who need to learn to laugh at measurement, not fear it, I commissioned Rob Cottingham to create cartoons that capture the essence of each chapter’s advice. (There were numerous times when I snorted my latte from laughing so hard!).

(Which is why that waiver I have clients sign has such explicit language about burns and scalding.)

Beth and Katie have lined up a slew of events, but they’re also eager to hear from folks who’d like on in their community. In the meantime, if you’d like to support the book’s launch, Beth suggests four things you can do:

Buy a Copy of the Measuring the Networked Nonprofit

Attend a Book Event this month as part of our book tour

Share of photo of yourself with the book on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook and use the hashtag #netnon

Stay tuned to our blogs as we share more stories about how nonprofits apply the advice in the book and I’ll keep you posted on Keo Savon’s studies

And what do you want to bet they’ll be measuring all of it?

Cartoon-blogging at Google Engage Vancouver

Google Engage for Agencies came to Canada a year ago, training agencies in AdWords and other Google products so they can then offer those products to their clients. Yesterday Google celebrated the program’s first Canuck birthday with a four-city conference, connected by Google Hangout, looking at marketing trends facing digital agencies and their clients.

Speakers included the host, Google’s Deepak Anand, and local digital mavens Doug Jasinski of Skunkworks, Chris Breikss of 6S Marketing, and Nasser Sahlool of DAC Group.

My iPad and stylus were there, too. Here are my notes:

Google Engage cartoon-blog notes