NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX ... Facebook? [My Ad Age Article]

I had the following article published on Ad Age last week.  I'm publishing it here for the few people who read my blog only, and to have a record for the future [direct link].

NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX ... Facebook? 
The Real Opportunity For Content Is Web Series, Which Can Benefit From Facebook's Engagement

By: Kevin Skobac
Published: December 21, 2011

As Facebook continues to grow its user base worldwide, entertainment companies are increasingly trying to find ways to use the platform as a new form of TV channel with unprecedented reach. Both major TV networks and Hollywood film studios have previously allowed people to watch their content via their Facebook pages, including paid video trials such as Warner Brothers renting its "Dark Knight" film from its ultra-successful "Batman" franchise for Facebook credits.

Unfortunately, for WB and others, no early tests of traditional companies pushing their content on Facebook have registered any real success. Audiences simply don't seem interested in watching long-form, lean-back content wrapped in a Facebook environment (though augmenting traditional TV with a second-screen social context is another discussion).

But new Web-only entertainment creators can succeed where big media failed. Here's why: they're producing video content that differs significantly from the classic TV model. First, each "episode" is typically much shorter, commanding less of a singularly focused, lean-back experience. Second, outside of the normal broadcast schedule, users aren't trained to "tune in" or remember when the next episode will be ready for viewing. Facebook can help content creators meet these challenges in ways that would drive more interest, engagement and repeat viewership.

Push notification systems 
Typically, Web-only video series are discovered via recommendations through press or friends, but then suffer steep drop-off in eyeballs for the 2nd episode. This occurs typically via both standalone Web sites as well as YouTube. Hundreds of millions of people, on the other hand, return to Facebook every day. Video series can take advantage of news feed posts, event invites, and top-bar notifications to inform viewers every time a new episode or piece of content is released. In this manner, shows will be able to command much more repeat tune-in than typical Web fare. Shows can also easily fill in the time between episodes with goodies like extra footage and cast interviews in the same tuned delivery system that new episodes flow through to keep viewers interested during down time.

Personalization capabilities 
Facebook has an immense amount of user data accessible through its APIs that have been leveraged in interesting ways within content. Advertisers and musicians have already been pushing the boundaries of personalized experiences in exciting ways (see: "The Wilderness Downtown" or "Take This Lollipop"), but original content producers have, for the most part, not taken advantage of the opportunity until recently. AOL's new Facebook-only show "AIM High" launched with a unique feature that allows viewers to login with Facebook Connect to view a more personalized version of each episode. After connecting, viewers may notice their own faces on posters in the school setting, or even find themselves running for high school class president directly within the plot of the show. While these personalized elements are superficial so far, it's easy to imagine future shows with much deeper integration. For example, a show could find a way to turn the viewer's friends into the suspects of a mystery, driving much more engagement and viewer loyalty.

Parallel conversation streams 
Newer short-form content series like "AIM High" also seem to benefit more from integrated comments than long-form content can. With episodes no longer than 5-10 minutes, the plot of "AIM High" is always in flux, leaving room for speculation and discussion. The comment box isn't just a place to voice love or hate for the show, rather it becomes a real-time discussion of what's taking place and what could happen next. Facebook's commenting system also allows discussion to take place both on the show page and within people's news feeds, providing more seamless conversation both when viewers are watching the show and afterwards. 3rd party apps like GetGlue and IntoNow are starting to provide this parallel conversation stream via a second screen, but no companies in this space have yet been able to tie the discussion as close to the content as a Facebook-viewing platform can.

As all content consumption becomes hyper-connected and on-demand, even the major TV networks are quickly noticing the need to evolve in order to meet consumer wants. It may not be as easy for them as it is for digital pure-plays like YouTube, Hulu and Yahoo! (all of which announced a full slate of Web-only shows during this year's television up-front), but they have to be as vigilant in breaking through. Everyone is experimenting with the most effective way to attract and keep audiences for this new form of content. Facebook, with its unmatched notification system, personalization capabilities and conversation tools, could be just the solution everyone is looking for.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kevin Skobac is senior digital strategist at SS+K, an integrated marketing and communications agency specializing in creative social engagement.


Continuing Education

One of my goals for 2011 was to put more effort into continuing my education.  After graduating and transitioning to the work force it gets a lot harder to feel like you're learning and getting to grow mentally in directions beyond what your job dictates.  However, living in New York City, I am lucky that there are a lot of ways to take classes and attend lectures for relatively minimal money.  Here are 5 local ways I "get back in the classroom" (and one bonus on-line resource):

Ignite Sessions
Ignite is a unique event where you learn a little bit about a lot of things through a rapid-fire series of short lectures.  Speakers can apply to present on anything, and typically the collection of chosen lectures varies widely from technology, to the arts to society.  Each speaker is given 5 minutes to present a coordinated talk along with 20 slides that turn on their own every 15 seconds.  The structured nature of the event keeps the audience entertained whether the topic is NASA research, samurai swords, or anything else.  Events are usually around $10.  You can view all of the past Ignite NYC talks here: http://www.youtube.com/user/IgniteNYC#g/u

Creative Mornings
Creative Mornings are "a monthly breakfast lecture series for creative types".  Each monthly event is usually about :30 minute breakfast, :30 minute lecture and :30 minute Q+A discussion session.  Past speakers have been writers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and more.  They take place on Friday mornings from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and have been sponsored, so attendance is free (and sign-up fills up fast).  You can view all of the past Creative Mornings lectures here:

General Assembly
By day, General Assembly is a co-working space where teams of people can rent desk space and share collective office resources.   By night, General Assembly is a an educational campus that hosts classes to help teach new technology, business and marketing skills.  Classes usually cost around $25 per hour and are taught by employees from small start-up companies to Google employees.  This year I took classes on Gamification, API Programming and Website Wireframing.  Unfortunately, the classes have been a bit hit or miss because they're sometimes taught by smart people who aren't good teachers.  However, I'm optimistic and will continue to try more.

