Archive for category Book Review

My thoughts on Millennial Makeover

In Millennial Makeover, Winograd and Hais depict a true idealogical realignment.  As with the five major realignments they outline, this one stems from a big moment in history— 9/11, but only in conjunction with the technological developments that both complicate and simplify life for our generation.

Being a millennial myself, I thought it was a great read.  I agree that our generation seems more group oriented and also more focused on social impact than previous generations— but then again, maybe everyone is at this young age, before they get jaded.  I found it interesting that Winograd and Hais specifically tied these attributes to the democratic party, and the 2008 election certainly demonstrated that as young people connected to the campaign via social media and voted in droves to elect President Obama.

Like many of our readings this semester, the book emphasizes the importance of utilizing emerging technologies like social media in order to reach millennials.  As the generation most likely to embrace technology, innovative thinking and strategy is critical in order to win us over.  As campaigning, fundraising, and lobbying strategies have already been changed drastically by the ways of the millennials— is realignment the next step?  The authors sure think so.

After this month’s recent Planned Parenthood nonsense, I look forward to the future, which the authors identify as a time when “the power of social issues to drive our political debate will wane” because the electorate will be much more socially tolerant and accepting as a whole.

Of course, the book came out before the 2008 election— and it predicted correctly that the Dems would win, with Obama as their pick.  As millennials continue to vote and mature as candidates and participants of the political arena, their reach will only expand (the book points out that we’ll make up a large share of the electorate by 2016), and if the consensus effect continues to play a role in decision making, its likely that many will be on the same political page.  As a fairly liberal democrat, I would be very interested to hear what someone of the opposite perspective would think of this book— I think I’ll pass it along to my brother to see how his interpretations differ!

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What I thought of The Networked Nonprofit

I just finished reading The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kanter and Allison H. Fine.  If you haven’t read it, you probably should.

Why?

Because it’s chock full of tangible, realistic changes that organizations can make in order to move towards becoming a Networked Nonprofit.  The book defines Networked Nonprofits as “simple and transparent organizations.”  They are simple in that they stick to what they are good at and they streamline their efforts according to what works and what doesn’t.  They are transparent in that they communicate with their audiences about their intentions, plans, successes, and failures.  Best of all, they engage in two-way dialogue with their audiences– acknowledging the essential role of people in enabling social change.

One of the examples that I found most interesting was from an organization I had never heard of– the Surfrider Foundation.  The Surfrider Foundation is the essential Networked Nonprofit in that it relies on its volunteers not just to spread the word, but to ignite action.  Though I had never heard of it, 10 seconds after visiting the organization’s Twitter feed, I found that members were doing good in my community along the Potomac/Capital Crescent Trail.

Though the book focuses on streamlining nonprofits and making them adept to change in order to succeed, I found much of the contents relevant to my every day life.  At work, I focus on social marketing– helping people become aware and able to make decisions that hopefully lead to a better, healthier life.  As this book attests (page 131), “social media can be used to affect change directly.”  I certainly am a believer that social media can be used to bring messages to wider, hard-to-reach audiences, but this book reminded me that it’s not just for pushing out messages– it’s for engaging in conversation.

For example, I hadn’t given crowdsourcing too much thought, but I loved the idea that engaging people early on, in the planning stages of a project, could actually lead to a much deeper engagement (more likely to lead to actual action).  The book mentions The Humane Society’s video contest launched in response to Michael Vick’s dogfighting scandal.  Check out what it ultimately resulted in– though controversial, it was a huge conversation-starter for the organization.

The focus on microplanning and learning loops, which emphasized  tweaking things along the way based on insights gleaned, related directly to my experiment with Google AdWords, which I made a few changes to along the way to encourage success.

