Where It’s At with Location-based Apps

FourSquareWe’re at the point in the digital age where we make choices almost every day about how much personal stuff to share online.

Some struggle with this. We’re told by news media that Gen X doesn’t sweat it at all. I have several Baby Boomer pals and slightly younger friends who’re engaged in an internal wrestling match with themselves right now. They know the world has changed, and they’ve adapted to being online for work, but they can’t quite make the leap to placing life details out there – whether it’s joining Facebook or posting career history on LinkedIn.

I’ve been there myself. When I joined Twitter in 2011, I did so under a pseudonym. I considered it my “training wheel” Twitter account. And I resisted Facebook – long and hard. But I get it now. Being on Facebook, reading and interacting with messages and photos that friends have posted, and having folks respond to my posts…well, it takes using Facebook to feel comfortable with it.

Same thing all over again for location-based platforms, like Foursquare. Geolocation tools are typically apps you download to your phone and permission to <gulp!> access your exact current location.

Freaky, right? I mean, who needs a phone stalking you? Your own phone. One that you’ve allowed to stalk you.

A lot of women have said a big “No, thanks” to this kind of online interaction. When the makers of location-based apps survey potential users, the No. 1 obstacle to adoption is privacy.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Foursquare

Most of my close friends would be appalled to know I use Foursquare given my stance on privacy. Nevertheless, I’ve somehow become a Foursquare addict. How did this happen?

While I would never push anyone to use an online app or service that made them uncomfortable, here are a few thoughts from a relatively new user:

Just a Small Circle of Friends – The thing I didn’t understand about an app like Foursquare is that it’s a lot like Facebook. In other words, I have some choice about who I’m connected with and thus who sees when I check in at an event, restaurant or work. So far, I’m only sharing this information with 10 friends, far fewer than on Facebook or in my Google+ circles.

The Wider World – That said, when I check in somewhere – or score a mayorship – Foursquare does share that information more widely than my chosen friends. When I tap the Check-in tag, the app shows me how many other Foursquare users have checked in at the same location today, and I may even see their avatars (their photos and names). So, if a stranger wanted to find me, it’s not impossible. This makes it incumbent on me to be careful about the types of places I check in – always public, never at home – and to do so only when I’m comfortable sharing. It’d be highly unlikely you’d be singled out at an airport or concert check-in, where there are crowds of people. On the other hand, I get my mail at a retail mailbox service, and I never check in there.

The same is true when the app makes me “mayor” at a favorite restaurant – Foursquare shows me who I’ve ousted as mayor. Likewise, when I lose a mayorship, the app tells me who’s nabbed the office from me (and informs that person that I’m the one he or she has ousted).

On the other hand, I have control over whether I share my Foursquare check-in further afield, with social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook.

Coupons, Discounts and Freebies, Oh My – This is what really got me hooked. I checked in at the Getty Museum one sunny Saturday – my very first use of Foursquare at the Getty – and was rewarded with a first-timer’s discount at the museum store, good just for that day. The discount was tasty enough that I bought a photography book I wouldn’t have otherwise purchased. Now I wonder why more stores and restaurants aren’t offering discounts, incentives and engagement opportunities for their Foursquare fans.

Same As It Ever Was – When I access Foursquare, it zeroes in on my location and shows me a list of possibilities in the immediate area. For a creature of habit like me, this at first seemed silly, but even I tire of my habitude – hard to believe, I know – and the chance to experience an undiscovered gem of a restaurant or art gallery is more and more appealing.

It’s Got Game – Leveling up – earning points (and scoring higher than your friends) and badges and mayorships – is, yup, totally dorky. But, it’s designed to entice you to interact more often with the app, and it works. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be plotting how to win back my mayorship of Hollywood landmark Pink’s Hot Dogs now that I’m working 9-to-5 for a client and can’t pop in for lunch whenever I want.

Know Your Privacy Settings – If privacy is your utmost concern with digital assets, I highly recommend that you learn how the location-targeting function on your phone works and check to ensure your settings are where you want them each time your provider pushes a network update to your handset.

The Dating Game – Don’t use location-based apps for online dating. Unless you’re looking for a Mr. Goodbar-type encounter, there’s enough risk of people disguising their identities and their true intentions online. Many dating geolocation apps are designed to pinpoint when matches are in your immediate area. You need to vet strangers you meet online carefully and never agree to an in-person meeting without a friend or group accompanying you for safety’s sake.

For those in Los Angeles, who want to learn more about location-based apps and their use in marketing and social media, join the Social Media Club of Los Angeles on Tuesday, July 23, for an enlightening panel discussion, starting at 6:30 p.m. More information and RSVP here.

5 Things to Consider before Handing Over the Keys to Your Social Media Accounts

Keys photo by Vickie BatesIn the few short years since brands took up social media, I’ve been handed the keys to any number of social accounts, and though the organizations were very different, the thing they had in common was that there was absolutely no introduction to the goals driving engagement in these channels.

Never mind that turning over accounts to people without a discussion of goals, audiences, strategy, tactics, voice and metrics (at the very least) is like handing your car keys to a teenager without asking whether they have a driver’s license.