TEDx is an offshoot of the popular global TED conference, though on a local level.  The organizers of TEDxBrooklyn put together an annual all-day event mixing talks from local business leaders and artists with curated videos of the global TED conference.  This year's event was held at Brooklyn Bowl, and the topic was "redefining better".  Highlights included motivational speaker Jullien Gordon, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, Gotham Greens founder Viraj Puri and several music & art performances.  The event cost $100 for the full day, including lunch.  The event wasn't perfect, but I expect that the quality will improve each year as the founders gain more experience.

140 Characters Conference
140 is actually a series of conferences throughout the year that covers a number of topics.  This year I attended the tentpole #140conf ,  a 2-day event discussing how social media effects business and people, and #140edu , a 1-day event discussing how social media can improve education.  The first event was a series of short :10 - :15 minute presentations and panel discussions, and was very interesting in the same way that Ignite typically is.  The edu event was a more classic format, with fewer + longer presentations, and wasn't nearly as interesting.  I would make my decisions to attend future events based on the format and the costs- which varied from $1.40 to $140 per event (discounts to frequent attendees).

Next year, in addition to attending conferences and classes, I'm also committing to taking some online courses.  One site I'm really excited about is Codecademy.  The site is basically a collection of "gamified" courses on web programming.  Courses are broken down into small incremental assignments, and motivation is driven by badges and level completions.  Codecademy seems like an powerful, free, way to learn new subjects, one I'm very excited to spend more time with.  I'll update everyone soon on how it goes.

So what are the ways you learn?  And what are your other 2012 goals? 


Facebook Fights Back At Google, Twitter and Tumblr With Four New Features

Facebook made 4 platform changes this week that aggressively compete with some of the most popular functionality on Twitter, Google+ and Tumblr:
Smart Friends Lists
Facebook will now start creating intelligent friend lists for users to help facilitate sharing and filtering based on likely interests + need states.  Facebook is starting everyone off with Work, School, Family and City lists, but the intelligence will start recommending people to you as you create your own custom lists as well.  This is a major attempt by Facebook to show that they can do lists better than Google, who launched Circles as the main attraction of Google+. 

Subscribe to a Person
Until now, Facebook relationships were always a mutual connection between two users.  However, users  now have the option to allow others to "subscribe" to them, without actually "friending" them.  This new asynchronous dynamic gives personalities the ability to broadcast public information to anyone who's interested while still preserving their personal relationships.  This means public figures no longer need to manage profiles AND pages for themselves (though pages are still the solution for brands and products that will build more robust content).  Allowing asynchronous relationships is a major departure from Facebook's policy to date, and is a direct attack on Twitter.

Facebook to Twitter sync
Though Facebook pages have had the option of syndicating their content out to Twitter for a while, soon users will also be able to link their Facebook accounts to their Twitter accounts.  Facebook is hoping that its users will have less reason to hop over to Twitter, while at the same time send more traffic from Twitter into Facebook.

View Page Post Shares
Starting today when you view a post on a Facebook page you will be able to see how many "shares" it has, in addition to 'likes' and 'comments'.  When you click the "shares" button you will see a list of people who shared that post to their own page, and any public comments on their re-post.  This isn't a major feature, but it makes sharing feel much more like Tumblr's popular "reblog" feature.
All of these changes will likely be appreciated by Facebook users, and will likely help stem much of the criticism Facebook's gotten as of late.  It will be interesting to see how Google, Twitter and Tumblr respond to Facebook's new functionality.


An update on Google+ for Brands

Below is a draft of an updated POV on Google+ I've drafted for the perspective of brand marketing opportunities.  Thoughts, suggestions or critiques are welcome.

Now that Google+ is nearly two months old, I wanted to provide an update on how Google’s ambitious new social project is doing, what new features + functionality have been added to the product since launch, and how these new elements impact the outlook for brands. Despite entering a competitive landscape, Google+ has received intense attention from Google users, media and brands. In just a few shorts weeks over 25 million people have been estimated to have tried out the network. Google has met the enthusiasm with a barrage of developments that hint to the potential of Google+ moving forward.

A more powerful +1 button for publishers 
When initially launched, Google’s +1 button for publishers had an ambiguous purpose. Consumers clicking the button could potentially improve a site’s search ranking, but there was no direct connection to Google+. Now when users click the +1 button they will not only affect the page-rank of the site, but will also have the opportunity to share the web-page directly to their Google+ stream. Google+ users will also see which of their friends have clicked a +1 button right next to the button on sites. The behavior will be very similar to clicking the Facebook ‘like’ button, both in it’s on-site representation and by displaying a photo and descriptive text snippet in a user’s feed. This will give users much more reason to click +1 buttons on content around the web.