Compared to the other books I’ve read over the past few months (Groundswell, The Long Tail, and Engage!), this came out on top, along with Groundswell, as a favorite.  I liked that it was simple with actionable steps that real organizations could take to facilitate change.  Similarly to all of the books, Networked Nonprofit pushes organizations to interact with audiences in a new way on social networks.  In order to be successful, organizations must not just talk and not just listen, but interact. In order to make the change from a fortress (least transparent) to a transactional (some transparency) and ultimately a transparent organization, humanizing communications is crucial.

Many of the ideas relayed in the book can be applied at any organization.  Imagine using Doodle.com to schedule meetings with partners (whose Outlook calendar availability is unaccessible) rather than lobbying 10 emails over the course of a week.  Imagine engaging in casual dialogue on Twitter and encouraging others to weigh in.  Imagine  editing documents in Google Docs and having access to them 24/7 via the cloud rather than a clunky shared drive.  Sound nice?  Sounds like the future to me.

For Mad River Glen, there are many lessons to be learned in this book.  In my opinion, they’ve done a great job at staying simple and sticking to what they’re good at.  Compared to many of their competitors, they’re more of a ski mountain than a ski resort, despite that a four-season resort might help them bring in money year-round.  Though they’re retweeting actively on Twitter, they could stand to interact more– actually using the platforms to facilitate conversation.  I would love to see them use crowdsourcing to engage their audiences– for example, they could use the new Facebook questions feature to encourage fans to vote for the name of a new trail, or in the social change realm, use Facebook events and Twtvite to mobilize their audiences to take part in a post-season clean up to gather any trail accumulated over the ski season.

PS: While Googling, I came across this MSNBC post on the same topic with some great nonprofit success stories in it. Check it out!

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The Long Tail in business and beyond


The Long Tail by Chris Anderson takes a comprehensive look at how the Internet has changed the way that business works. In short, rather than selling only the “hits,” or the most popular items, the Internet allows retailers to sell a variety of less-popular items, which make up the “long tail.” Although items in the long tail sell less than the hits in the “head,” there are far more of them, and thus they can make up a significant portion of an organization’s sales. The internet has also opened up new markets that allow for the amount of items available to be essentially unlimited. For example, iTunes does not sell tangible items, and thus the cost of selling 100 items versus 1,000 items is virtually the same. In contrast, a company that sells DVDs, like Best Buy, does have to actually store the selection somewhere– the wider the selection, the more overhead cost. Some companies have even devised solutions to this problem– Amazon can print books on-demand, meaning that they never have a surplus of unsold books, and they don’t have to keep their more obscure books in stock.

The deeper into niches that consumers can dive, the deeper they will go.  There are even niches within niches, like the YouTube video below, which I recorded a few years ago at an African Dance performance at American University.  When I checked it, I was quite surprised to see that it had gained more than 12,000 views– I only uploaded it so that it was easy to share with a few select friends!

Although there are not (yet) numbers that say that expanded stock/choices means increased sales, the Internet presents an opportunity for retailers to offer a consumer a wider selection and prevent them from straying to a competitor.

Of course, this expanded selection has implications not just for businesses, but for consumers. Using the Internet, we can find items in many more ways than the static organization a physical store offers: we can sort by price, by popularity, by color, we can find a sleeping bag in both the camping and the bedding aisle.

Anderson points out that along with expanded choices, the Internet arms us with much more information about the inventory that makes up the long tail. Reviews give us firsthand insight from people already familiar with the product, algorithms tell us what other products might pique our interest, and often we can preview content by listening to 30 seconds of a song or reading the first chapter of a book.

I really enjoyed this book and found myself nodding along to much of it.  It was a bit more theoretical than Groundswell and Engage!, so I felt like there was less that directly applied to Mad River Glen.  It would probably be more applicable to a consumer product company; however, the book did make a case for Mad River Glen to expand things like special packages or options for lift tickets.  For example, they could offer afternoon-only lift tickets for late risers rather than only full-day tickets, or special Sunday tickets for New Yorkers who plan to spend the afternoon driving home but want to ski in the morning.