As Michael Brito noted in the Mashable post “10 Twitter Best Practices for Brands,” it’s important to be flexible without being too restrictive when turning over keys to anyone – employees, contractors, interns. “Planning, training, coordination and integration with social tools is imperative,” Brito emphasizes.

One of the hallmarks of social media is its speed of delivery, but that should never be confused with a speedy hand-over of your accounts.

Here are 5 tips to consider when asking someone to manage your social media accounts:

1) Why are you doing social in the first place? Do you have time? If not, is that why you’re handing over the keys? Maybe what’s needed is an examination of your channels, timing and audiences. Which are you having the most success with? Where are the crickets chirping? Perhaps you need to narrow or refocus your social media presence more than you need someone new in the driver’s seat.

2) What experience does the person have and what do their social accounts look like? Are you bringing them on board for their voice and their followers? Or do you have a strategy in mind for how they will engage with your followers?

3) Discuss the following and ask for a mini-comms plan that includes:

  • goals and how they’ll be measured
  • strategy and tactics and a timetable for implementing
  • tone of voice
  • what’s worked and what hasn’t
  • expectations around engagement
  • how you want to grow followers
  • how to manage difficult situations and crises
  • back-up, off-hours support, vacation coverage
  • anything that’s unique to your accounts and audiences

4) Cover the tools you’re using – such as Hootsuite or Buffer – and don’t assume that using one makes someone an expert on another.

5) Finally, listen to what they have to say about their own social media practices and see if adding some of these new ideas to your own accounts results in positive engagement with your audiences.

The Harlem Shake and Social Relevancy

Harlem ShakeThe Harlem Shake – oh-so-current or so over?

An intriguing debate takes place every time the Internet shakes loose a new meme. With so many social platforms available to share every newfound video, graphic or in-joke, we can quickly grow tired of ubiquity.

Right now, a Facebook group I’m a member of is debating whether to participate in a flash mob-style Harlem Shake event. The commenters are in three distinct camps:

  1. It’s so relevant
  2. It’s so over
  3. It’s so catchy, it’s re-trending

Considering this meme began Feb. 2, 2013, when, according to Wikipedia, five Australian teenagers uploaded a video of themselves dancing to the song by Baauer, it’s hard to imagine how it could be over so soon.

As I write this, a puppy version of the Harlem Shake has reached 1.8 million views on YouTube. There are penguin Shakes, baby Shakes, academia Shakes galore – all waiting to amuse you.

Hippy, Hippy Shake

The problem, it seems, among social media mavens is that they’ve spent almost a month watching their Twitter streams and Facebook newsfeeds overflowing with every Harlem Shake video uploaded to YouTube. The social maven has left Harlem Shaking far behind in search of The Next Hot Meme.

However, not every person on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Google+ is a social butterfly. The average user’s reputation doesn’t rise and fall on meme discovery. (And what is a meme? It’s a fancy word for “fad,” but since fad hasn’t trended since the hippie era – and connotes something a bit old hat besides – the social world had to come up with a new word. Wired offers this fascinating origin story for memes via the social network 4chan.)

And, frankly, what the Vasco da Gamas of social trends are overlooking is the wholehearted engagement that something like the Harlem Shake has IRL. That’s “In Real Life,” where social mavens sometimes forget to tread (and trend).

One of the reasons for the plethora of Harlem Shake vids is the sheer fun of being part of something – trend or not. It’s no accident that schools are uploading classroom videos or that companies and nonprofits are doing the same.

It’s goofy, it’s good exercise, it exudes good will – all extremely important factors for improved morale and sustained collaboration among groups during tough times. And that’s what real engagement is all about.

So, don’t worry if something is so hot it’ll singe your eyebrows. Yes, there’s a point when every meme gets overdone, but as long as folks are still sharing videos and feeling positive about themselves in the process, don’t let a few naysayers, who only want to stand on the cutting edge, dull your enthusiasm.

Go on, Shake!

Where do you stand on the Harlem Shake? Have you tried it? Or do you find it as passé as the Macarena? 

Are Social Media Disclaimers for Employees Really Necessary?

Are you as surprised as I am when you encounter “opinions my own, not my employer’s” disclaimers on social media accounts?

Many companies still ask that employees write disclaimers into their social media profiles whether the accounts belong to the employer or they’re the personal pages of the employee. Here are 5 reasons why employers need a better way to explain who’s allowed to say what on which social media accounts.

Let’s get the disclaimer out of the way: I’m not a lawyer and even the lawyers I quote here would like you to know that this post should not be considered legal advice.

1) Disclaimers don’t protect a company and may even make a company liable
Corporate legal departments don’t like risk, and social media – with its free and easy access, instantaneous publishing, and wide scope of influence – seem like major risks. What companies are concerned about, notes corporate-practice lawyer Robert McHale, author of Navigating Social Media Legal Risks, is preventing:

  • disclosure of proprietary or regulated information,
  • display of photographs that give away trade secrets or invade privacy,
  • erroneous or negative statements about the brand, the company, its leaders, and competitors, or
  • inappropriate, discriminatory or harassing comments about company employees, vendors or customers.