Considering both the SEO and social amplification power of the new +1 button, all brands and publishers should be preparing to include +1 buttons on their sites prominently. There are a few steps website managers need to take to maximize the benefit:
  • Update the +1 button code on their sites to display the in-line social graph info 
  • Include the proper HTML mark-up on your web-pages to specify which pictures and copy are auto-generated when users share to Google+ from the +1 button on your site
Extended reach through massive Gmail community
When Google+ launched many people were surprised to find that it had no connection to Gmail. Now, however, Google has taken the first steps towards integrating with the popular email client by integrating Google+ updates into the new Gmail people widget. When looking at an email in Gmail, your contacts most recent public Google+ post will be visible in the sidebar along with their other profile information. This extends the reach of Google+ status updates way beyond the Google+ user-base out to the millions of people who use Gmail daily, making Google+ content sharing much more attractive to brands.

A more social YouTube experience with Google+ Hangouts
From the beginning, Google+ users have been able to load YouTube videos inside Hangouts (group video chats). Additionally, now when watching a video on YouTube users are invited to launch the video inside a Google+ Hangout to share the viewing experience with up to 10 friends. Like the Gmail integration, this exposure on one of Google’s most popular properties will help boost awareness of Google+. This is also a potentially valuable Call-To-Action for brands to promote on their YouTube channels: not just to watch a brand spot, but to invite friends to watch, enjoy and discuss along with one another.

Increased time spent inside Google+ through games
Google+’s biggest advancement so far may be the launch of Google+ Games. The games platform is very similar to Facebook’s, focusing on casual social games like Bejeweled that challenge friends to beat each other’s high scores and more. Google noticeably kept games alerts from infiltrating the regular Google+ feed; rather it’s information streams are kept on a separate feed users see when playing games. While less integrated, games will still ensure that users spend more time inside Google+ and return to the network more often. They could also be a potential way for brands to offer engaging experiences to users, once the developer platform is opened to all.

But official brand accounts are still missing (for the most part)
The most notable development about Google+ so far, though, may be that Google still hasn’t made any announcements about how brands will exist on the network. Google has actually gone out of their way to remove brand pages that pop up, or work with brands to transition their pages to a representative employee. So far the only hint that brand pages are coming soon, besides Google’s continuous promise, has been the launch of the Ford Motor Company test account. Ford notes that the profile is an early test of Google+ business accounts, and is experimenting with a number of Google+ features like Hangouts. Despite the early access Ford doesn’t appear to have any special features or functionality on their page yet. However, many additions like Google Analytics and advertising integration are expected to come, and may already exist on the back-end. Google will presumably also look at adding other features like brand directories, enterprise level moderation tools, integration with Google Places and more.

One last new Google+ feature that could be related to Google’s plans for businesses is the addition of “verified name” tags. Though the certification process is unclear, Google has begun tagging profiles of some celebrities (such as actress Alyssa Milano) and media personalities with a “verified name” designation. This certification could be used in the future to make sure users know which brand profiles are official, for trust and privacy purposes.

Though Google+ is boasting some big usage numbers so far, it’s important to remember that we are still in the very early days for the fledgling network. As Google continues integrating Google+ into its other properties and release new functionality I expect both Google+ and the other products to benefit from cross-promotion and powerful social functionality. It’s also important to note, however, that the competition is not standing still. Facebook just recently announced new privacy features that replicate Google+ circle functionality, and Twitter is quickly making photo sharing a bigger part of its web product. Social media is evolving faster than ever right now, and brands need to continue to pay attention closely to developments to identify the best ways to provide value and engage with their audiences.


How Foursquare is Growing Up

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of development for two of my favorite social platforms, Twitter and Foursquare.  Both have launched or announced several features that I believe are a significant step up for the services. At their origins, and despite their expansive 3rd party developer community, both Twitter and Foursquare felt like singularly focused products that could own only a certain portion of my attention and effort.  As they continue to evolve, however, it is becoming clear how they each could continue to provide more value, generate more interest and connect people on a deeper level than before.  In this post I will cover Foursquare's recent developments, and in another I'll dive deeper into Twitter.

The biggest critique of Foursquare when I tried to convince friends to use it was that they had no interest in letting people know where they are and having any serendipitous meetings.  I could understand that, but always felt it was a shortsighted look at the value of location data.  Now foursquare is building on-top of its check-in platform in in a number of interesting ways:

  • Activity tray
    While in itself not all that interesting, Foursquare's activity tray has paved the way for a deeper social experience within the app.  Now when a friend comments on a check-in, interacts with a tip you've left somewhere, or checks in to the same place as you Foursquare alerts you in a drop-down tray in the app.  In addition, Foursquare is starting to provide interesting notifications such as a "matchmaker" like functionality, where Foursquare alerts you that a friend has added a "to-do" at a location you've been meaning to try as well, and suggests you go together.
  • In-line photos
    To generate more conversation Foursquare turned to the most popular aspect of any social network- photos.  You've been able to snap a picture at a check-in for a while, but now your friends photos show up in the main newsfeed along with the check-in info.  This makes the newsfeed view a lot more interesting to browse and incentivizes people to take more photos.
  • Lists
    Though this is only a site feature for now, users and brands can create rich categorical lists of places they recommend.  Foursquare will even recommend list topics for you based on your check-in history, suggest places to add to those lists, and provide community pictures to go along with the list.  Friends can collaborate on lists together, too.  Lists are a great way to filter your check-ins into actual top recommendations for friends, put together itineraries, and more (pro tip: see my lists of Top NYC Pizza Places and Top NYC Coffee Spots and leave me suggestions).
  • Partner recommendations
    Foursquare launched the Explore tab a few months ago to make place recommendations for you based on your check-in history.  Now the Explore tab includes nearby, relevant recommendations for you from partners such as Groupon, Living Social and more.  Leveraging Foursquare's interest graph to improve a 3rd party experience is a powerful opportunity.  This feature shows the potential value in recording 2,000 life check-ins over the last few years.
  • Event check-ins
    Now when you check-in to a movie, concert or sports game you can actually go one level deeper and check-in to the actual piece of content, such as a film.  Foursquare has partnered with media properties for these libraries, and the integration includes filling the new micro-locations with reviews and stats to help people make decisions on their activities.  This puts Foursquare in direct competition with another one of my favorite apps, GetGlue.
All of these features combined have turned Foursquare from a singular experience into a robust social platform that users can spend time interacting with friends through, regardless of whether they can actually meet them in person.  In my own experience since these features I'm definitely seeing friends engage with Foursquare content much more- including adding more photos, commenting on more check-ins, and looking at lists.  I'm also finding that the Explore tab is becoming more interesting as it starts to recommend me places to go and corresponding deals that I can buy from 3rd party sites.   

In addition to being great for users, many of these features are excellent for brands.  Photos and lists in particular make brand offerings richer and more compelling, advancing the way brands can create value despite the incongruity of them not being a traditional Foursquare users.  As a marketer, I'm excited to think about new ways to use Foursquare to create interesting engagement programs.

So what do you think- has Foursquare's new features increased your use of the platform?  Have any of them in particular stood out?  What else are you looking for Foursquare to bring to the table?


My POV on Google+

This post is my formal POV on Google+.  I encourage feedback, suggestions and comments. This isn't meant to be all of the reasons you should actually like and use Google+ (that's coming soon), or tips / tricks. It's purely a run-down and analysis for agency purposes.

After months of speculation, Google finally unveiled its secret “social” weapon in the form of Google+, a full fledged, feature-rich social network. The reveal has been anxiously anticipated, mostly due to Google’s prior failures in the social space (e.g. Google Wave, Google Buzz and Google Hotpot) and Facebook’s fearsome globe-dominating success. In just a week of beta-testing it’s become clear not only that Google+ is a serious challenge to the current kings of social media, but also that consumers are starved for a real alternative to the current offerings. Experts have been lauding it, early users have been spending hours engaging and people who weren’t invited are clamoring to get in. What follows is an overview and early analysis of Google+’s most significant features & functionality:

Unique Features
Google+ was designed to answer specific concerns about existing social products, and also to break ground on new forms of interaction. Google has extracted the best of Twitter, Facebook and smaller successes like FriendFeed, but at the same time mixed in a healthy dose of innovation. While there are many significant features included in Google+, these four may be the most significant:
This is Google’s slick method of creating lists of people to follow and/or share with. Circles allow you to publish content to specific people, and filter your view of the social stream to reduce noise. Like with Twitter, following on Google+ is asynchronous; users can allow anyone to follow them without having to follow someone back or give up control of which content they share to whom. By taking this approach, Google is allowing granular control while also aggressively going after Twitter’s domain of public broadcast and celebrity voyeurism, rather than Facebook’s private relationships. Google+’s asynchronous follow, as well as lesser features like its Spark news integration, ensure that new users can enjoy Google+ and participate regardless of whether they have any friends in the service or plan on sharing any content of their own.
Almost everything in Google+ happens in real-time, giving users a continuous feeling of community activity. Replies on content appear immediately without screen refresh. When posts start to receive new comments they pop back to the top of the feed. Also, a persistent top-bar alert notification now sits above Gmail, Google Reader and Google Docs, immediately alerting Google users when someone interacts with their content or a discussion in which they’re involved in. These three features help produce unparalleled levels of engagement by repeatedly drawing users back into the network to participate in threads, rather than allowing content to disappear into the stream. The robust conversation being generated on posts is already leading several technology influencers to announce that they’re transitioning their blogs to a Google+ stream.

Hangouts is essentially a group video chat product that makes Skype look non-social by comparison. Hangouts can be opened to the public and support up to 10 people in a room at once. The screen dynamically focuses on whoever is speaking, and as soon as someone leaves a room a new person can join. In this way Hangouts becomes a killer group social feature and has a lot of potential to be utilized creatively. Also, by launching Hangouts days before Facebook announced a Skype partnership, Google made Facebook look outdated and unimaginative for the first time.

Right from the start Google is providing tools for any Google+ users to export all of their personal data. Though a minor functionality, this commitment to personal data ownership sets a stake in the ground for Google’s philosophy as it pertains to a critical aspect of social media as compared to competing social properties. Ideally, Takeout will pressure other social networks to match Google+’s offering by giving their users more control and ownership of their own information.
In contrast to all of Google+’s innovative features, something that’s missing may be its most significant asset of all as it builds its userbase: no syndication tools to and from other services. Whereas many people connect Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin together so one status message can be shared to all networks, Google+ is designed for everyone to only contribute fresh purposeful content to the community. While this might limit some people’s usage, it also ensures that people are not just seeing a duplicate experience to their Facebook or Twitter feed, and thus have more reason to stay and engage with everything that is shared. This is one feature of Google+ that very well may change soon when Google+ gets a public API, but for now it’s having a huge impact on how people use the service.