The ski industry is less directly affected by technological developments like the Internet than many other industries, yet the most important thing to the industry–the customers–are feeling its effects every day.  As customers’ day to day lives change, The Long Tail makes the case for the ski industry– and every other industry to change along with consumer habits.  If a company can do what Anderson defines as two imperatives to creating a thriving Long Tail business, they can succeed:

1) Make everything available.

2)Help me find it.

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Online and offline integration: there is no baseline

In a world where “there is no baseline,” Year One of Organizing for America tries to provide an aerial view of the activities of the group that formed out of the coalition that mobilized and elected President Obama.

The group is so large that it more or less embodies everything that a campaign can— in both the online and offline realms.  Offline, activities range from petition drives to local events and meetings, and online, activities include the extensive email list and dedicated community-building.  Communications with policy makers are encouraged both online and offline.

For the Obama campaign, digital media interaction actually did cause behavior in real life— the ultimate end-goal for most campaigns whether they aim to sell a product, encourage someone to quit smoking, watch a television show, or support an idea.  New media actual drove political action, like fundraising, event attendance, voter registration, and, ultimately, votes!  An effort as large is this is great because it shows the importance of tailored efforts.  For example, activities around health care were scaled back or increased depending on political action.

Despite the fact that it is an integral part of my job, I had never really stepped back to consider the importance of online and offline campaign integration.  The importance of this cannot be overstressed— not just for political campaigns, either.  It’s proven that the more times people see a message, the more likely they are to absorb it, and the more places a message lives, the more likely people are to see it more than once.  For example, Old Spice’s new advertising campaign is prevalent not only on YouTube, but on television, and I’ve also seen numerous Tweets and a few Facebook posts about it.

This concept was stressed at work this week as well— my employers’ Ogilvy Notes initiative gained much favorable coverage, including from Mashable, proving that sometimes the perfect compliment to something highly digital is something that’s about as old-fashioned as it gets.

In that light, Mobilizing Generation 2.0 was a very interesting compliment to the Organizing for America case study.  While there were some things I did not agree with (e.g., that young adults respond to traditional outreach such as phone calls at the same rates as older adults), on the whole it was a fantastic look at the lives of the newest voters— of which I am a part.  I could definitely relate to many parts of the book, seeing as I am among those who do not have a digital component to their lives, instead, digital is integrated into all of the things that I do.

The overarching theme of the book is that while new platforms are great ways to reach audiences, what’s crucial is the relationship building that these platforms allow, and thus participation in social networks requires research and strategies.  Knowing your audience is key— if you don’t know how they use a platform, how will you know how to reach them?  That’s where this book comes in handy— though it’s a bit out of date, it’s a great learning manual from Rock the Vote— an organization fully intrenched in the subject matter.

The book identifies Millennials as being politically involved, civically active, tech savvy, and influential— making them a group any organization would be remiss not to target.  What the book boils down to is: how can we activate this group ONLINE to mobilize them OFFLINE?  Through blogs, social networks, mobile phones, wikis, maps, and video and photo sharing: that’s how.

A few best practices from the book: authenticity is key — communicate like a person, not like a computer.  Know your audience and your influencers — influencers have their pulse on the audience, and have a wide, authentic reach. By reinforcing offline action with online support, Millennials can be driven to take action and can define a campaign.

Although there is no baseline— one thing is key.  Online relationships that can transition to offline interactions are extremely valuable, and learning to develop those types of relationships is key for the future of politicians, organizations, and corporations.

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Engage! Business + Brands + Social Media

Brian Solis’ Engage! is a great study of the current social media landscape. For those who are sold on the importance of businesses engaging on social media platforms, it takes things a step further by looking at the tenets of the business world, like customer relationship management, social media policies and standards, and vendor relationship management. Solis approaches social media keeping sociology, anthropology, and ethnography in mind.
Engage!