But a disclaimer won’t stop risky (or risqué) information and images from getting out if someone is bent on sharing or doesn’t know any better.

In this excellent post on the HR Examiner site, employment and labor law attorney Heather Bussing writes, “understand this fundamental principle – the more you control [employee accounts and employee behavior on social media], the more you will be legally responsible for everything that happens.”

In other words, it’s wiser to back off when it comes to personal Twitter feeds and Facebook or Pinterest profiles. When employers leave personal accounts to employee discretion, “then the company generally will not be liable for things said and done in employees’ personal accounts,” Bussing explains. “This is because the employees are not acting in the course of their employment, and the employer is not controlling or implicitly approving the actions of its employees” outside of work.

2) Disclaimers create their own legal risks
There are clear and established laws regarding employee rights when it comes to privacy/monitoring, being a member of a protected group, speech that discusses wages and working conditions, and whistleblowing. Disclaimers, social media policies and disciplining employees for social media activity must not conflict with these laws.

Bussing notes that having employees write disclaimers on their private accounts requires a monitoring process by the employer to ensure consistency of enforcement if employees are caught violating company policy. And monitoring or, worse, accessing an employee’s personal social account – even when that account is sometimes used for company business or promotion – “carries significant risk,” writes McHale. Under federal and state laws, employees are entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy away from work.

McHale recommends absolute clarity instead: “Companies should adopt social media policies that squarely address issues such as the distinction between personal and business social media accounts, who owns the accounts, and who is authorized to speak on [the company’s] social media sites.”

As for what employees are saying on social media sites, Bussing warns that employers risk “liability for retaliation under discrimination laws” when they discipline employees for using social media in a way that relates to a protected status, such as an “employee’s race, religion, marital status, national origin, gender, pregnancy, age, disability” and quite a few other categories, as well.

Similarly, the National Labor Relations Act “prohibits employers from disciplining employees for discussing working conditions (such as wages, benefits, and the like), regardless of whether or not the employee is a member of a labor union,” notes McHale.

Bottom line: Never assume a disclaimer or policy gives a company the right to monitor, reprimand or fire an employee over their social media activities – whether private accounts or those owned by the business.

3) Disclaimers don’t add clarity around account ownership
Does the company own an account? Does the employee? And who has dibs on followers? Disclaimers only make this kind of traffic control more confusing, and the last thing a brand or company should do is confuse the people it wants to engage.

Forget disclaimers. Personal social media profiles belong to employees. Companies need to own their social accounts, creating specific ones for each employee officially tasked with using social media on behalf of the company. Account names should be clear and include both company or brand name and the name or initials of the employee. Customer service departments use this approach to provide customized responses and track issues.

National Public Radio does the same for its anchors. They aren’t their own brands – Scott Simon, Audie Cornish – they’re @nprscottsimon and @nprAudie. This is a smart move that acknowledges the credibility the correspondents bring to NPR and vice versa. It also speaks to the very real fact that people change jobs and retire. When they do, their NPR Twitter accounts will close, and fans will choose to follow them to new accounts, follow their NPR replacements, or both.

4) Disclaimers hurt the brand
Does requiring every employee with a social media profile to include a disclaimer match your brand’s personality or your company’s mission?

“To the contrary,” Bussing says, “it just looks like the company is trying to control what gets said.”

Pre-emptively censoring employees doesn’t much impress fans and followers; it dampens any sense of transparency and honesty in company communications. It sends exactly the wrong message about your company and what it might hope to do in the social arena.

5) Disclaimers are based on fear, not strength
What are companies afraid of? Yes, companies monitor employee online activity, including the websites they visit and the emails they send. This usually gets a brief mention during orientation, when a new recruit is overwhelmed with information.

While Bussing advises against social media policies – because “if you are directing the conduct of employees in social media, the company will be liable for everything that is said” – others, like McHale and Christopher Barger, author of The Social Media Strategist, recommend comprehensive and ongoing training for employees.

Rather than a one-time, check-the-box training, Barger advocates “teaching the organization to fish,” a three-level education program that:

  • covers the legal and technical basics,
  • provides additional resources for learning and networking,
  • shares the company’s purpose for being on social media, its goals, strategies and marketing and customer service approaches,
  • offers an opportunity to participate in company social media, and
  • encourages taking what’s learned and dispersing it throughout the company.

Fear is never a good starting point for technology or the activities employees use technology for. And disclaimers don’t substitute for clear, fair policies and a solid education program to support employees in their social media practices.

Do you use a social media disclaimer? What do you think they offer companies and/or employees? Will they become more common or disappear as social media evolves?

6 Tips That Will Take Your Infographics from Chartjunk to Valuable Content

Bison from the Cave of Altamira in Spain, considered the Sistine Chapel of cave painting. Photo by Ramessos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

From saber-tooth tiger-bait to link-bait, infographics have come a long way. Here’s a guide to their invention, how to use them effectively, and how to avoid infographics that add to the “contentification” of social media rather than offering real insight.