Even with its early success, Google+ has a major uphill battle. Facebook recently reached 750 million users and is the number one social platform in most countries world-wide. Twitter has slowly become a communication channel for the masses, playing important roles in national revolutions and government elections alike. Some people are skeptical the world needs another social network, especially considering that much of Facebook’s benefit derives from the network effect of everyone having joined it. However, there are many reasons why Google+’s success is incredibly important for both users and Google alike:
Though Facebook’s focus on real identities instead of anonymous handles changed the course of Internet history for the better, the way it’s handled identity rights has been questionable. Facebook is trying to aggregate as much user information as possible, but is shaky on what users can do with their data. As Facebook Connect becomes the log-in system for sites across the web, more personal information is consolidated under one roof. There needs to be another major competitor in the personal identity space, if only to keep Facebook honest and push them to think about users.
Prior to Facebook’s ascent, all search engines had access to the public data. Point of differentiation was left to quality of ranking algorithm and ease of use. Facebook’s exclusive deal with Bing for access to much of its data has set off a distressing trend of companies choosing which search engines will have access to their users public data. Now the best search engine might not have access to the most important data, and in the end only consumers lose out. Google+, and the corresponding ‘+1’ buttons, are Google’s chance to secure its own fate as social data and social content becomes more integral to search. But more importantly, Google+ could put pressure on the social players to make their data publicly indexable for the benefit of all.
While Google+ is a product on its own, it will also become a layer on-top of Google’s other offerings. This new social layer will help many of Google+’s legacy products, which have sometimes remained runner-ups despite competitive technology, achieve new standards of success. First up is Picasa, which now has powerful social sharing and people-tagging features that make Facebook’s inferior photo product so addictive to users. Picasa’s superior photo storage and organization will likely force Facebook to improve its own offering, and also could take market share from sites like Flickr. Google+ is likely to drive similar game-changing improvements in products like Google Places (it’s Yelp competitor) and more.
Though the first iteration of Google+ is only a consumer offering, it’s likely to create or impact many brand marketing opportunities. Right from the start, clever brands have launched personal profiles and started exploring Google+ with consumers through realtime feeds and Hangout conversations. However, Google is actively deleting personal profiles created by brands, and promises significant business-centric offerings soon.

Google is expected to provide businesses unique profiles that links to other Google business offerings, including robust analytics and advertising opportunities. Limited testing of these offerings will be opened to a few select partners, including MTV and Ford. If early Google+ consumer usage is a sign, brands will need to think hard about how they provide a unique experience in Google+ that will be more conversational and community focused than any other social network before it. Google+’s newsfeed and group video chat capabilities are intentionally optimized for engagement more-so than syndication, and lack of integration with Twitter and Facebook status helps reinforce that brands will want to create original content, rather than just replicate their other hubs.

In addition to presence within Google+, the Google+ social data is likely to improve targeting options for Google’s other ad products, such as Adwords or display media. Google will soon have more information about their users, more registered profiles and more social data to enhance behavior and contextual targeting. It will also give advertisers more opportunities to connect with brands through advertising and content across multiple platforms.

While there’s a lot to be excited about with Google+, it’s important to remember the beta has only been open a few weeks. As more people are let into the service, and as Google makes optimizations and additions to the network, all of this is likely to change. However, Google+ is already proving to be a significant new offering for Google as well as social media users, consumers and brands alike. Whether or not it dethrones the current kings of social, it will absolutely improve many of Google’s products and force competitors like Facebook and Twitter to innovate quickly to bring more value to the consumer. Google+ is ultimately a major win for users of all services, and reminds us that social media as a whole is still in its infantcy. It will be very important for businesses to pay attention to and explore in the coming months.


Without an Obvious Vanity Layer, is Google +1 Doomed?

A few months ago Google kicked off an ambitious project to build a social authority graph that competes with Facebook's powerful web of 'likes'.  The project, called '+1', is essentially a button that would sit next to any web link and allow people to plus-up the value of that content.  That endorsement will appear for your friends in Google search results, and ultimately could help influence Google's search ranking overall.  The project began with +1 buttons appearing next to links on Google's search results, and starting this week the +1 buttons are now rolling out to websites to sit next to the usual collection social sharing buttons.

Google +1 is an enticing offer- your endorsement of websites could directly impact on one of the largest and most influential sites on the web.  Clearly with this potential website owners will desperately want their readers and fans to take action (anything to improve search ranking).  However, as it currently stands I'm actually fairly skeptical that Google +1 will be very popular at all.  It seems to be missing the main driving force for social endorsement- the potential for immediate return satisfaction.

Part of what makes content sharing on Facebook and Twitter so popular is because it can deliver immediate ego gratification.  On Twitter you can get @replies, ReTweets and even click counts (if you use bit.ly).  On Facebook you can get 'likes' and comments.  These all add up to an ego boost that fuels people's interest in sharing better and better content.  Not to say that it's the only reason people share- but it certainly helps fuel it.