Similarly to Groundswell, Solis emphasizes the importance of a strategic approach to social media: just joining in order to establish a presence is not just elementary, but a recipe for disaster. He emphasizes that social media is used not just to reach out to customers, and not just to reach out to potential customers: focusing on Social Relationship Management (SRM) is what it boils down to. Just like in Groundswell, Solis celebrates the end of traditional media as the gatekeepers to communicating with the public.

One thing that Solis’ book excels at is the organization of social media– both visuals and lists help to explains sometimes complicated theories. There are many useful lists and outlines in the book– a collection of four P’s and four C’s as adaptations of the marketing mix, a list of social search tools, and an outline for corporate social media policies, to name a few.

Anyone who has dabbled with social media strategy has seen the Conversation Prism, but I had never thought about who to attribute it to. I enjoyed actually reading an explanation of it, because my previous encounters with the prism were more of a demonstration of the complicated nature of social media.

Solis’ Conversation Prism helps to map “the conversation” by cataloging social networks within certain categories (i.e., social bookmarking, blog platforms, and forums). The epicenter of the prism is the organization, which must listen, strategize, and execute social media tactics. The second circle is the workforce, which represents the fragmented nature/reality of social media within very large organizations, where different departments (i.e., customer service, marketing, and PR) will require varied involvement in an organization’s social media activities. The third circle is the actual conversation: where the interaction and engagement actually takes place.
Conversation Prism

What I learned from the Conversation Prism is emphasized throughout the book: various factions within a large organization will want to participate in social media activities, and they all have legitimate reasons to do so. Without a central “hub” or group to facilitate that participation, fragmented communications will become a reality, only diluting the potential power of social media rather than harnessing it. One thing that really spoke to me in the book that helps to address this challenge was Solis’ example of Intel Insiders, their social media board of external advisors that serve as a sounding board and a guiding force. This is definitely something that Mad River Glen and other organizations should consider when developing social media plans. Cognitive diversity is pronounced across social media platforms, and people outside of the company with varying experiences and expertise can serve as a mini focus-group and produce a wealth of ideas.

Here’s a quick look at the Intel Insiders program:

Beyond the social media board of advisors, there are several important lessons for Mad River Glen in Engage! For example, rather than segmenting the What’s New page of their website by social media platform, they could use a tool like FriendFeed to develop a lifestream, which would integrate updates and provide more of a realtime look at what’s going on across different platforms. In several places throughout the book, Solis mentions transitioning the online relationship to real life. For Mad River Glen, this would be a breeze– anyone who is engaging with them on social media is likely to be a skier. Using Meetup.com could help facilitate this.

Overall, I found Engage! to be similar to social media itself in that it was disorganized and a bit overwhelming. At times, it felt like I was reading a series of diary/blog posts rather than a sequential book. At the same time, underneath the somewhat confusing and overwhelming surface of the book, Solis shared some fantastic insight and demonstrated his clear knowledge of the social media realm. Despite some shortcomings, I think the book is an essential read for any social media pioneer within a large or small company– from defining ROI to establishing a conversation index, Solis’ expertise is worth sharing.

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The Argument for strategy

Harry Weisbren’s guest post on Huffington Post is a great synthesis of a complicated idea.  About media advocacy, he states that “making sure arguments are heard is just as important as making them.”  I really connected with this idea, especially when he elaborated on the Center for American Progress’ mission to not just make persuasive arguments, but to make persuasive arguments that people actually hear.  I connected with this because at work, I constantly experience the struggle between science and communicating with the general public.  While a scientist who has dedicated years to a certain study may be devastated to see it boiled down into a few bullet points, or one quote in an article, or a 10-second soundbyte, Wall Street Journal readers and Good Morning America viewers do not want to know the same things that the readers of the New England Journal of Medicine want to, and frankly they would not understand them.