A Brief History of Infographics

There have been infographics in one form or another from the time human beings first applied paint to cave walls. The earliest probably promoted the best hunting grounds: number of wildebeest at the watering hole, likelihood of being devoured by a saber-toothed tiger, mysterious monolith sightings…your basic caveman data.

Before there was writing, there were maps, as humans spread across the globe, traveling by land and sea. Then there were symbols signifying crops and livestock, illuminated church manuscripts, and the presentation of scientific data in graphs, histograms, bar and pie charts (which Florence Nightingale did not, as many have reported, invent).

As the 20th century got going, infographics became ubiquitous. We used them as subway maps, street signs, in the morning newspaper, on PowerPoint slides at meetings, and to attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials.

Today infographics rule the social media share-sphere. They substitute for press releases and resumes, white papers and detailed surveys – there is even an infographic about infographics.

Full of Visuals and Fury, Signifying Something or Other

People take in and learn information differently; some are more attuned to visual presentation, others find graphical information helpful for solidifying concepts they’ve read about. Richard Edelman, president and CEO of public relations firm Edelman, notes in a blog post on infographics that today’s PR person “must be as comfortable telling stories visually as we are with the written word.”

Edelman’s statement is as true for any profession as it is for PR, so it’s unfortunate that infographics have become an easy target for ridicule. But there’s no reason you need to suffer the slings and arrows of critics, if you follow some sage advice:

  • Be sure of your facts
  • Don’t distort data
  • Get a great graphic designer
  • Dive deep into details using links
  • Share rather than promote
  • Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along

Be sure of your facts – The best way to be sure of your facts is to do the research yourself, according to Tom Webster in his inspiring 2011 BlogWorld Los Angeles keynote, “Drowning in Numbers: Turning Social Media Data into Insight.”

After all, what you share in the social sphere reflects on your reputation as a reliable content provider. Unfortunately, social media is engendering what he calls “contentification” rather than insightful content, a “terrible torrent of bad data and infographics.”

Webster is vice president of Strategy for Edison Research, which handles exit polling during U.S. elections. He understands that finding the right answers requires time (and money, too, if you need to hire a benchmarking firm to gather and crunch the data).

“Data generated for the purposes of content creation is inherently incurious,” he says, “because it seeks to prove or show something, and not to learn something. Finding the real truth is a painstaking process of disconfirmation. You have a hypothesis, and you seek to prove it wrong.”

What he’s describing is the scientific method, which provides objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating and gleaning information. Yes, this takes time, when all you wanted was a clever-looking infographic to share on your blog and Twitter. But advocating for what Webster only half-jokingly calls the “Slow Data Movement” isn’t about meeting a deadline on an editorial calendar, it’s about finding “better answers,” data you can be sure is credible when it’s out in public representing you, your brand and your company.

While you’re at it, make sure you present the source of each piece of data on your infographic.

Don’t distort data – Social media already amplify the “truth effect,” notes Webster. When you see the same information retweeted and shared to Facebook and LinkedIn, it starts to feel true simply because of amplification.

Sketchy or overstated data in infographics can add a second layer of distortion.

Embellishing findings to make an infographic look more newsworthy, profound or sexy isn’t ethical, emphasizes Richard Sambrook, Edelman’s chief content officer, in that same Edelman blog. “We should engage with graphics but not exaggerate.”

Edelman’s blog goes on to quote artist and visualization expert Edward Tufte: “It is wrong to distort the data measures in order to make an editorial comment or fit a decorative scheme.”

Remember that the recipients of infographics often are journalists trained to be skeptical of taking things at face value and well-versed in asking for data and details to back up assertions. You want to be able to stand – not hide – behind the work represented in your infographic.

Get a great graphic designer – Not as simple as it sounds. “The best visualizations use comparisons to make the case, with a central graphic contrasting specific data points,” explains Edelman. “They engage an audience by using a popular metaphor…Colors are used to show data patterns and enhance understanding, not as decoration.”

You don’t need someone who knows how to draw, you want to work with a designer savvy enough to translate concepts into compelling images.

Dive deep into details using links – I’m not sure why so many infographics are static images. They’re designed to live on websites, blogs and social media, so why not capitalize on interactive capability and offer your readers links to far more detailed information – and log more page visits on your site?

What you’re aiming for, as Edelman says, is an “interactive infographic that enables readers to control and explore data that has layers of complexity.”

It’s this ability to show readers the complexity of your research that enhances your credibility. And, while you’re embedding those links, connect readers to more information about yourself, too.

Share rather than promote – When you focus solely on content churn to feed an editorial calendar, what you miss is the purpose of social media. Conversation is the goal here – and that includes listening. Self-promotion is the byproduct, not the point, of good conversation.

One of the best instigators of rousing two-way conversation is insight, with its power to grab attention, make the mind race, and challenge assumptions. This is what happens when you take the time to put real research behind an infographic; this is “turning data into insight, instead of chartjunk,” affirms Webster.

On the technical level, make sure you offer an easy way for people to share your infographic and embed it into their own blogs and websites.

Get all “CSI” on infographics before passing them along – Once you understand the difference between good research and chartjunk – and consider the fact that members of your audience distinguish these, as well – it may give you pause before hitting Retweet.

