January 31, 2009

Vote for Your Favorite Super Bowl Ad on Twitter Using SocialToo

Watching and judging the best Super Bowl advertisements each year has become as traditional as the game itself. While the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals will be battling it out on the field for the Vince Lombardi trophy, companies and advertising agencies themselves are looking for their own big prize - tremendous visibility in front of one of the world's biggest audiences.

Tomorrow, thanks to an idea spawned by Brian Solis, carrying on a tradition run by Jeremiah Owyang last year, we will be holding a Twitter-wide survey, using SocialToo, to get the opinions of thousands of people, live, during and after the big game. (Also see: Jeremiah's post)

To participate in tomorrow's big survey, and say which Super Bowl commercial was the big one, go to: http://socialtoo.com/survey/view/1221 and vote.

You can also discuss the ads, as they happen, just by posting your thoughts to Twitter and adding the hashtag: #superbowlads. When you use that hashtag, your comment will be added below the survey on SocialToo.

The results will be tabulated after the game. Participating to help spread the word are Brian Solis, Jeremiah Owyang, Guy Kawasaki, Jesse Stay, Chris Heuer, and others.

DISCLOSURE: I am an advisor to SocialToo.

Who Does Apple Think They Are?

By Mona Nomura of Pixel Bits (FriendFeed/Twitter)

I can't believe it's barely been a month since we were crammed in stores filled with irate last-minute shoppers. If you've forgotten, close your eyes, think back to the few days before Christmas and how brutal the holiday shopping crowd and all the stores are - even the grocery stores.

Now imagine, combining the tiring experience with raining glass. What a nightmare. I would not wish that on my biggest enemy but that is what happened to a couple from Kansas.

Last December, an Apple retail store's glass doors shattered shut from strong Midwestern winds and showered glass all over two shoppers. Luckily, the couple only sustained minor cuts with no major injuries, but the fact remains: Glass. Exploded. On them. In our country where everyone and their pets are quick to yell LAWSUIT, Apple got lucky, as the couple chose not to sue.

Instead, the couple's son wrote to Steve Jobs and Ron Johnson (VP of Apple Retail) about the incident, and the only response they got was a call from Apple Claims in Seattle, to verify that Andrew's parents decided to pass on taking the company to court.

There was nothing from Ron Johnson VP of Apple retail, or his office.
There was no press release from Katie Cotton VP of PR, or her office.
Of course, there was nothing from Steve Jobs (obviously it won't be from the man himself, since he is in no condition to do so) but not even an Out of Office reply?

Below is the letter, taken from Gizmodo:
"On Sunday December 21st, my parents were shopping in the Leawood, KS Apple Retail Store. After making their purchases they found a design flaw in the elegant stores of Apple. Glass does not hold up well in Midwest winters As they were leaving the store, a gust of wind caught the front glass door, the door slammed all the way around into the front of the building and shattered all over them. After many apologetic conversations with the employees of the store, they left and my father noticed he had sustained a cut on his hand. To make it home, they had to stop at the local grocery store to get bandages. Upon coming home, my mother discovered she had also sustained cuts.

This all seemed like a lot of trouble and trauma for just adding to the number of Apple products in our family (We have the new Macbook, Macbook Air, 2 iPhones, time capsule, Apple TV, airport extreme, countless iPods, etc.).

THE END RESULT: I emailed this information to Steve Jobs himself, as well as Ron Johnson VP of Apple Retail. My family has not heard from either of them. We did however get a call from an Apple Claims representative in Seattle to make sure my parents didn't keel over on the car ride home and probably trying to find out if we were planning any litigation. My parents took the high road on this one out of respect for the company of Apple which they know I greatly admire. I am an Apple shareholder as well as the Vice-President of the Mac Users Society at my University.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Our family LOVES Apple. We have all been to Cupertino and have seen Steve in person. It's just funny that all Apple did to rectify a retail door shattering on my parents was to make sure we weren't suing. It's ironic that people who get horrible service and whine about it walk out of stores with brand new macbook pros and whatever they cry for. Yet people like my family have taken the high road because we respect companies that give 1st class service to customers and deliver innovative products.

I've Attached a Photo of the Damage to the Store. My heart goes out to all the Apple Employees who braved the cold and stayed until the store closed."
I love Apple, I do. But Apple's course of action - or lack thereof, makes me sick to my stomach. Who does Apple think they are? Have they forgotten why a company succeeds? It is the paying customers. And from the letter, it sounds like Andrew and his parents are loyal Apple customers. To not even extend a written apology from the corporate offices is completely unacceptable - especially since Andrew and his parents handled the incident with class. The least Apple could've done was offered the nice couple a free year of MobileMe, since no one wants to pay for it anyway. Completely unacceptable.

Am I overreacting? What do you think Apple should've done? Do you have any nightmare Apple customer service experiences?

Read more by Mona Nomura at Pixel Bits

Lima Sky's Crazy Frog iPhone Game Teaches You Not to Eat Bees

While there's a trend to make video games more complex, taking on special effects and twists more commonly seen in feature films on the big screen, other game developers are taking a simplified route, focusing on fun gameplay and entertaining animation that means even the video game novice can enjoy an app. Crazy Frog by Lima Sky is one of those straight-forward games that is silly, and fun, and yet hard enough that you'll be playing over and over, not just to get a high score, but because you can't believe you lost so fast.

The Crazy Frog Jumps to Get His Meal

The goal of Crazy Frog, which debuted on the iTunes store on January 29th, is simple: You're a frog, and your goal is to jump and eat the flying bugs the buzz around your head above you. But don't accidentally eat a bee - that hurts!

The Crazy Frog Dodges Bees, Eyes His Food

To control your Crazy Frog, you can use the accelerometer of the iPhone, tilting left and right to slide him along the lily pads, and when you're ready to strike, just tap the screen, at which point the frog will jump into the air. Should the frog come in contact with the bug - well, yum! You can even tilt the phone while in the air to change your trajectory and get a better angle at one of the flying vermin.

The Crazy Frog Expresses His Pleasure and Pain

The game has fifteen levels, starting with a mere two bugs to get you acquainted with the frog's antics, and then piling on a seeming unfair share of malicious bees. Try as you might to avoid the bees, but you will get stung. And sometimes, just to make things difficult, your one target might be flying just above the bee, meaning you have to catch it on your way down, tilting to and fro in the air with your frog.

If that doesn't confirm to you that the game is silly and fun enough, you should see the frog's antics and facial expressions, and hear him cry out in pain after getting stung. It's tame enough that yes, we would add it to our list of great games for kids, but there's no doubt I'll be playing it as well. You can grab it from the iTunes store for only $.99 for a limited time, before it goes to its regular price of $1.99.

