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November 11, 2008

It's Not About the Technology, Stupid

This morning, I had the opportunity to speak on a panel with the well-traveled and well-respected Chris Heuer and Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher. The three of us, speaking to a group primarily comprised of PR and Marketing professionals looking to get a grasp on new media and emerging social tools, discussed how to better track your brand online, how to interact with prospects, and how the move toward the semantic Web, including tagging and group-derived suggestions, would pose both new opportunities and challenges.

While the conversation got technical at times, I felt the places where I connected best with the audience was when I talked to them in terms of e-mail, iTunes and spoke their language in terms of understanding how they had to answer to multiple clients, who each wanted to broadest visibility, in a time when media outlets are disappearing.

A few hours later, this afternoon, I was back on the phone talking social media to a group of PR people looking to, again, figure out just what the heck Twitter and FriendFeed are and why they would have any value to their own outreach campaigns. And I could tell, based on their responses, that to take on these new tools sounded daunting.

Frankly, we, as consumers and developers, for the most part, are not doing a very good job of explaining these tools and making them simple enough to comprehend to the average layperson, let alone adopt. In describing these services, we need to do a lot less about talking about 140 character limits, feeds and aggregation, and instead talk more about connections, sharing and community.

What we need to do is help translate these honestly geeky tools into something that makes sense to the mainstream. Instead of talking about how many people you're following, APIs and how you use TweetDeck to follow specific terms in Twitter, start by explaining that the service is essentially text messaging that gets recorded and can be sent to many people at once. As for FriendFeed, I always explain it by breaking up the service into its two pieces. The Feed captures all your activity online. The Friend lets you see what your friends are doing, find new ones and interact with each other's content. Don't talk about 40+ supported services and how you can redirect to Twitter or Facebook. Start with the basics.

At Blog World Expo this September, Chris Brogan famously teased Jesse Stay with a comment I posted to Twitter:
"Look, tech dork, software doesn't solve problems, humans solve problems."
But the mistake is an easy one, especially for people who don't have a background in PR, communications or marketing, because the technology itself can seem so exciting, and to be honest, it can at times be fun to sound more knowledgeable and "elite" above those who don't have the same understanding.

At times, I find myself clenching my teeth and wincing when I hear an engineer or elite technologist try to explain how something works. What users don't want to hear is the process of how things work, but instead what the results are, and how they can benefit. So let's be real clear - these new tools, no matter how many lines of code you have developed, have in most cases been made to offer a solution, so make the story about the user, not about you.

Help use their language and their own frames of reference to make the services less intimidating and overwhelming. Don't throw them into the deep end without a life jacket, but walk them down the steps holding their hand until they get used to the water.