Some helpful questions to ask yourself before sharing infographics:

  • Can you verify the facts? Are you even given the option (i.e., does the presenter provide data sources)?
  • How sound is the study methodology?
  • How large is the study population?
  • How recent is the data?
  • Is this something designed to promote rather than inform?
  • How would I feel if I shared this infographic and then saw reputable sources refuting the data in the social media universe later?

Insight drawn from verified data creates valuable visual information for your infographics, enlightens the social conversation, and enhances your own reputation as a content provider worth following.

Further reading on writing about statistics and research: “Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers”

The War Over Your Child’s Social Profile

There’s been a lot of talk about revamping the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, originally passed in 1998, to reflect the realities of our social media age.

Many legislators, who voted for the law back when websites were a new thing, want to give COPPA more teeth. This includes updates to ensure social, apps, mobile and gaming platforms – and anything else developers might launch in the future – are clearly specified under its rubric. And they want to incorporate a no-tracking rule to tighten regulations around the collection of personal information from children.

On the other side of No Man’s Land are the companies that seem to define social networking. You’ll hear their concerns couched in terms like “education,” “more targeted services,” even “First Amendment rights,” but underlying the lobbying efforts to defang COPPA is one thing: Money.

Signing Up the iGeneration

With 20 million tweens in the United States wielding $40 billion in spending power, plus the ability to influence the purchases of their parents, businesses – from movie studios to record labels to clothing and toy manufacturers – want to target this demographic.

Tweens are generally pegged between 7 or 8 years old and 12 or 13. (I’m using “tweens” somewhat generally, however the social networks lobbying against COPPA have yet to define, at least publicly, an age group or limit for the under-13s they want to target.)

The tween demographic is “hyper trend-aware,” according to Jason Dorsey, chief strategy officer for The Center for Generational Kinetics, a marketing firm. And social networks, which make their money from aggregating information in social profiles and selling it to marketers, advertisers and app developers, are hyper-aware of the profits to be made from tapping into the demographic data of the iGeneration. They’re willing to spend money to make even more down the line.

Facebook has doubled its investment in lobbying this year ($650,000 in Q1 alone) and, in 2011, started a political action committee that donates to representatives on committees that oversee technology issues.

Google, the search giant and developer of Facebook competitor Google+, is also active in the halls of the House and Senate, while Microsoft, founder of Bing, has been lobbying in D.C. for years. Similar efforts are under way in state legislatures.

COPPA and the Cyberbullies

One goal of social network lobbying is to relax requirements set out in COPPA that deal with advertising and other business practices aimed at children, including the collection of information. COPPA defines a child as “an individual under the age of 13.”

The law places the burden on online services – whether they’re websites, social or gaming networks, or mobile platforms – to ensure certain safeguards are in place, including:

  • posting policies regarding the confidentiality of information collected on the site;
  • securing parental permission before gathering data from children;
  • ensuring parents have reasonable access to children’s data;
  • allowing parents to delete data; and
  • restricting the sale of data collected from children without parental consent.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg signaled his intent to take on COPPA “at some point” in a keynote at the 2011 NewSchools Summit.

“My philosophy is that for education, you need to start at a really, really young age,” Zuckerberg added.

In response to these comments, technology journalist Audrey Watters, on the Edutopia website, posed several interesting questions: “Do we need better legislation about online privacy or do we need better education (or both)? After all, it’s pretty clear that children under 13 want to be – and already are – on sites like Facebook.”

Are the Kids Alright?

Facebook and other social networks do have established processes for removing unauthorized and underage users (some 20,000 a day, according to Facebook). They guard against and quickly delete offensive content and images. And, as PC World notes, Facebook has tighter privacy controls for its teenage members:

“Users between the ages of 13 and 17 get what Facebook’s privacy policy calls a ‘slightly different experience.’ Minors do not have public search listings created for them when they sign up for Facebook, meaning their accounts cannot be found on general search engines outside of Facebook.”

But, children have a way of circumventing such controls – much like kids 40 years ago snuck in to theaters to see films they were considered too young for.

Recent research, by Consumer Reports, finds that 7.5 million children under 13 use Facebook despite being below the official age limit for creating a profile (5 million of those kids are 10 or younger).

“Kids are already doing it” isn’t a particularly strong justification for deflating COPPA. Educating children on the use of social platforms, how to protect their privacy, safeguard themselves from online predators, and ignore the constant bombardment of advertising – certainly, it’s a module that could be added to the packed curricula at grade schools and middle schools. But, we know already that the majority of time kids spend online and on Facebook doesn’t happen during school hours nor is it supervised by parents or teachers.

Facebook especially has shown time and again that it doesn’t respect the privacy of adult users, fessing up only when caught. For this, the social network is subject to a 20-year order by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, “agreeing to regular privacy audits to resolve complaints it misled users by making some data public by default without adequate notice,” reports the Wall Street Journal.

But Facebook isn’t alone. Literally as I was writing this, stories began circulating that Google would agree to a $22.5 million settlement with the FTC – reportedly the largest ever against a single company – in order to “put to rest charges that it violated iOS users’ privacy by intentionally bypassing the built-in privacy controls in Apple’s Safari Web browser so Google could track their browsing habits,” according to Digital Trends.