January 30, 2009

With Pownce Out of Commission, Schmownce Fills the Gap

Despite Twitter's having practically owned the microblogging market for the better part of the last two years, the lesser-known Pownce had its share of loyal users, who liked the product's broader feature set, including the sharing of images and events and embedded replies. But when Pownce shut down last month, having been absorbed into Six Apart, refugees were faced with a choice - join the popular Twitter and lose functionality, or try and find Pownce clone. Though the name is silly, Schmownce, as in "Pownce Schmownce" offers the functionality of the now deceased service, and if you were a Pownce user, you can import your Pownce data by synching up your user name, or uploading a file with your history, assuming you got it downloaded in time.

I never got into Pownce, so its loss was no skin off my back, but I can see how its users could grow accustomed to doing more than Twitter's razor-thin feature set. Much like services including FriendFeed have grown their user base with a diversity of options, Schmownce shows some potential, especially when it comes to sharing messages with a small subset of your friends, with "groups", and seeing a reply stream in one place.

After being introduced to the service by Ajit D'Sa, who works for TRNSFR, the company behind Schmownce and other products, including TweetShrink, I checked out Schmownce, and found it to look like a quieter version of Twitter, but the major thing you'll note is instead of a simple "What are you doing?" prompt, you see a box with four options: "Message", "Link", "File" and "Event".

A message works like it does in Twitter. You write a note, without a 140 character limit, and send it, either to the general public, to an individual friend, or, in a new twist, to a group you may have created. Like in TweetDeck, you can select a subset of your followers and place them in a group, but unlike TweetDeck, you can actually message some of your followers, rather than the "blast all" option Twitter prefers.

A link adds a hyperlink to an external site. Adding a file, such as an image, either displays the graphic, or posts the file for follower's access. With a limit of 100 megabytes, that's fairly robust, though I didn't test it. You can also post an event, with a location and a date, though you can't pick an hour during the day, or a duration, so it's no replacement for Outlook - just a good way to let your followers know something's upcoming.

Unlike Twitter, Schmownce lets you have threaded replies, so I can reply to specific messages on any of my friends' accounts, see the total number of replies, and get e-mail notifications from said replies. Nothing tremendously Earth-shattering, but still... a potential future direction for Twitter, should it be interested.

Given the best benefits of Twitter are the vast community and its interlocking with developers on third-party services, Schmownce doesn't exactly have the Fail Whale provider shaking in its boots, but if you find these functions interesting and miss your Pownce, go check it out. As always, you can find me at: http://schmownce.com/louisgray.

Crayon Physics Deluxe Lands on the iPhone

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

It seems like genuinely new video game concepts happen infrequently at best. Usually, the industry is perfectly content to watch how a certain gameplay mechanic does in the marketplace, and if it works, diligently copy and iterate on the concept until it doesn't sell any more.

It has traditionally been the domain of the independent (or Indie) game developers, usually 1 to 3 people working intensively together, to really push the 'state of the art' in the industry. They have always been willing to try something new without the expectation of having to sell a minimum number of units in order to pay their salaries and materials costs.

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Petri Purho (Twitter) is one of those indie developers. The game play mechanic he developed is deceptively simple: Take the equivalent of a child's crayon masterpiece, figure out what sort of things might actually have mass, like a boulder, add pivot points and strings, and then apply gravity and force!

He entered his idea into the 2008 Independent Games Festival and ended up winning the grand price and $20,000 for his idea. He quickly refined his prototype into a game he could sell via his Web site and licensed the rights for the game to be ported to the iPhone.

The Game

For comparison purposes, I am going to hold up the PC version of Crayon Physics Deluxe to be the 'gold standard.' That said, let's see how it holds up.

First, it's not surprising that the unique but fairly elaborate "Mario World"-style level navigation from the PC version is absent on the iPhone. The game starts off with a pretty straightforward-looking intro screen (drawn in Crayon, of course) lets you drive right in to the game.

There are 50 levels, and you can either play them in order, stopping and resuming at any time (it remembers where you left off) or you can go directly to any of the 50 levels you want to practice on from the main menu.

When playing the first level, the first thing I noticed is that the animation did not feel as smooth and effortless as on the PC version. This game definitely gives the iPhone a workout. Once the level is completely drawn in and the game can focus on only animating the puzzle parts of the level, it seems to run a bit more smoothly.

The gameplay mechanics are almost identical to the PC version, if you play in 'tablet PC mode' (with a stylus instead of a mouse), with one big difference: in order to remove something, you double-tap on it instead of right-clicking. This actually proves to be quite a bit more frustrating as the interface seems to fight your efforts to recognize what you are double-tapping on.

Another frustration comes from the relative size of the iPhone screen and a finger. On the PC version, a stylus obscures very little of the screen, and a mouse pointer even less. However, especially with me, I have relatively large fingers and the screen is tiny. This means drawing in a relatively small detail such as a pivot point that requires precise placement is harder than it should be.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the iPhone version lets you zoom in on portions of the play field with the familiar gesture of placing two fingers on the screen and dragging them apart (or pinching to zoom out). You can also drag the viewable area around by using two fingers instead of one. Finally, 'resetting' a level to its original position is as easy as giving your iPhone a shake.

The game comes with a level editor, where you can create your own puzzle to play later. Unfortunately, the level editor doesn't seem to have any documentation, and has a lot of shortcomings. For example, drawing a section of 'ground level' is extremely difficult.. there are some little drag-able Xs that are there to identify different geographic features, but they don't seem to work reliably. Usually, any lines that are created just fall off the level immediately once the play buttin is hit. Plus, if a level is somehow miraculously playable and you save it, you can only play it on that iPhone. There isn't any way to export or share the level with someone else.

The translation of the experience over to the small screen is surprisingly complete; I still get the same rush and feeling of satisfaction when I manage to get the ball to touch the strategically-placed star (the winning condition for each level). However, a host of problems plague the release as well. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, the game is currently listed for $4.99 on the iTunes Store.

Even at that price, I would have difficulty recommending the game until the developer manages to address some of the issues I've covered here, such as the generally laggy feeling and the useless level editor. On the other hand, the PC version at $19.95 is definitely worth it.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.

January 29, 2009

Admiring Companies That Don't Blink

It's tempting to run with the mantra that every company must be transparent. With so many ways companies can communicate to us in real-time, we practically expect every single one to respond to our blog posts, our tweets, and our product demands. We find ourselves publicly lauding those developers who show up in our blog comments and promise change. We celebrate those companies whose founders we know on a first-name basis, and whose Twitter handle we have memorized. But there's also a part of us that finds the silence from companies in the tech space who choose not to be as transparent alluring, as it both adds to the mystery in terms of what they have planned, and gives a sense of confidence on their end that they don't have to change their product to match my every whim.

