Digital Now 2009: What Will You Do on Monday?

Digital Now logoDigital Now’s annual conference last week, as always, wonderfully captured the spirit of the association community, and its love/hate affair with technology. There was no need to persuade people that social media will be the media of the future, nor of the idea that social media is the modern expression of the association’s core purpose. That’s been done.

Instead, what arose were two things: The eyewitness experience of the potential of microblogs, and a quiet determination to do social media right.

Let’s rewind a bit.

At Digital Now three years ago, social media was just beginning to leak into the association world. It was intriguing and enticing.

Two years ago, many speakers were singing the praises of blogs, online communities, Second Life, and more. The cool tools were the drug of the day.

A year ago, there was palpable disillusionment. Memorably, one guy said, “We started a social network last year, and the crickets are chirping.”

Clay ShirkyThis year, with the euphoria gone and the hangover eased, there was a new spirit – we have to get this right. Clay Shirky, the keynote speaker on the first day, said that the public doesn’t find technology useful, until it’s technically boring. It’s not about the tools, dude.

He also began the main theme of the weekend when he said that it’s much easier to start small with a good system, and let it grow, than to start with a bad system and try to fix it.

That’s what theme of the weekend was: Go simple. It was repeated again, and again, and again.

For me this has always been difficult. I always want to do things with a splash. I like the idea of the big bang, the serial atta-boys, and so forth. But as I shared with about a dozen attendees at the small session I led, the big bang approach got us a few crickets, some bruises, and the possibility of many lessons learned. One observed, “Sometimes, it comes down to ego.”

He’s right. So simple it will be.

At the same time, the conference created a trap for the attendees. Twitter is the phenomenon of the year, right? This was the weekend that Oprah went into rapture with her first tweet, and singlehandedly slowed Twitter to a frustrating crawl.

Twitter was the wow technology of Digital Now. About a quarter of attendees (including me) tweeted throughout the conference, using #dn09 and #digitalnow. Reading back on the tweets, it’s like reading the transcript of a good baseball game: Long stretches of ordinariness and tedium, punctuated by spontaneous outbursts of spectacular brilliance.

As a whole, Twitter got the job done. Its power to create a community was plainly visible. But the trap is that it creates the temptation run home and recreate this for the folks at home. Wrong. OK, no technology could be simpler. But if you build it, they won’t come – not even for Twitter.

Charlene LiSo how does this become like the “air” of the association? On the final day, the soft-spoken and wise Charlene Li, the co-author of the great social media book “Groundswell,” wrapped it all up.

Her talk was a little about strategy, but mostly about implementation. As she said, this has to relate back to your corporate strategy. She said that when she works with a company, the first things she asks for is the company’s strategic plan. Without that link, social media is a waste of time.

Her four parting points:

1-    Find your revolutionaries, and cultivate the “realist/optimists;” the people who will eagerly try new things but never lose sight of the pragmatic impulse. These people will be your most effective at promoting adoption throughout the organization.
2-    Start really small.
3-    Measure the right things. She didn’t talk about visits, or links, or such. She talked about “net promoter scores,” and “lifetime value” of each of your customers. These get closer to the strategic heart of your business than any clickstream could ever do.
4-    Embrace failure, because it’s a guarantee that you will fail (whew!). Relationships are hard to do right 100% of the time. She pointed out that Walmart failed spectacularly three times before hitting the right note with its blog for merchandise buyers.

Charlene ended with a simple question: “What will you do on Monday?” This brought it all home. Pick one thing to start on Monday, and act on it. This started about 25 different small group discussions that could have lasted for an hour.

The conversation continues. One speaker, Peter Hirshberg of Technorati, reminded us of how recent this whole social media thing is. It was only five years ago that blogs dethroned CBS News. Yet today, as he demonstrated in a video, social media is the air that 12 and 13 years olds breathe. TV is so … old.

It will be like air for associations, too, and soon – if we get it right before our competitors do.


Nice Job, Facebook

Photo by World Economic Forum, via flickrIt looks like Facebook has its groove back. Only two weeks ago, Facebook almost ruined its own good name by unilaterally changing, then revoking, a new Terms of Use.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg (photo at right) last week announced a remarkable new plan to let Facebook’s own community determine company policy. Some might say it’s lunacy, but I think it’s the only thing he could have done.

The basics are this:

  • Facebook is creating a new set of principles, and a separate new set of rights and responsibilities.
  • For one month, Facebook will invite its community to comment. This ends on March 29. The comments will be made public and summarized, too.
  • Facebook will then revise the documents based on the feedback, then open them to a vote. The vote will be public, and if 30% of the users vote, it’s binding.
  • It will create a user council of members who provide the moist insightful comments, and will invite reporters, bloggers, analysts and other pundits to be part of a first alert network for news from Facebook.

(Brian Solis does a terrific job poking through the details in his customary lucid and concise fashion.)