This is one of the reasons the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2011, a proposed amendment to COPPA, attracted strong bipartisan support.

“Facebook and Google have earned the scrutiny they’ve received,” states Marc Rotenberg, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in the May 2012 Wall Street Journal article, “Social Network Pumps Up Lobbying.” “I see privacy as an ongoing question for Facebook that is not going to be solved by lobbyists and PR experts.”

What Are We Fighting For?

Finally, the most cogent argument against efforts to weaken COPPA is that the law doesn’t ban social networks, like Facebook, from having under-13s as members.

So, what’s the deal?

It is, in fact, Facebook’s choice to impose an age limit because more controls equal less data, and the company wants to be free to collect and sell as much data as possible from its approximately 900 million users. This is Facebook’s prerogative; and Facebook members agree to this transaction with their personal data when they sign up for accounts and every time they provide status updates or click “Like.”

Parents, however, may prefer to keep safeguards in place when their children’s personal data is at stake and for sale.

What do you think about the debate over COPPA? Is it a matter of educating children about privacy and the commercial aspects of social networks? Do laws need to change as new media evolves?

Note: Specifics of COPPA in this post are drawn from Robert McHale’s excellent new book, Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business. McHale offers a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the original law and the 2000 Children’s Online Privacy Rule in his chapter on social advertising.

What Did You Mean by Clicking “Like”? Judge Rules Facebook “Like” Button Isn’t Protected Speech

In the shadow of Facebook’s IPO last month, there was a darker story: A federal judge has determined that clicking Facebook’s Like button does not constitute protected speech.

“It is the Court’s conclusion that merely ‘liking’ a Facebook page is insufficient speech to merit constitutional protection,” writes Judge Raymond A. Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

“Where courts have found that constitutional speech protections extended to Facebook posts, actual statements existed within the record,” he adds, meaning someone left a message on a Facebook wall.

The case involves six employees of the Hampton, Va., sheriff’s office, who claimed they were fired for endorsing a rival candidate of their boss, Sheriff B.J. Roberts, during his 2009 re-election campaign. A summary judgment for the sheriff was granted in Bland v. Roberts in January 2012; the judge’s rationale was released late last month.

While the plaintiffs contend that Roberts “violated their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when he fired them,” the judge ruled that simply clicking the Like button on an opposing candidate’s Facebook page is not a “clear” or “meaningful way” of speaking out and doesn’t merit First Amendment protections.

The New York Times notes that Jackson’s ruling wanders into “a murky legal area” – one that pits traditional forms of protected speech against the tools used for expression by social channels, the written word versus symbolic speech.

Yet, as Karen List, director of the Journalism program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, observes “the courts have clearly protected symbolic speech in the past, including flag burning, certain types of cross burning and obscene anti-war statements on jackets. Compared to those types of speech, hitting a Like button is very tame, as are many of the other visual expressions of opinion on social media.”

“I believe they should be protected as such,” says List, who teaches media history, law and ethics. “In addition, many scholars believe the First Amendment privileges political speech – so, symbolic speech that is political in nature, like flag burning or ‘liking’ a political candidate – should most definitely be protected.”

Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the ruling for social media users is that Judge Jackson studied relevant legal precedents, but found this particular act lacking. His decision turns on the absence of “substantive” and “meaningful” expression in clicking the Like button.

There are any number of social platforms that replace written interaction with visual or symbolic engagement, such as sharing photos via Instagram or “pinning” on Pinterest. In the rapidly evolving social media universe, it seems technology may have outpaced the judicial system’s ability to understand – or even recognize – how expression happens out there.

List offers this perspective: “Legal analysts at the time television was introduced said that courts wouldn’t know what to do with it because the founding fathers never could have envisioned it. If they thought that was true of television, it’s exponentially more true of the internet and social media.”

“Many judges, including the Supreme Court justices, are not comfortable with cameras in their own courtrooms to this day,” she continues. “And yet now they have to deal with cell phones, laptops and Twitter. They don’t understand these tools of expression in their courtrooms, and they don’t understand how they’re used generally. Judges today are faced with applying current legal precedents to new mediums, and in part because they don’t understand them, I think they often rule more conservatively than they otherwise might.”

“It will take a long time for the law to catch up – if it ever does,” List says.

What are your thoughts about the Bland v. Roberts decision? Do you think it will have implications for Facebook and social media channels? Will it change the way you use the Facebook Like?

Thor for Social Media Executive Champion?

Thor

Thor, the god of Norse mythology. “Thor’s battle with the Ettins” (1872), painting by Mårten Eskil Winge. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Read almost any social media book and you’ll quickly arrive at a certain piece of advice that’s beginning to set my teeth on edge. It’s the requirement for an Executive Champion.

Invariably, these books recommend the CEO fill the Champion role, and apparently one of the Champion’s duties is to swoop in like Thor with his hammer and smash any impasse, leaving the social media team a clear path through the rubble.