Apple is one of the best examples of a company whose vast wall of silence and secrecy spawns a vast network of rumor-seekers and speculation. Once limited to the dark recesses of the Web, guessing the Cupertino company's next move has practically become an industry tradition. You won't find an official Apple Twitter account. You won't find an official Apple blog either (though the Hot News page is pretty close). And you most definitely won't find an Apple representative in the comments of users' blogs, saying what features they will or won't add to the next release.

You could say the same, on various levels for many companies. What's going on at Google? Despite their many blogs and the ever-present Matt Cutts, it's not all that transparent. Most Google employees don't blog about their at-work exploits, and product development isn't usually that give and take. Microsoft? A different animal altogether. You could argue Microsoft never really understood the Web, and is a full generation behind the true Valley, so maybe they'll get it in the next five years, but they too represent a company that doesn't exactly kowtow to its users.

There are some smaller companies in the Valley that elicit the same kind of respect, because it looks like they are more willing to focus on improving their product than they are shouting down every naysayer, or responding to critics - as tempting as it may be, no doubt. Some of that can come from the founders' previous experiences, if they have grown up in companies where the focus was more on quarterly earnings and shipping product iterations than it was on asking their customer base for product roadmap ideas.

You can see different approaches in terms of how the strong companies respond to criticism, warranted or otherwise. The bad ones will try and shout you down, posting multiple negative comments in response, and might even post on their own blog saying how you are wrong. The good ones might instead say thanks for the advice, or quietly see your input and tuck the advice away for a rainy day.

Some people think I talk too much about Twitter and FriendFeed here, which is fine, but the reason they get so much attention is because we so clearly see their potential, and we use both services a lot. Of course, with high potential comes high expectations, and I have a tendency to want to push them both further faster, whether that makes good business sense or not. You might remember how at the beginning of this month I posted a long item practically begging FriendFeed to work harder at attracting new users. I stated my concerns that too many people were finding the system hard to use. The team could have done a few things - including saying I don't know what I'm talking about, or the reverse, saying I was right and starting to do all I said right away. Instead, Paul Buchheit explained the team's long-term view. His measured, quiet response was respectful and insightful, but didn't blink. My comments and those of others didn't phase him. He and the team quietly kept working. Twitter, in light of recent criticism as to how they've interacted with the developer community, has similar gone back to work and focused on their business. And I respect that. While I'd love to wave a magic wand to push these companies around, or see how closely their plans match my ideas, their focus is to be admired.

Companies like Apple and Google, for the most part, are "above the fray", and don't seemingly need to kowtow to their users in the way that struggling startups or smaller businesses do. So long as both companies, and Microsoft for that matter, continue to push out high-quality products, and grow their business revenues and profits, playing tit for tat on the blogs and Twitter isn't necessary. And they are a special case, in that their mere silence on a topic can stir even more discussion than a clear answer could. If some of the stronger Web 2.0 companies can cross the chasm to that level, thanks to their unceasing focus, then they have made the right choice. I may pound the table for answers, but secretly like it when they don't say a word.

Twitter to Stop Accepting GIF Images as Your Avatar

By Jesse Stay of Stay N' Alive (Twitter/FriendFeed)

In a last minute e-mail from Matt Sanford, an Engineer on the API Development team at Twitter, he announced that in the next week, Twitter will stop accepting GIF images as user profile images on Twitter. The change comes after a flaw, which I pointed out earlier on LouisGray.com, that enabled users to post animated GIF images, some times in very large sizes, as their Twitter profile image.

Previously, when uploading GIF images to Twitter, it would take several tries and multiple uploads to finally get it to stick on Twitter's end. The resulting image often did not resize, leaving the image in a much larger format, allowing your profile image to stand out in search results with the other profile images on Twitter (why they don't just put a width and height limit on profile images throughout the site is beside me). Sanford states that with GIF images it is difficult to detect problems with the image, as compared with other image formats.

Users like iJustine and many others (including myself) were able to take advantage of this around Christmas, adding animated graphics (as we showed earlier), and much larger than usual profile pictures. (It should be noted that iJustine now has a normal-sized profile image)

Sanford says that users that have already uploaded GIF images as their profile avatars will get to keep them, but moving forward GIF images will not be allowed to be uploaded, both on the Twitter Web site itself and via the API. The change is expected to take place within the next week.

Read more by Jesse Stay at Stay N' Alive.

January 28, 2009

BuzzGain Launches In Beta, Enabling "Do It Yourself PR", Monitoring

Just yesterday morning, we were talking about the friction that can arise between bloggers and Public Relations teams, who in theory should be working together, but often find themselves battling, largely due to a lack of understanding of one's goals, or even if they have the right targets. Today, BuzzGain, a small startup I've been helping to advise since March of 2008, is opening up in beta, with a goal of helping companies' service, communications and product teams work with bloggers and social media in a better way - through improved monitoring and outreach tools.

Most companies these days are waking up to the fact that they are going to have a hard time controlling their message and brand reputation online, with so many voices out there watching and reporting on their every move. Be they competitors, customers or partners, people are talking about you online, on blogs, on Twitter, on FriendFeed, YouTube, Flickr and other sites. BuzzGain is looking to start out by offering a set of robust social media monitoring tools, but also help companies get to the next level, and better understand who has influence, and where conversations are taking place, so they can better listen and learn from those who can offer beneficial relationships.

BuzzGain Shows Blogs Relevant to Your Company

In the ten months I have worked with Mukund Mohan and watched the site grow, it has taken tremendous evolutionary steps forward, growing its data base, and making it easier for corporate or PR teams to run campaigns that follow keywords. With time, it could be that BuzzGain would be operated by PR teams in the way Salesforce.com is run by Sales teams in a wide range of industries. And like Salesforce.com, BuzzGain launches with a real revenue strategy, pricing at $99 a month for companies below $100 million in revenue, and rising to $500 a month to those up to $1 billion in revenue, and $1,000 a month for $1 billion+ companies.

BuzzGain Can Rank Influencers By Authority, Frequency

BuzzGain doesn't operate in isolation. Its data is pulled from popular Web sources, including Technorati, which helps determine sites' influence in terms of external link activity, and Compete.com for estimated traffic. Essentially, as a PR person, if you wanted to find out who the authority was for your company or a set of keywords, you could learn through BuzzGain who mentions those topics most frequently, see how often they do, and whether they reach 500 readers or 500,000.