What’s so good about this? Facebook listened.

What worried me most about the Terms of Use kerfuffle was that Facebook seemed so tone deaf to its own special place in the world. It was behaving like an old world company, while pretending to be new and cool.

So now, with its change in direction, Facebook is practicing what it preaches in two important areas:

  • Transparency. Users’ comments are public, and Facebook says explicitly what it will and won’t do.
  • The community rules: The community determines the brand, and it will determine the company’s policy too.

People can and will disagree about some of the specific proposed principles, rights and responsibilities. That’s fine. At least now, the final product will be up to the community, not to a faceless group of manager types.

Not everyone would have the guts to admit their mistake so graciously, and make such a dramatic about-face. We could all learn from what Facebook did.

The Un-RFP: A Follow-up

Photo by caseywest via flickrA few weeks ago, I discussed how the RFP (request for proposal) had run into disrepute, mostly among consultants and vendors to whom they are targeted. I also discussed how people like me need a good structure to solicit outside help, review their proposals, and make the best decision possible.

A good number of comments followed (thank you!). Definitely, I touched a nerve. I listened to what you all said, and recently issued this “un-RFP” to a number of possible consultants and agencies. I’d be grateful if you’d take a look and share your thoughts.

Currently …

  • The Massachusetts Medical Society (MMS) has lots of experience and success working with traditional media. But we also know the effectiveness of traditional media is rapidly diminishing.
  • We were one of the earliest medical societies to experiment with social media technologies, starting in March 2007. We appreciate about social media technologies can help us accomplish our goals, and we have learned a lot about how our members use social media technologies.
  • But we don’t know as much about how to implement these tools to produce specific measurable results, nor do we understand very well how to integrate these tools with traditional media. As a result, the success of these experiments has been uneven.
  • MMS plans to launch the first phase of a website upgrade in Q1 2009
    • In Phase 1, the principal enhancements will be in the site’s information architecture, visual design, search, back-end integration, and site analytics
    • In Phase 2 (Q3/Q4 2009), we will introduce agile technological tools (.NET) and upgrade our social media offerings

What we’re looking for …

  • We want someone to shorten our learning curve in social media technologies and show us how to produce results from them.
  • Our focus is in three areas:
    • Advocacy: How do we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to increase our voice and influence in the public conversations about health care policy and clinical issues?
    • Education: How can we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to improve our business results for both live and online continuing medical education programs?
    • Membership: How can we leverage social media technologies with traditional media to improve our ability to a.) strengthen our bond with existing members; and b.) grow our membership levels among practicing physicians in Massachusetts who aren’t yet members?
  • We want a partner who has produced specific measurable business results for customers and clients integrating social and traditional media. Theoreticians without a track record need not apply.

What Success Looks Like …

  • More member activity. Members will find that our social media offerings help them become better doctors and make their membership in the MMS invaluable. They will use these tools frequently, and they will become fervent MMS evangelists to their colleagues.
  • Better business results. More people will register for our live and online medical education programs. We will be more effective in our membership recruitment activities.
  • More influence. MMS physicians will have a more vital and influential voice in the critical health care policy and clinical conversations of the day.


  • Send me a description of you and your company. Tell me about the work you’ve done for yourself and others to employ social media and traditional media to produce specific measureable results. Give yourself enough space to impress us with your expertise. Provide some detail but you don’t have to go crazy.

After that …

  • We’ll review what we get, and get in touch with those who interest us the most. At that point, we will probably ask to meet and talk some more – you’ll learn about us, and we’ll learn about you, and we go from there.

If this interests you, send me your reply by end of business, Feb. 20, 2009.

Listen Up: User Research on a Shoestring

Last time, I wrote about why you need to do user-centered research for your website.

This post is about how to do it. It doesn’t require a lot of money, but it will require a lot of time. (Sorry, there’s no short cut – it will either cost you time or money.)

Interview: Get a general sense of the condition of your current site by talking informally to a few volunteer leaders, senior staff, and some members.  Ask general questions about their experience of the site. Ask them to perform a few basic transactions or tasks on the site and watch what happens.

Study: If your site logs are any good, study them. Look for trends in visitors and the time they spend on the site. What are the top 20 or 30 content pages? What transactions are being used most often? What are the most common inbound search terms? Are there any patterns to the error messages? This is hard data that will ground you in reality.

Prioritize: Presumably, your senior staff is already on the same page with regard to business priorities. If not, stop NOW and do that first! If so, then you need to prioritize how the site will fulfill those business priorities. For example, if your membership department is targeting young members, how will your site recruit new, younger members? If your business is using education to generate revenue, how will the site deliver knockout online courses?

You’ll end up with between one and three dozen site objectives. Have your staff put each site and business objective into one of three categories: Must have, need to have, and nice to have. Be careful; your team must be ruthless in doing this. Often, they will put everything in the top two categories in an effort to reach consensus. Bad idea. If too many things are a “must have,” your site will (continue to) be a bloody mess.