If this is immediate gratification is so important, where is the ego boost, or vanity layer for Google +1?  The likelihood that my friends do a Google search that I might have impacted doesn't seem all that common, and even if they do, there isn't an easy way for them to thank me for the help.  And there isn't an easy way for them to see a list of sites I'm endorsing to respond to without visiting my Google Profile (which virtually no one looks at yet).  Without these critical aspects of return value from sharing, Google +1 seems like something content owners will want but content consumers won't care about.  And without that alignment on interests it doesn't seem like to succeed.

So Google, what will you do to improve the fortunes of Google +1?


50 iPhone App Recommendations for Newbies

Now that Verizon is selling iPhones, a whole bunch of my friends + coworkers have recently made the switch to iOS for the first time.  That means a lot of "what are the best apps I should download first?" questions coming in!  Now that Blippy is on the verge of getting shut down, I thought it might be helpful to write out a quick list of iPhone apps that I recommend.  For the most part I've left a quick note about each app's purpose.  Some of these might be a bit unusual, but I'm recommending them because I really like them at the moment or I think they have real potential.  Some of them also require subscriptions to other services, though I've tried to minimize that.  I've also left games off this list because they're fairly subjective and the best ones are usually reviewed heavily in the app store.  Last but not least, a lot of these have very comparable alternative options, but these are the ones I've been drawn to for one reason or another.  With that said, here's my list- what do you think? Which do you agree or disagree with?  What would you change?  What are your questions? [view the full list on the post page]


Square Hits New York City

One reason I've been jealous of San Francisco lately is because for the last year they've been able to make purchases in many business with new mobile payment startup Square.  Square is a simple credit card payment system powered by a dongle that anyone can plug in to their smart phone or iPad.  Square will send you a dongle for completely free, in exchange for taking a 2.75% cut from purchase made by the Square unit.  This is a relatively low transaction fee for the seller, and for the shopper it's a more helpful purchase experience.  After your first purchase from a Square register, the system remembers you credit card and pulls up your information automatically- including your email and cell phone, where you can receive digital receipts that include a list of the items you purchased and a map showing exactly where you bought from.  Square is so simple to set up and use that I've even got one for the rare time someone wants to pay me back for something by credit card.

Up until now I haven't seen any stores in New York City using Square (though nothing was stopping them).  But this week Square announced a brand new product and Manhattan was one of its launch markets.  The new program is called Card Case, and it's a very cool.  Now sellers can set up a product menu via Square, and shoppers can register digital credit cards  with vendors.  After a shopper has paid via the Square system once at a particular merchant with their credit card, they can link to that merchant permanently.  Then in the future you can see what the merchant is selling that day, and pay at that the store without ever pulling your credit card.  The virtual cards are kept in the new Square iPhone app in a wallet-like screen.  With this a physical store merchant can now feature sale items, manage customer loyalty and more in a completely connected relationship powered by Square.  You can see what the Card Case looks like in my pictures above.

I love the idea of Square.  I love that it shows me all of the transactions I've made at a vendor over time, and easily lets me see what they were.  I love that I get digital receipts instead of wasted paper.  Now I love that I don't even have to take my credit card out of my wallet to pay at places I go often.  And I'm really excited that my favorite coffee shop in New York City, Everyman Espresso, is one of the launch partners for Square Card Case.  Before this, Everyman didn't even take credit cards- so clearly they see value in the system for themselves, as well as customers.

Keep your eye out for Square payment options soon, and let me know what you think.


Using Storify to Capture my Social Media Community's Reaction to the News about Osama Bin Laden's Death

As is the trend with breaking news stories in the last three-to-four years, each one seems to top the next in how social media was used to cover, spread and react to the event.  Last night's news about Osama Bin Laden finally being killed began and ended on Twitter.  From a Pakastani man documenting the raid in real time, to the first unofficial news of the story being leaked well before the President addressed the nation, to four thousand tweets-per-second being published about the news, television and newspapers took a back seat to social media once again.

Another pattern of breaking news is use of new tools to help us capture and share the story each time.  Last night some news outlets harnessed a powerful new curation tool Storify to pull together people's reactions to the news in one easily consumable timeline.  Storify enables "authors" to combine original content with social media curation to tell a story through the eyes of many.  I think this is just the beginning of us all following big historical events through quickly curated Storify timelines.

Here's my own coverage of last night's news, as told through my social media community.  I've broken down into a few sections: raw reactions & discussion, an overview of how people used different social media platforms to share & celebrate the news, and some interesting longer-form blog articles about how social media played its part in spreading the news.


SS+K Launches our Foursquare Mayorshup (Mayor Mashup) on Foursquare Day

Even since before I ever arrived at SS+K, there's always been a battle for "mayor" of the office on Foursquare.  But this year, with a few more obsessive Foursquare users joining the team, what was once was a playful game has become obsessive  competition.  Now it's not enough to be mayor of SS+K, we're competing for mayor of everything- the kitchen, the cafe, the conference rooms, and various other key office spots.  It almost feels like we have to get to work earlier just to walk around the office claiming all of our territory.