BuzzGain Can Show Details On Specific Sources

Given the site is in very early beta, there is some work still left to be done when it comes to optimizing the user experience and speeding up time for queries and results, and continued efforts to remove duplication of data, but BuzzGain has developed a one-stop tool for agencies and corporate marketers to get, in a single glance, a barometer for what is happening to their brand on the Web. Mukund and the team call it "Do-It-Yourself PR". The site is currently tracking 150 million different sources of influence, and helps to make some sense of the noise.

You can sign up for the private beta on their Web site, or let me know if you're interested. I just might have some invites and have hopes that these humble beginnings will be the start of something very interesting in the world of PR and brand monitoring.

DISCLOSURE: I am an advisor to BuzzGain.

The Time is Right to Kill Google (If They Don’t Kill Themselves First)

Guest Post By Matt Dickman of Techno//Marketer (FriendFeed/Twitter)

In your opinion, what is Google’s differentiator as a company? Can you remember when you switched from Yahoo! to the new, fresh upstart Google? For me, it was seamless. One day I woke up and was just using it. I do, however, remember why I started using it. Google put users at the center of their business. They added value to the search experience by cleaning up the interface and presenting information in a clean, concise manner. They learned early that search was a replacement for the directory-based engine that Yahoo (still) hangs on to, not a supplement.

For the past two years I have written a blog post about the ways that Google attaches itself to my life on a daily basis (here is last year’s version). I’ve welcomed this life-integration with the company because I felt they were adding value. They weren’t doing any evil.

Lately, however I’ve felt a disturbance in the force. I still use all of the same Google products that I mentioned in the post, but something had changed. The company that innovated search by focusing on the user has lost its focus on the user. Here are two examples that you may, or may not, have noticed and I welcome your feedback.

First, Friend Connect. *sigh* This really was my tipping point with Google. (You’ll notice there are common threads between this example and the next one.) Back in mid-December I came across a blog post on this new Google platform extension. On the surface, I liked the idea. Everyone with a Google profile (most of us) could join the site and engage with each other through what Google calls “social gadgets”. My plan was to add ratings at the end of each post, however I ran (and continue to run) into a problem.

The initial set up was cake. I added the community widget to the side of my blog and waited for people to join.

My initial experience with that module was poor. The invite function wouldn’t let me add new users. Actually, I just checked and it still won’t. Worse yet when I tried to invite my friends and the page gave me the error, something weird happened. All of my Gmail chat contacts disappeared. My Google reader contacts as well. Not cool. I’ve been rebuilding this over time, but some people I have been permanently severed from. To add fuel to the fire, when I try to add the social widget to the post, I get the image below where the widget should be. I have everything set up right, it just doesn’t work.

You would think that, upon launching a new platform extension, Google would be all over the support site. Not the case. From when I submitted my post to the next Google rep to answer any questions was about three weeks (and they didn’t answer my question).

Scenario #2, FeedBurner. I think the entire blogosphere has a love/hate relationship with this service. From the time Google acquired the Chicago company until now it has been a rollercoaster. FeedBurner started out with a narrow focus and they executed well. Google acquired them to extend their advertising/analytics offering. However, subscriber stats would often fluctuate wildly, dropping to zero on some days, bouncing back if you were lucky. Google always claimed that they were “working on it”, but I didn’t believe it until a while back when I saw that they were transitioning to the Google platform.

In theory, this is a good thing. More scale, more stability, more happy people. Wrong. The transition was not explained well and I saw a wave of panic slowly crushing the blogosphere. A couple of us took the plunge and made the move (I even recorded a video to help people understand the process). In the process, my subscribers dropped by half. No explanation. Hundreds of posts to the support forum and no replies from Google. My stats did bounce back, but the service’s reputation is shaky now. People use this as a key metric, companies track it and people get paid based on it. Sadly there is no alternative (yet).

Google has lost sight of the user. They have neglected us for too long, concentrating instead on advertising. I get that it is their lifeblood, but what good is an ad that nobody sees because you alienate your community. I think that a company that attacks with the right mission and focus on users could make a dent in Google’s armor. Killer customer service powered by social platforms could allow a new set of players to emerge.

I would love to get your take on this. Have you seen the same trend? What would you do if you were Google to stand up and put your foot down?

Read more by Matt Dickman at Techno//Marketer.

January 27, 2009

Trackbacks Are Still Dead. Could Tweetbacks Take Their Place?

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

The Trackback Problem

Today, as I was visiting different blogs reading the news of the day, I made a special note on how many comments each post had and if trackbacks and pingbacks were listed.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks are two of three types of linkback, defined by Wikipedia as "... a method for Web authors to obtain notifications when other authors link to one of their documents."

What I'm coming to realize is that, in terms of showing buzz around a post, trackbacks and pingbacks are dead. Worse, they just show how many spam blogs (splogs) are out there, hanging off of an RSS feed and republishing part or entire posts in order to artificially inflate their Google rank numbers.

(See Also: Did Trackbacks Die, and Who Killed Them? from July 2007)

Take this Inquisitr post, for example. If you scroll down to the bottom, you will see 6 or more trackback links, most of them with the same block of quoted text. After quick inspection, it appears all but one of these links go to blogs that are either partially or completely ripping off the Inquisitr's content.

In essence, instead of showing relative popularity and linking to further discussion, this has become an avenue that is not only exploited by spambots but flaunted right under the noses of the content creators.

One Option: Tweetbacks

As news blogs increasingly extend into social networks, they are looking for a way to register their reach on those social networks. A good example of this is Digg. One of the reasons Digg got so popular so quickly was due to it allowing blogs to display how many times a Digg user had submitted (or Dugg) the article. This provided a fine synergy between the blog and Digg, and in theory both services benefited.

However, even solutions like Digg, Mixx and Sphinn seem to be losing clout, as people turn to using Twitter instead to highlight items of interest.

With that in mind, it seems only natural for blogs to want to show how their posts have legs on Twitter. To that end, several WordPress plugins have been created that attempt to serve this need, such as TweetSuite, TweetBacks, and to a lesser extent, TwitterTools.

From these three, I would say TweetSuite is the most stylish and functional. However, TweetBacks is a solid framework and with a little skill can be integrated much more cleanly into a blog theme.

FriendFeed..Backs? FriendBacks?

FriendFeed may not be as popular or as well-known as Twitter, nor have as much reach, yet, but because of its unique ability to aggregate RSS streams and simultaneously act as a community hub, with the addition of a powerful and flexible open API, there has been a significant amount of development around it as well.