Force your team to reserve only a handful of things for “must have.” And make them put an equal number of things in the lowest priority. If you call the categories “critical,” “very important,” and “important,” no one will feel invalidated, and your staff may find it easier to do this.

Listen: Go to your members and talk to them about your site. There are dozens of ways to do this. We recruited five focus groups, segmenting them by age.

We limited committee and volunteer leaders to only 25% of the focus group members, because we want the site to be of interest beyond our core leaders. This took some work, and some time. It’s worth it. Don’t go for the usual suspects. If you do, you’ll get the answers you’ve always gotten.

We offered a $200 cash incentive for coming to the session. For medical students and practicing physicians driving for more than one hour, we paid for their mileage. This helped make our groups more diverse.
At the start of the session, they filled out a short questionnaire about how they use the Internet professionally and personally. The questionnaire had nothing to do with our site. Then we talked with each group about our site and how they use it. Some of the answers were quite humbling.

Then we did a paper exercise with them. We created two big sheets of paper with about three dozen boxes representing major content areas of the home page that we guessed they would be interested in. Some were old ideas, some new. We gave them scissors and glue sticks, and had them arrange the boxes in order of priority on another ledger size sheet of paper. The question they were answering was: What would they want on the new site?

Each session lasted about two hours. When it was all over, we compared our staff’s priorities to their priorities. Most times, we had a close match. On others, we were miles apart. Almost always, when there was a difference, we followed what the members said.

Design: Now you’re ready to draw your site map. From that, you can develop your wireframes. There’s both art and science in this. My key advice is, don’t organize your site by departments. No one knows your org chart but you, and no one cares. Organize it by your users’ goals, because that’s how users think when they go online.

Many designers go through a complex persona development exercise. These are valuable, if you know how to do them. However, most of us require outside expertise to develop them, and that requires money. If you have it, it’s worth considering. If not, thinking strictly and rigorously from the vantage point of your users’ goals will get you almost all the way there.

Test: Show your wireframes to at least a dozen members in a one-on-one setting. Ask them to accomplish at least two dozen different tasks, such as renewing their membership; learning about the association’s position on a legislative issue; taking a course; registering for a meeting; finding another member; reading a news release; finding a staff person.

At least 60% of your tasks should be successfully completed on the first click. If another 10% to 20% find it on the second click, it’s not a huge problem; it means you have a little tweaking to do.  If more than 10% to 15% of the tasks are utter failures, step back and take a look at where they failed. There’s probably a pattern in there. Go back and look at your focus group notes; you probably didn’t really listen to what they said.

Stakeholder management: I took the site map, wireframes and the usability test results to my organization’s major stakeholders. I showed them how the data proved that the material they cared about was easily found by our members, despite the new content structure. The results were clear, and no one could argue against success.

If you do this right, you will get three results. Some of your ideas will be validated. Others will be proven dead wrong. And, you will learn something absolutely new about you and your members. That’s really, really cool.

The ability to learn these new and exciting things entirely depends on you having open ears and an open mind.

And that’s doesn’t cost a single penny.

Recommended reading: The User Is Always Right, by Steve Mulder

Confront the Brutal Facts

The news from the financial world has been brutal. Even those who had felt insulated from the turmoil are worrying.

Never has Jim Collins’ Good to Great been more relevant. He said that great leaders embrace the Stockdale Paradox. It’s the ability to remain resolutely faithful that you will prevail, while at the same time confronting the brutal facts of a situation.

Admiral James Stockdale

The Stockdale Paradox derives from the life of the late Adm. James Stockdale (image at right). He was a leader of the American POWs held in Vietnam (not unlike another fellow who is in the news these days), tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment. He came home in 1973, and was a hero. In researching his book, Collins asked Stockdale who didn’t make it out. “That’s easy,” said Stockdale. “The optimists.”


Stockdale explained that the optimists would say, “We’re getting out by Christmas.” When they didn’t, they would die of a broken will and a broken heart. By contrast, Stockdale would acknowledge that getting home by Christmas wouldn’t happen – but he remained hopeful. He did come home, to inspire others, and even to run as vice president with Ross Perot in 1992 (He may have been over his head in that adventure, but it does not nullify his legacy).

The financial crisis today will be solved by those who embrace this paradox.

So could the greatest management challenges in your association. I used it this past week.

We have a web project that has been chronically running behind deadline. We met last week to look at the facts of the project, while avoiding the blame game. We concluded that this project plan, as designed, was dead. We recast our plans, without abandoning our dreams for it. We assigned resources realistically, with clear bottom line conditions. We will watch it like a hawk, and will not delude ourselves if it’s going off course. Sure – the facts were brutal, and more than a little shocking. But I’m sure we made the right choice.

Where can you apply the Stockdale Paradox?