About a week ago some of us were talking about how the office Foursquare competition has started to feel a lot like a game of Risk, which people clearly controlling or conquering portions of the office map.  We needed a system to keep track of who controlled what, a leader board for our office.  So that weekend I put together a rough-and-tumble version of an SS+K Foursquare Mayor Mashup, relying heavily on the use of pre-existing social plug-ins.  Here's what it looked like:

The version I hacked together helped show who was controlling which office location, but it didn't really convey the feeling of civilization-conquering competition that is taking place.  So on Thursday afternoon a few of us talked about how we could build something a little more interesting in the spirit of upcoming Foursquare Day.  And in a hurried 24 hours, with the help of our friends at Firefall Pro, we pushed out version one of the official SS+K Mayorshup (say goodbye to "mayor mashup").

We're pretty excited about our SS+K Mayorshup.  For one, it helps convey just how much we love Foursquare.  But also, this is just the beginning.  We have a lot of cool ideas for what can be done on top of the Foursquare platform.  And while you can expect a much more polished and interactive version of our Mayorshup to come soon, we hope to be launching some even more exciting things beyond our own office game of global domination as well.  In the mean time, enjoy our Mayorshup and have a great Foursquare Day!


2 New Tools for the Social Media and Cloud Lifers: Memolane and Greplin

When I left college in 2004 I took with me 3 hard drives that had over a terabyte of movies, music, documents and more.  All of the content I had created or saved was a file on one of those hard drives amongst thousands of disorganized folders.  It took Google Desktop to ultimately deliver a search product strong enough to help me find anything I wanted amidst the horde of files.

Fast forward to today, where those hard drives with thousands of files sit dusty on my shelf.  It's not because I've replaced them with files on my latest computer, it's because, for the most part, I no longer have use for files on a computer at all.  Now thanks to my obsession with social media, and my aggressive transition to everything "cloud", all of my documents are scattered across thousands of websites.  Microsoft Office and Outlook have been replaced by Google Docs and Gmail.  My photos and videos sit on Flickr and YouTube.  In fact, tens of thousands of pieces of content are scattered across way too many social sites and web applications- so much so that it's getting impossible to remember exactly where I put any single thing, let alone find it again.

Enter Memolane and Greplin, two products to save the social media and cloud computing obsessed.  Memolane and Greplin share the noble purposes of helping you rediscover the content you have spread around the web, though each focus on a different subset of content and solve it in different ways:
  • Memolane links up to all of your social networks (11 so far, and any RSS feed) and visualizes your activity in a really cool interactive timeline.  It allows you to view all of your photos, status messages, location check-ins and more organized day-by-day.  With Memolane you can do a basic search of your activity, but more impressively you can travel to any point in your social media history view a beautiful timeline and view what your experience was as told by your foursquare + Flickr + YouTube + Twitter + Facebook activity (and more) at that moment.  Memolane uses all sorts of meta data to put the timeline together, and even successfully managed to import and accurately assign photo's I'd taken in 2002 and uploaded to Flickr years later.
  • Greplin connects to the top few social networks, but focuses more on cloud computing sites like Gmail, Google Docs and Dropbox.  You can't browse your documents visually, but you can instantly search across all of your sites to find anything you need.  Greplin returns search results really fast and organizes them by message, event, people and file to help you find what you're looking for more easily.  Greplin is a freemium service, meaning some of the accounts it links to come free, but others (like Google Business Apps and Evernote) are paid additions.  Greplin isn't as sexy as Memolane, but it's incredibly powerful and useful as working in the cloud becomes more common.
While Memolane and Greplin tackle similar problems, they each focus on a different set of content and help you rediscover it in different ways.  Since I am putting more and more content online each day, I expect to use both of these services often.  Have you tried them yet? If so, what do you think?  What features do you think they need to be more helpful, or what are other services that are helping you organize your cloud life?


Three reasons why I'm so excited for Foursquare v.3 #4sq3

Last night Foursquare launched the latest version of their iPhone app, Foursquare v3.  This marks the third year in a row they're launching at SXSWi, the perfect stage for the Foursquare team to show off what they've been up to and why it's going to change everything.  This year's refresh is an awesome overhaul, and really proves how hard the Foursquare team is working to make the platform into something immersive and valuable.  Here are the top reasons why I'm so excited about the latest version of Foursquare application:

  • Powerful new personalized recommendations
    Foursquare launched a new tab in the mobile app "Explore" that houses all kinds of recommendations for you.  You can view trending places, pick a category or search for a topic in particular.  What makes this more intriguing than just about any other recommendation engine I've seen though is that every recommendation comes with "reasons why" Foursquare is suggesting this place.  It could be because your close friends keep going there, because there are a lot of new tips there, because you go to a whole bunch of places like it, or more.  I immediately trust recommendations that are transparent, even when the reason given is "this place is totally different than you're usual" (which you might just see).
  • More compelling loyalty and rewards opportunities
    Two big challenges with earlier versions of Foursquare were that deals were hard to find, and they usually only applied to the mayor.  Both of these have been fixed, and then some.  Now when you pull up nearby places you see an alert at the bottom of how many specials are close, and have the option to browse only those specials.  There are also 6 new types of specials that businesses can offer, such as deals for friends that check-in together, regular customers, 'swarm deals' and more.  This makes Foursquare even more capable as the backbone of business loyalty programs, and makes deals a lot more value to customers.
  • More interesting data and gaming metrics
    Foursquare says the gaming mechanism is entirely rebuilt, with dozens of ways to earn points in ways that will encourage you to try and do more, such as points for returning to places you used to frequent, trying a new type of food or catching up with an old friend.  You also see updates to your game ranking ranking every time you take an action, and the game is now always based on the "latest 7 days."  I'm also really excited to see personal data being brought into the application.  On your profile tab is now a section that shows your most explored categories, which you and your friends can visit to see what you are most likely an expert on.
These new features in Foursquare, along with their earlier additions of photos and commenting on check-ins, complete Foursquare's transition from novelty game to powerful platform.  A lot of people have dropped off from using Foursquare after they tried it because they didn't see the value; this is Foursquare saying they heard you.  Give it another try, spend some time exploring the features, see more of what makes mobile / geo social networking so interesting, and let me know what you think.