Here are five key reasons why this isn’t an effective social media strategy:

Most social media books are written by experts in social media, not the corporate world
While many of the social media strategists who’ve penned books work with corporate clients, this is not the same as navigating a corporate hierarchy from the inside. They simply don’t have the experience of maintaining effective working relationships in highly matrixed departments and across all the business units involved in supporting a strong social media program.

When you need a “decider” in a lean, fast-paced entrepreneurial company, the CEO is often the go-to guy because he’s also the person who developed the software or the idea the company was founded upon. There are few layers between the CEO and the teams engaged in key initiatives. Not so in an established corporation. The social media team operates several pay-strata below the members of the senior team, much less the CEO. And there are established processes for solving issues that involve starting with your team and seeking your immediate supervisor’s help and approval before the supervisor (not you) takes it to the next level (which won’t be the CEO’s level).

Thor needs to be capable of influencing the C-suite, but, in the long tradition of superheroes, he isn’t one of them
In his book, The Social Media Strategist, Christopher Barger, who’s led social media programs for IBM and GM, describes the Executive Champion as a corporate player who:

  • sells the “social media vision to the highest levels of business leadership” and explains “why resources allocated to it are being wisely spent;”
  • credibly takes this vision to the rest of the organization;
  • enforces “consistency among social media, marketing, and communications strategies;” and
  • provides the budget for your social media program or has the savvy to “credibly and effectively go ‘tin-cupping’ through the rest of the organization to acquire that budget.”

That’s a tall order, but inside most companies, there’s a VP with the credibility, likeability and practicality to drive agreement around each of those requirements.

You’ll be lucky to get one impasse-bashing favor from the CEO in your entire career (if that)
If you actually managed to get your issue in front of the CEO – say Legal refuses to allow spontaneous posting to social media sites without approvals or IT won’t budget for resources or bandwidth – guess what she’d tell you? “Find a way to work it out,” is what you’ll hear as she directs you to the door.

CEOs wisely understand that their role isn’t down in the weeds of day-to-day decision-making. They also know they musn’t play favorites. Running to the CEO to tattletale about your right to tweet without a three-week Legal review will only serve to make Legal irate. Likewise the IT department.

If the CEO does extend you a favor – and that’s a big, Thor-sized IF – you’ll spend the rest of your days at the company, trying to prove that you’re capable of making future decisions on your own. You’ll be forever under the hammer, and that’s a very uncomfortable – and ineffective – place to work from.

If Thor handles a disagreement for you, it will be the last time anyone supports you in the company
The real corporate world isn’t like the one portrayed in old comics, where Jimmy Olsen becomes a made guy at the Daily Planet because Superman acknowledges him after saving the world. Run to the CEO to solve an issue, and no one will trust you again. Your ideas won’t be pushed forward, work you needed done yesterday will slow to a snail’s pace, your meetings will be sparsely attended, your achievements begrudged, your failures snickered over. You’ll be the Loki of your company.

It takes a village to manage an effective social media program – not a demi-god
One reason non-corporate types put dibs on the CEO for Executive Champion is because they believe he or she has the ability to rise above the scrabbling that goes on around ownership of social media. You’ve probably seen hundreds of articles like this: Is it PR or HR? Marketing or IT? Customer Service or Advertising?

Actually, it’s all of them. As Christopher Barger notes, “territorialism” doesn’t work for social media. “The reality is,” Barger writes, “each function brings a different strength and a different weakness to social media activity. In an ideal situation, these strengths and functions are brought together as sort of a hybrid function operating together and directing the rest of the business.”

It’s the team’s job to rely on the cross-functional expertise in the room to solve problems. If they can’t – with all that brainpower at the table – then even Thor’s mighty hammer isn’t going to solve the problems in that social media program.

Debunk These 6 Myths about SEO to Optimize Your Site or Blog

Loch Ness Monster

Reconstruction of Loch Ness monster as a plesiosaur outside Museum of Nessie. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

You know why people still believe the Loch Ness monster myth? They’re convinced no one’s found Nessie because they don’t know where to look…

Rescue your content from the murky depths of search. Debunk these six myths about SEO and, whether you manage an online store, a corporate website or a personal blog, the people you want to reach will know exactly where to find you.

MYTH #1: It’s all about keywords
If you figure out the right keywords, you can outwit the competition and draw hordes of customers and fans to your site. Right?

REALITY: If we could just list popular keyword phrases on a website and attract customers, marketing would be a heck of a lot easier. But search engines have strict protocols about sites that look like keyword dumps and will remove them from search results. Keywords live inside content and in order for your content to score high with search engines, it must be helpful, relevant and timely for your audience, as well as interactive. The more your content engages audiences, the more time they’ll want to spend with you and your brands and, ultimately, the better you’ll score with search engines.

MYTH #2: Content is king
But you just said content is key.

REALITY: Content is paramount, but so is customizing that content for the crawlers used by Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and other search engines. Maybe you recently started a blog and are still getting comfortable with the WordPress or Blogger platform. Perhaps you produce content for a major corporate site. From simple to sophisticated, there are basic technical tweaks that will give your content more prominence.