The need for effective communication is even more crucial now in a media environment that is entirely convoluted and at times overwhelming.  Matt Bai’s book The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics perfectly illustrates that need.

the argument book cover

The book looks at a cast of Democratic activists and politicians, including Markos Zuniga of Daily Kos, the leaders of MoveOn.org, and Bill Clinton, to name a few.  A personal favorite was the image of billionaire socialite Lynda Resnick exclaiming “We are so tired of being disenfranchised!” in the middle of a party.  While Bai’s impeccable storytelling made the book amusing, parts made me worry: as a registered Democrat, should I be concerned about the future of my party?  Answer: YES!

As demonstrated in The Argument, while people can claim that they have a vision or a plan, if they don’t have an effective strategy to back it up, then it is essentially worthless.  Bai’s argument seems to boil down to a belief that simply wanting to subvert Republicans is not an effective strategy for Democrats to rule the political realm.  Without an actual vision and appropriate strategy, how are they to gain lasting support of future generations?

This book really made me stop and think about political and advocacy communications.  I think that moving ahead, I will pay special attention to the messages that organizations and individuals are putting out there.  And as power has shifted since Bai wrote this book, it will be interesting to see what the Democrats as “underdogs” do next.  The future of the Democratic party is literally at stake, and the general population is completely out of the loop.

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Organizing Groups and Online Capabilities

In Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, one theme is central: technological developments have made groups much easier to develop, organize, and sustain.

Groups that could have never existed before now thrive online.  Someone in Ann Arbor, Michigan can interact with someone covering the Grammy’s red carpet on Twitter.  Someone in Birmingham, Alabama can comment on an NYC fashionista’s planned outfit.  And so on, and so forth— interaction is like it has never been before.

Working together has become easier in leaps and bounds.  Coworkers can build projects using an online Wiki rather than navigating a complicated shared computer drive.  Individuals interested in niche topics, like collecting marbles, can share knowledge instantaneously rather than only at an annual meeting.  This has implications not just for social purposes, but for political and societal purposes as well.

Shirky points out that “before,” in order for an idea to be explored to its full potential, someone had to believe in it enough to fund it. Now, the Internet allows the public to collaborate, work, share, all on projects that would not be possibly without it.  As he points out, “most of the barriers to group action have collapsed, and without these barriers, we are free to explore new ways of gathering together and getting things done.”  Established leaders are no longer required— even if they make things easier.

In fact, it’s likely that this capability of the Internet to simplify group activity is one of the reasons why it spread.  Shirky says that “our basic human desires and talents for group efforts are stymied by the complexities of group action at every turn,” thus it’s no surprise that online tools like Doodle, which help groups identify scheduling opportunities, become so popular.

One of the most interesting implications for the opportunity that online organizing presents is the increase in the wealth of content available.  Shirky’s classification of journalists as the traditional gatekeepers, and of media executives as business people who must make difficult decisions about what news warrants coverage is important— and as he points out, losing relevance each day.  The ease of online publishing presents opportunities for extensive coverage of things that never before received attention— obscure sports, time-consuming investigative stories, breaking news in developing countries, and so forth.

But as the content increases, the difficulty becomes uncovering and curating the worthwhile content.  Shirky points out that much online conversation occurs within small groups and, though anyone can find it, is not intended to be public facing.  On top of that, low-quality writing is prevalent, as is bias.  But beyond that, so much good content is out there that it actually becomes overwhelming.

Shirky asks an important question when he asks how a journalist is defined these days.  On a more basic level— who gets press passes?  Are bloggers more important VIPs than the traditional media?  A recent study showed bloggers more influential in the entertainment and technology realms than mainstream publications.  Personally, Shirky’s idea that “the old division of amateur and professional is only a gradient rather than a gap” really struck a chord with me.  I think that influence is gaining more and more importance— more than prominence and professional title.

Here Comes Everybody is an important read— it assumes familiarity with digital tools and instead looks at the societal implications of it all.  With current events in Egypt and other countries relying on social media for organization and communication more than ever before, Shirky’s points only become more relevant and important. I really enjoyed the book, and can’t wait to see how groups continue to evolve as platforms and the digital realm change rapidly.

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