The Return of Appointment Television

For many years, as DVR and online streaming have taken over a big portion of television consumption, we have increasingly said goodbye to the notion of "appointment television" (watching TV shows when they originally air on broadcast). There are a few exceptions of course, mainly sports and news, but for the most part at this point the tech savvy consider television something we can consume when and where we want.

Recently, however, I am noticing myself more interested in catching the initial broadcast (the appointment) of my favorite shows. And it's not because I can't get the video elsewhere, it's because increasingly the first view is a richer, more entertaining experience. Broadcast companies and brand partners are learning how to add unique value for those who participate in the original airing of a new show/episode airing. This is great for us because we are getting options for "premium experiences" if we choose, and great for them because they get more eyeballs on their most valuable asset: the live (mostly non-skippable) broadcast. So how is this transition back to appointment television happening? Here are a few ways:

1. Rewards
Broadcast companies are partnering with the rising crop of "entertainment check-in" companies like GetGlue and Miso to provide tangible ad intangible rewards for people who watch a show while it's airing and "check-in." The rewards so far have been anything from virtual badges to discounts on show memorabilia.  Showtime, for example, not only rewards viewers with badges for popular shows like Californication, but also gives fans a chance to win free DVD's if they check-in at least 10 times during a live airing.  Even Foursquare, which typically focuses on real-world locations, is getting in on the action.  During the Super Bowl Foursquare and the NFL partnered to offer team memorabilia discounts to people who checked-in with their favorite team during the Super Bowl.

Even more interesting might be IntoNow, a newer entrant into the social TV app marketplace.  IntoNow is actually able to check-in for viewers automatically based on the video it hears being played in the background.  Their ability to recognize audio footprints isn't just a cool trick, it also helps verify that a user is really watching shows, rather than just checking in for the reward.  IntoNow jumped quickly into the partnership game, linking up with MTV for the a promotion around the premiere of Jersey Shore.

2. Access
Another way shows are enhancing the viewing experience is launching additional content available through computer or iPad that is available during the show.  One breakthrough example of this is from a surprising source: Grey's Anatomy.  The Grey's Anatomy iPad app releases interactive content in real-time while the show is airing.  The application uses Nielsen audio foot-printing to sync content with the show as it's airing. This type of second-screen experience is also starting to show up in theaters.  Best Buy developed an iPhone app for movie Despicable Me that delivered special content to users on their iPhone during the movie, again triggered by audio cues.

The 2011 Oscars also pushed the boundaries of access to additional content through their iPad app Oscars Back Stage Pass.  The Oscars app actually provided a before, during and after experience via second screen.  Before the show the app delivered special interviews and behind-the-scenes clips.  Once the Oscars started airing on TV the app enabled viewers to watch additional camera angles of the Red Carpet and from inside the awards theater.  In addition to the iPad app, Oscars host James Franco actually live-tweeted from on stage.  This gave viewers an unusual first-hand perspective right from on-stage.  Content like Twitter streams can be viewed later on, but it's most compelling during the original viewing as it happens in real-time.

3. Community
The third, and perhaps most important, way live television is becoming more compelling is the rich social media driven community that builds around the broadcast.  Increasingly television watchers are sitting in front of the TV with Twitter or Facebook loaded on another device in front of them.  As the show progresses they are taking to social networks to voice their opinion and talk about the show with other fans.  This experience is usually not even tied to the broadcast company, but shows are benefiting from this new real-time water cooler.  This live community makes shows more fun to watch when they're happening, and can generate a feeling of "missing out" when you have to watch later.  In fact, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone mentioned in a recent interview that Twitter is driving "let's watch it when it's on" behavior.

In addition to fans taking to the Internet themselves, some shows are beginning to experiment with leading the community conversation by having cast members live-tweet during the airing of new episodes.  Fox show Fringe, for example, announces on their website which cast members will be tweeting during the next episode.  Always Sunny in Philadelphia, on the other hand, doesn't have cast members tweeting but does host the real-time social conversation right on their own show community page during new episodes.

It's a surprising turnaround in a time when disaggregation and on-demand are transforming media, but 2011 just might be the return to appointment television.  Incentivized by rewards, access and community viewers are starting to prioritize watching the original real-time broadcast for a better viewing experience.  This trend is not only benefiting shows and fans, it also means big returns for brands.  For one, live-viewing helps ensure viewership of commercial spots.  What I hope to see, however, is smart brands finding ways to join relevant conversations and provide additive content as participants in the viewership experience.  This could lead to a stronger, more valuable relationship with audiences down the line.

For additional thoughts on this topic, check out Ford's Social Media Director Scott Monty, who published a similar article about "Must See Twitter" while I was drafting this.