Take some tips from the easy-to-read Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide and give your pages clear and accurate titles. Be strategic about filling out your site/blog metadescription, using keywords in your meta tags, headers, links, and especially when naming images, photos, videos, and downloads. Organize your site structure and content to make sure that search engines don’t overlook anything (submerge your content and it’ll drown; if it’s too many clicks away from the home page, search will rank it lower and sometimes not at all) and always enable your site for mobile users.

If you’re using Blogger, which is owned by Google, each time you post, the URL is already customized based on your title (so be SEO-savvy about your title or learn how to customize your URL). Other blog and website platforms offer URL customization. Still, you’d be amazed at the major brand websites and blogs out there whose content is rendered unsearchable by URLs that merely indicate this is Press Release #956 rather than the most reliable source of information about the launch of a new product.

The technical basics of making your website or blog SEO-savvy aren’t hard to pick up. And there are plenty of do-it-yourself options out there, from online Help forums to sites like SEOmoz and blogging guidebooks. Depending on your budget, there are also companies that specialize in conducting technical SEO audits of your websites, blogs, microsites, video channels – you name it.

MYTH #3: SEO is search
C’mon now, “search” is the very first word in Search Engine Optimization.

REALITY: That may be, but it’s not the last word. Certainly, search marketer Lee Odden, in his new book Optimize, observes that “search engines continue to represent the most popular method of finding specific information (Pew Internet 2011).” However, he adds, with the rise of social networking, search becomes only part of online engagement for customers, constituencies, key audiences, fans, and friends.

Odden describes SEO today as a more circular, or holistic, process: “For example, searchers expect not only to find what they’re looking for on a search engine, but also to interact with what they find through commenting, rating, joining, as well as buying. Purchase is just the start of social engagement with the customer.”

It’s not always enough to offer coupons on your brand’s Facebook page. What today’s consumer may need is a post with great recipes (or hair-care tips or how-to advice, depending on your product) before they’ll take advantage of your discount and share links with their friends. In turn, it’s this type of engagement and sharing of content that reinforces your site’s credibility with search engines and pushes rankings higher. And that’s the Circle of SEO.

MYTH #4: Once you’re successful, you can rest on your laurels
Sorry about that, chief!

REALITY: “Circular” doesn’t imply wash-rinse-repeat. It’s not enough that the technology (from laptop to tablet to phone to Google glasses) is changing or that search engines continually refine their algorithms to foil Black Hats or that social networks are increasing by the day.

The most effective engagement is customized to your audience’s needs and based on the unique aspects of the channel you’re using. Your keywords will change every six months or so, as will your approach when new networks, like the next Pinterest, pop up and your fans want to find your content and engage with you there.

How can you manage so much ongoing change? Yola Blake, who leads social optimization efforts as head social strategist at Get Page One in Austin, TX, recommends utilizing expertise across your organization, at all of your audience touchpoints. “Bring together your marketing, social, SEO, legal, PR, and HR teams and unify your keyword targeting effort,” she says. “Make sure that each department learns a little about SEO and incorporates it into their brand content strategy. Everyone needs to be on the same page now that search is more social and is out for your brand’s ‘story.’”

MYTH #5: SEO is all about customers
Really? You only have one audience?

REALITY: If you can research keyword usage on the Internet, why not on an intranet and optimize content and user experience to help employees meet business goals? Same thing for a microsite you’ve set up to target niche constituencies. If you’ve established a cross-functional team (like the one suggested in Myth #4), then you’ll have plenty of content customized for different audiences. The smartest aspect of this approach is that your internal content often works perfectly well externally – now you’re not just engaging, you’re maximizing your ROI on content-creation.

MYTH #6: SEO will become obsolete
This myth raises its head from beneath the dark and stormy waters every time Google improves its search algorithms, making it tougher for those who want to game the system rather than put genuine effort into engagement.

REALITY: I leave it to Social Media Club professional member Yola Blake to chase away this monster with some helpful perspective: “This is not true at all! The role of an SEO strategist will shift and change as search algorithms change and the way people use the web evolves. Part of the thrill of being a search engine marketer lies in the reality that every day is not the same in this industry. One day you may be drinking your morning coffee, wearing your Monday sweater, and BAM! An effort you’ve been working on for the past two years is completely irrelevant. Back to the drawing board. Time for a new plan!”

“Twittamentary” Documentary Premieres Online

The Twitter documentary is a film with heart. It shares the views of Twitter users who believe that community, even one that takes digital shape, can have fun, share wisdom, and offer hope, a hot meal and a safe place to sleep at night.

“Twittamentary” makes its online debut today, and its creators are enabling blog owners to share the film with readers. You can watch a free preview, learn more about the making of this film from a previous blog post via the link at the bottom of this page, or rent the movie by clicking on the image below.


Full disclosure: I receive a partner fee when you rent the doc from my blog; if you have a blog or website and would like to learn more about hosting “Twittamentary,” visit the Help to Share page on the documentary’s website.

See related post:

Twitter: The Movie? You Bet Your Hashtag
(Please note: My review of “Twittamentary” is from a Los Angeles screening of an early cut of the film, which took place in June 2011. The content and views were not influenced by the documentary partnership program.)