Recently, there was news that Disqus turned on two-way integration with FriendFeed (after also enabling Track- and Pingback support and more recently, Facebook Connect). However, there are already at least two other good solutions, including FriendFeed Comments WordPress plugin and FriendFeed-to-Disqus Sync, a cloud-based synchronization utility that Disqus itself wrote about here.

What's Next?

Buzz and reach are always going to be things that blogs strive for, especially blogs that employ multiple bloggers and are ad-supported. Are tweetbacks and 'friendbacks' going to keep them going indefinitely into the future? Absolutely not. Something new will appear and, if it has an API, people are going to figure out how to tie their blog to it.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.

Bloggers and PR Are Not Enemies, But Quality Efforts Are Needed

When it comes to the issue of how bloggers should work with companies' public relations teams, I sit in an interesting intersection. From 9 to 5, I help administer my company's public relations strategy, working on customer announcements, product releases and relations with media, analysts and customers. It's only part of my role, but a significant one - to help raise the company's visibility and awareness in key target publications and communities. But outside of work hours, when it comes to the blog, I often find myself solicited by companies' PR teams who are hoping their announcements will hit a sweet spot for the site and its readers. And the two roles can be very conflicting. At the office, my goal can be for many people to write about one thing. At home, often, if I think others have already covered the story, I'll skip it. But that doesn't make PR the enemy - even as I get press release submissions that I never would have requested, see people set unrealistic embargoes that are clearly broken by someone else, or watch double standards be applied.

Yesterday, Jeremy Toeman of Stage Two Consulting, and a strong blogger in his own right at LiveDigitally, asked if bloggers were simply underutilizing PR people. He, very accurately in my opinion, highlighted how many bloggers are choosing speed over correctness, not checking with PR teams to get background data, or even turning down the opportunity to speak with company representatives to gain quotes and other facts behind the standard release.

Simply stated, a good number of bloggers, many without traditional journalism training, are not taking extra effort needed to make their stories more robust, with company input. Some of that is due to a lack of experience. Some of that is due to a lack of time. Other factors may include a lack of interest, and especially, reward. What many have found, including me, is that the traditional ways bloggers measure themselves, with page views, external links and the number of comments, "likes", Diggs or what have you, are usually not impacted in a positive way through the additional work.

In my comments to Jeremy, I said I do reach out to developers behind a service, especially on longer-lead items, where the company has made a personal effort to reach out to me, instead of just seeing my name on an e-mail list. If, instead, I can tell it's practically a form e-mail, the additional effort to get background data, quotes and an interview is essentially lost, as my story will be just one of many that hit the Web at the same time - so it'd be just as useful to simply get a login to the site and start making screenshots. Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb concurred, saying there is "little incentive in terms of pageviews" to do the additional research. Robert Scoble, who does some of the most-direct reporting with videos of entrepreneurs in his work for FastCompany, said there is "not much homework being done, just a lot of repurposing press releases," adding it's not just bloggers who err this way, but many in traditional media as well.

Putting my work/PR hat on, I can see the trends as well. Just a few years ago, the best way to distribute a message was to set up a series of conference calls and analyst visits weeks ahead of a launch, and provide customer references. Now, given the dramatic reduction in media outlets, and rise in people vying for attention, it could be just as effective to send an early version of the press release out and pick a date for folks to write about it. Some will want the executive interviews and customer quotes, but not all. There are just too many stories to be written and not any more hours in the day, and as with bloggers, the media wants to be first. Provide a date, and some will post at midnight Pacific. Others will post at midnight Eastern time, meaning their story lands up to six hours before the official press release and Web site updates.

So yes, things are changing - and with change comes strife.

Not every public relations firm is an expert in dealing with bloggers. Some are waking up to the blogging phenomenon and, guessing at the influencers, are simply adding blogger e-mail addresses to their distribution lists, without taking the time needed to se what it is each blogger covers, learning their focus areas, or personalizing an angle. Others are aggressively hustling the top two to five names and ignoring the second layer - which creates stress for those pursued, and resentment for those who are ignored.

But the issue is a two-way street. Bloggers often want the respect given to traditional media, and want to be counted as journalists, but it is a select few who are leveraging the resources available - taking time to ask questions of the company and getting quotes from executives. Is it because executives aren't trusted? Is it because bloggers don't want to look biased in favor of the company, but instead, neutral? It can't possibly be because they didn't think to ask, or are lazy, or just wanted to get a post out the door before moving on to the next one, right?

On LouisGray.com, there are definitely times when we get the chance to speak to the developers of a service to gain quotes and their take on the news. You saw that with the launches of Plinky and PeopleBrowsr, Scrapplet, Gnip, Glue and many others. You've also seen launches of new products where we've been trading e-mails with the companies for weeks or months, like with Feedly, Toluu and Socialmedian. But we don't do this every time. Sometimes, it's because we never got the chance. Other times, it's because all we got was a press release and a launch date, and not being overly impressed with the product, it didn't seem worth the effort.

For me, much of the traditional public relations activity, owned by a PR firm, is being done by the founders of the companies I talk to themselves. Instead of asking a PR person for help, I'm going straight to Jason Goldberg or Bret Taylor, Caleb Elston or Alex Iskold. The traditional PR function of shaping a message, choosing targets and scheduling interviews is often done solo - but the rules still apply. Bloggers want to get a unique story, and companies want to reach as many people as possible - so yes, there is a conflict.

The solution is for bloggers to understand the goals of the PR firm and company, and for PR firms and companies to understand the goals of the blogger. It would behoove PR firms to learn how to reach out to bloggers as individuals and tailor a message, even if it is a simple feature enhancement or milestone. It would behoove bloggers to go beyond the headlines and try to really understand a product - to kick the tires, providing feedback, positive and negative. Bloggers don't like feeling like a number, and PR people don't like being ignored if they have made an executive available.

As bloggers, taking the time to speak with an executive and getting a customer example or a use case can be not only a good way to get a unique story, but also to get a personal relationship that goes well beyond a press release. Truth is - the more you know about a product, the more likely you are to end up using it yourself anyway.

As PR reps, understand many bloggers have day jobs, and they don't always have the flexibility to answer you in your 9 to 5 window, so you will need to be open for calls at 10 p.m. as much as 10 a.m. Trade e-mails with me at 1 a.m., and you've practically got a partner for life. And do your homework. It's just as important for you to know what it is that I write about as it is for us to know what it is that you do and where you used to work. The blogging community can be your best mouthpiece for getting the message out quickly, and your worst enemy, should you end up ticking them off.

There has got to be a move to quality on the blogging side. I would much rather have longer-length posts from me and the team than quick hits that get out 15 minutes before the next guy. And companies should reward bloggers who take the extra effort by highlighting the reports on their site as they do traditional media reports. But there has also got to be a move toward quality from PR firms, who in stressful times these days, are scrambling to make headway in a very tough environment. PR companies and bloggers could work together as partners to deliver their readers stories that are relevant, sourced, and robust.

Or... we could continue to ignore each other and point fingers, and from that, nobody will grow.

January 26, 2009

Missing a Conference? Find a Local Meetup Instead.

By Daniel J. Pritchett of Sharing at Work (FriendFeed/Twitter)

Which professional conferences are you planning to attend in 2009?

If your answer is none, don't worry too much because you're not alone. It's easy to feel left out when reading a sea of tweets about 2009 conference calendars: The big destination this week is the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Our own Louis Gray will soon be moderating a South by Southwest panel on content aggregation. Mark Hopkins is looking for a sponsor to send him (and a team of assistants!) to SXSW in Texas.

I won't try to tell you that these conferences aren't tremendously valuable for people in the right jobs at the right companies, but they aren't all going to make it into the budget. Of chief concern here is the fact that many social media enthusiasts aren't in marketing, purchasing, or recruiting positions. We're in jobs like programming, management, writing, tech support, and other careers. While our jobs are undeniably aided by social media it is difficult for us to defend a need for bleeding-edge updates and networking at the cost of a month's salary.

Plenty of companies took a look at their 2009 budgets and decided that conferences and other networking activities weren't going to be their top priority this year. It can be hard to justify spending $5000 or more to send one employee to a show for a week when the boss is trying to figure out how to avoid laying people off. Those conference bills add up if you start sending multiple teammates to a few conferences each year.

Fear not, there are inexpensive local events!Even though you might not have the money to make it to the national conference or tradeshow this year there are still plenty of ways for you to connect with like-minded professionals in your area. I've gathered a list of the networking events that have been the most useful for me in the last year. You might be lucky enough to have some of these in your area. If you can't find one local to you, you've got a great opportunity to start the local events you'd like to be attending!

The tweetup: as powerful as it is simple

Readers of this blog are no doubt familiar with the idea of a "tweetup". Quite simply, a tweetup is a meetup organized and/or publicized on Twitter. This can be a purely entertaining trip to a movie, a professionally-oriented dinner, or even a few Twitter users deciding at the last minute to attend an already scheduled event as a group. The most intriguing tweetup concept I've seen lately was organized by blogger/analyst Jeremiah Owyang in the Silicon Valley area. Jeremiah hosted a mixer where recent re-entrants to the labor market could meet each other as well as some local hiring managers.

My first meetup? Social Media Breakfast

The Social Media Breakfast series was started by @BryanPerson in 2007 as "an event where social media experts and newbies alike come together to eat, meet, share, and learn." I've been enjoying these here in Memphis since last August, and the event keeps growing and growing thanks to positive feedback from the blogosphere and good writeups in the local press. The breakfast format provides a great opportunity for one-on-one conversations as well as some informative presentations and round-table discussions.

What's happening lately:

Mr. Person has recently taken his SMB leadership from Boston to Austin and continues to build a great community both locally and online. Just up the road from Memphis you'll find a similar event in the Nashville Geek Breakfast series. Our own Social Media Breakfast is breaking new ground and morphing into the Social Media Expedition. This Expedition branches out from its solid base in technology and networking to include cultural appreciation and community involvement.

No, not that kind of bar

The BarCamp concept has been a driver behind the "unconference" ideal since 2005. Formed as a more inclusive alternative to Tim O'Reilly's invite-only Foo Camps, a BarCamp is usually open to all comers and features a schedule driven by the participants. You'll typically find sessions on technology, new media, business, and general web interests. Everyone who attends is asked to offer a presentation or two on topics they are interested in. Attendees vote on the day of the event to determine which sessions will be given. On top of the fluid schedule, BarCampers are encouraged to come and go from sessions as they please in order to get the most out of their time. This format has proven to be so accessible that there are now hundreds of BarCamps every year.

What has been happening lately:

BarCamp spinoffs like WordCamp and PodCamp are gathering momentum. In my area we saw the first Memphis BarCamp last November. Unconferences of all kinds should be big in 2009 as an alternative to big-budget trade shows.

Social Media Club wants to start a monthly event in your area!

The Social Media Club has been on a mission since 2006 to "help people find all the relevant communities of interest in which they want to participate". While I haven't yet had the pleasure of attending an SMC-affiliate event they have a highly visible presence on Twitter and can boast nearly 40 chapters worldwide with thousands of participants.

What other events are out there for you?

If you're hoping for a local event with a bit of a different flavor from the ones listed above, head to some popular online meeting coordination services and see what you can find in your area. Meetup and Upcoming are both solid resources for listing and locating the events you might enjoy. Meetup's "waiting for a meetup" counters are a particularly good way to see how many other people are already interested in a new meeting concept you'd like to lead. I'd like to encourage our readers to share tips and success stories in the comments below: Which local events have been most meaningful to you? What are your ideas on finding or hosting interesting events?

Master marketer and blogger Seth Godin insists throughout his latest book Tribes that you too can lead your own movement thanks to the connecting powers of the web. You may not feel like a born organizer, but once you realize that others in your area are just waiting for someone to call them or tweet them with an invitation to an exciting new session you'll see what Godin's talking about. Whether you're smarting over a shortfall in your travel budget or you just want a way to connect with your community, the time to act is now!

Image by Rob Lee

Read more by Daniel at Sharing at Work.

Twtapps: A Suite Of Five Simple And Unique Twitter Apps

By Mike Fruchter of MichaelFruchter.com (Twitter/FriendFeed)

When it comes to Twitter, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of applications built off its API. Back in November, I highlighted 15 unique and useful Twitter tools for your Twitter toolbox. Today, I ran across a company called twtapps. They develop simple, fun and useful twitter applications, and have a total of five developed. These applications do not post directly to Twitter, but instead they give you the links to share them on Twitter, Facebook, e-mail or any other social network of your choosing. This post profiles their five Twitter applications.

1) Twtcard.com

twtcard is a simple greeting card for Twitter. Simply type your message, enter your Twitter user id, and select from one of the fifty square-head graphics. After you create the card, you have the option to Tweet it, or share to Facebook. You are also given a URL for your card. Here is what one looks like.

2) Twtvite.com

twtvite allows you to create and notify your Twitter friends of an upcoming event. Create the event, enter the location, date, time and the events details, and share it/ manage RSVPs. This is an application that will come in handy. The invite updates in real time as people respond with either, yes, no or a maybe. As with the rest of these applications, you have the option to Tweet it, or share to Facebook. You can also embed it on a website.

3) Twtpoll.com

twtpoll is similar to socialtoo.com, it allows you to create a very simple survey. Simply type your survey question, fill in the choice answers, and embed/share it. Survey participants can even leave comments after they have completed it. Here is what one looks like.

4) Twtpets.com

twtpets is a twitter game for pet lovers. To play the game, enter your pet's name, upload a picture, and add a description of the image. Then your pet does battle against other Twitter user's pets. It's a one on one battle with random images displayed for your pet's competitor. Refresh the page and your pet does battle with a new victim. Tyson, my boxer, pictured below did battle with Sadie the Shih Tzu. Here is what the battle page looks like. You also get a pet scoreboard to see how good your furry friend is doing.

5) Twtwlst.com

twtwlst is a gift registry twitter app. This is an Amazon wish list for Twitter. You can create a simple wish list for whatever the occasion is, and send it to your Twitter friends. Enter the occasion for your wish list, the products you want, along with a link to where they can be purchased. Tweet it, share it, and embed it on your site. Your friends now can"t say they forgot the occasion. Here is what a live one looks like.

Read more by Mike Fruchter at MichaelFruchter.com.

January 25, 2009

Watch for the Telephone Game in Your Short Attention Span World

One of the recurring themes on this blog has been how to handle a seeming overflow of information. We've discussed creating a social media consumption workflow. I addressed a new concept I called continuous parallel attention. I said how you handle the information overload Is up to you and later said there is no social media overload and cautioned bloggers to relax, because nobody is keeping score. But we still see problems crop up when a story gets passed from person to person and details get lost. It's the modern equivalent of the popular "Telephone" game we all played as kids, where the last phrase was never close to how it started.

Take a look at an example from this weekend, after Erick Schonfeld of TechCrunch wrote a piece saying FriendFeed had seen site growth that reached almost 1 million visitors in December of 2008.

Seems straight forward enough. The data came from Comscore, which shows a higher growth rate for FriendFeed than do other services, including Quantcast and Compete.com. Compete reports 700,000 visitors or so to FriendFeed in December, by the way.

But then, Robert Scoble, a good friend, good blogger, and fellow FriendFeed user relayed the story a little differently, saying that the report said FriendFeed had surpassed a million user accounts.

Using that as the baseline, Robert stated the 26,000 or so subscribers to his feed represented one of every 39 users. (See the FriendFeed thread here) But that only exacerbated the flub. Having used the site myself for quite some time, I'd be shocked if there were more than a million registered accounts, and FFHolic estimates the number to be closer to 200,000 total accounts, one fifth of a million. This of course makes Robert's penetration even higher, as that means one of every eight users follows him, but that's not the major issue.

If you're FriendFeed, and you know your actual user count, you can't exactly issue a correction saying that you "only" have a quarter million users. And if they did announce such data, which they don't, it might seem to be a letdown now that the higher, incorrect number has been released.

The service is now becoming a destination site as users share links on Twitter, their blogs, Facebook and elsewhere, so it's no surprise that the unique visitor count is higher than the number of users. After all, if I visit from home and on my wife's laptop and the office, doesn't that count as three unique visitors?

This is but one example, and I know practically all of us have made the mistake of reading stories too quickly, or coming to conclusions and extrapolations based on only partial data. For example, Stowe Boyd wrote a great piece tonight saying I was "Wrong About Twitter Funding", but he had only seen one of the two posts, which had taken point/counterpoint positions. That's not a victim of the telephone game, but he is a busy guy, like the rest of us, and no doubt overlooked one of the items.

When we're reacting to other items, or relaying them, we should be careful that we're not making new stories based on data that's not true. We're all going fast, and maybe reading a ton of RSS feeds, seeing thousands of Twitter updates, and rushing in an effort to post quickly. But there's something to be said for watching for the telephone game.

There's No Way Twitter Is Worth $250 Million Today

See Also: Twitter Is Worth A Lot More Than $250 Million

In the Web 2.0 space, it would be extremely difficult to find a more-successful, faster-growing service than Twitter, who has carved out a significant niche for itself in the microupdates space, as people from around the world tell you what they're doing, right now, even if you didn't ask. The service has an estimated 6 million active users, and recently surpassed the 1 billion "Tweet" mark, if you count all updates. But the company hasn't yet made a buck in traditional revenues. (Although I can't claim to be privy to their books, and they just might have recognized something somewhere) Word comes this weekend, via TechCrunch and others, that Twitter is embarking on a new funding round that could see the company valued at $250 million. And while I already made the case that Twitter will get its funding, and could end up being worth a lot more than that number in short order, it is pretty easy to also poke holes in that analysis.

Quite simply, now is a very difficult time to attain a high valuation. Venture funding is dropping dramatically, and positive exits for companies are rare. Practically nobody is talking about going public, so to make money, you would have to do it the old fashioned way, through profits. And Twitter has grown its user base rapidly, but has done so on the backs of users who are used to getting something for nothing. We've already seen users revolt when Magpie launched with the possibility of inserting ads in one's tweets, and you could expect to see the user base shudder when being asked to shoulder any of the revenue themselves - so you can practically forget about monthly fees. Given that scenario, site ads and ads inserted in third party applications, like TweetDeck, would have to be one option, but an unattractive one, as the ad market itself is tailing downward.

Additionally, what Twitter does is incredibly basic. It's sole functionality is one that it is easily replicated. You can provide status updates on Facebook, on GMail, on FriendFeed, and the whole process rolls back to AOL instant Messenger, when you would set an "Away" status to say you were "At Lunch" or "In a Meeting". So that's not hard.

A recent post by Paul Buchheit of FriendFeed, called Communicating with Code, showcased a prototype offering of FriendFeed that borrowed heavily from the look and feel of Twitter. Given FriendFeed updates include those from Twitter, and then build on with additional services, it can be considered a superset, while Twitter is simply one service of many. So the barrier to entry to compete with Twitter is not that hard, leaving the company's major assets as the community and its developers.

But communities are incredibly fickle. None of Twitter's six million users were using the service five years ago, and maybe, five years from now, they will be doing something else. If people use Twitter for conversation, they can replace that with e-mail, with IM, with FriendFeed, Facebook or other social destinations. I've talked about the five stages of being an early adopter before. One of the final stages is when you grow tired of an environment, and leave, begging your followers to come along. It happens with news groups. It happens with e-mail lists, and it just might happen with social networking tools, including Facebook, FriendFeed, Twitter and others.

Today, Twitter is among the hottest, fastest-growing brands out there. But no matter how you multiply its current revenue to try and guess at a market capitalization, the answer is still zero. At a time when real brick and mortar businesses are seeing their own valuations decimated, how can a virtual company with a free user base and a low barrier to competition expect to be valued so richly? Whoever does invest should exercise extreme caution.

Twitter Is Worth A Lot More Than $250 Million

See Also: There's No Way Twitter Is Worth $250 Million Today

Michael Arrington of TechCrunch led the weekend news cycle Saturday evening after revealing Twitter is in the middle of a funding round that could see the still pre-revenue company valued a cool quarter-billion dollars. Not only do I believe the company will end up getting the money they are looking for, but whatever investors choose to pony up could eventually be seen as having gotten a bargain - because Twitter, with the increased investment, looks prepared to 'double down' and become a must-use utility in our increasingly realtime, increasingly connected, digital world.

Despite the company's many failings, be it with uptime, developer relations, or seemingly blaming its most active users for aggressive activity, Twitter has, over the space of 24 months, cemented itself in a position where it is a critical part of the way we share information, communicate with others, and in times of news and change, can learn from the firehose of tweets from all corners of the world.

Twitter's rise to prominence has been largely in part due to its simplicity. It does two things - let you send short updates to followers, and let you see updates from those you follow. The addition of many third party services, including the since-acquired search capabilities, and scads of desktop or Web tools, have only served to let people consume and distribute the data as they wish, as Tweets can be issued automatically from mobile phones broadcasting location info, sent from blogs using RSS, or from a host of updating services, including Ping.fm and FriendFeed.

Twitter, amid pressure from users and developers to add the ability to display photos and video, to extend the number of characters to beyond 140, to add threaded comments, and to find a business model - any business model - has simply continued doing what it does, even as competition has faltered. Pownce shut down altogether. Jaiku disappeared into the Google black hole. And FriendFeed dances to its own drummer, acting as a great complement for Twitter even as people occasionally say it could knock Twitter off its pedestal. Facebook's status updates are probably the closest thing to being a head to head fighter to Twitter out there today, and many simply pull their updates from Twitter to the social network, as I do.

Twitter will find a business model. It will very likely include some form of advertising, even in a tough economy for ads. It may also charge for premium options to users, and might find a way to break into the enterprise, eliminating the need for Yammer and other copies. And investing in Twitter today means you're buying into a company that already is #1, by a long shot, in its self-built market, before it has truly hit the mainstream, and among the Web 2.0 set, Twitter is the closest to do so - being featured frequently on CNN and used by prominent figures, including the new president's team as part of his social Web strategy.

And don't be fooled into thinking Twitter is just for consumers. Savvy business users are recognizing that Twitter is a vital audience to be communicated to and to listen to, for product mentions, feedback and competitive updates. Twitter is part of the noise, and you can either embrace it, or ignore it, to your own peril.

How can Twitter be worth 1/4 billion today without any revenue? Take a look at the market capitalizations of Web companies today, even after the stock market blowout. Yahoo! is worth nearly $16 billion. Google is worth more than $100 billion. And in traditional media, even the very damaged New York Times is worth more than $800 million at its current price. As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I find Twitter's search capability to be even more important than that of Google for breaking news. Given the company's incredible momentum, and inability to get knocked off its pedestal, we would be foolish to think Twitter can't continue to grow and increase its user base and offerings, and be worth more than $1 billion in very short order.

If I had cash sitting around to put into Twitter and they came knocking on my door, I would ask plenty of questions, but at the end of the day, I would be investing. This will be a deal to watch for sure.

Socialtwist's Widget Puts New Twist On Social Content Sharing

By Eric Berlin of Online Media Cultist (FriendFeed/Twitter)

When reading a blog post, it's not uncommon that you will see a "Share This!" button at the bottom that you allows you to do such things as share it with friends or to publish it on your own blog or social media profile. A new Tell-a-Friend widget, produced by SocialTwist, aims to expand on that idea by enabling distribution to such communications platforms as instant messaging services and by allowing easy selection of contacts through e-mail and social networking address books. Here's how they describe it:
Unlike other sharing utilities, Tell-a-Friend stands unique to give you a single button which enables both one-to-one personal recommendations and social broadcasting. Tell-a-Friend is the only sharing widget to support Instant Messengers (chat) and personal messages to friends on social networks. That's clearly the best of word of mouth marketing rolled in one.
The idea is that the widget is easily installable, highly customizable, supports more than 80 services, and comes packed with analytics so that you can monitor your "viral campaigns." With support for all major instant messenger services and social media services spanning from Bebo to Yardbarker, it's hard to think of a place that you can't use Tell-a-Friend to send to. And the fact that Tell-a-Friend displays as a pop-up within the Web page that you're visiting makes for a seamless and easy user experience. I also really like the tabbed interface that allows you to easily select that type of service you'd like to use to distribute the content.

It's a pretty cool and timely service as it builds upon already available services and aims to please publishers who are always eager to enable the distribution of their content. And the ability to track the metrics of that distribution is potentially important in quantifying the ever elusive notion of "influence."

So if everything about the Tell-a-Friend widget makes sense and is looking good, I think the challenge will be to make it as easy as possible for publishers to understand and install. The Web site showcases a really cute and well produced explainer video:

But I was left wondering, "Where's the Tell-a-Friend widget?" I realized that I didn't know what it looked like! To be fair, a sample version of it is sitting in the middle of the homepage, but it took me some time to track it down.

And so if that leaves room for argument that I'm slow on the uptake, keep that in mind while I explain that I had some trouble getting the widget installed and running. I began by trying to install Tell-a-Friend on a Blogger site, figuring that would be the easiest way to test it out.

However, I couldn't get the widget to publish. I followed the step-by-step instructions that were provided, but could not get the widget to appear.

Even though there were several screenshots given to help me, there was no final screenshot showing the widget displayed on a "live website" so that publishers can see what the widget is supposed to look like on a published webpage. Translated, I did not see any written or visual instruction that tips the audience off that Tell-a-Friend is supposed to appear directly beneath the bottom of each article.

After trying to "hack" the Blogger template in a few different ways, I gave up and moved onto a WordPress site. That one proved to be successful, though it does take a little bit of technical knowhow to get it running: You have to download a .zip file with the widget code, FTP it to your WordPress plug-ins folder, and then go into your WP management tools to activate it.

Overall, I believe that there's a market for widgets that are truly useful to both publishers and Web site visitors, and Tell-a-Friend is certainly a part of that conversation.

Read more by Eric Berlin at Online Media Cultist