Is bigotry good for business?

The comment sections in some blogs, and many online community newspapers, is becoming a cesspool of bigotry, sexism and intolerance. Nobody has struggled more with the idea of online community than the American press.

I’ve wondered why newspapers, who have so staunchly defended the integrity of the published word, would suddenly open the floodgates of stupidity just because the forum has moved to the Internet.  My conclusion: Bigotry must be good for business.  My friend Jack Lail disagrees.  Jack is the much-respected News Director of Innovation for the Knoxville News Sentinel and a pioneer in online media.  He’s re-thinking the newsroom in the context of the digital era and dealing with these difficult issues every day.

Jack and I sparred on his blog recently and he has agreed to a point-counterpoint format for {grow}.

Mark’s point:

If I submit a letter to the editor of the newspaper and comment on a news story or issue, it has to come with clear proof of who I am, and even then might be subject to editing for appropriateness. Why then, would the same newspaper allow the public commentary in their online versions to turn into a virtual free-for-all of hate?  It just doesn’t make sense except that if the newspapers didn’t allow that liberal allowance for sensationalism, another media outlet or blog will — and there goes the readership and the page views that drive advertising revenues, just when traditional media need it most.

Nothing drives page views like controversy, and nothing drives controversy better than a redneck pissing match fueled by the anonymity of an online comment forum.

Some newspapers have justified this practice by explaining that our country has an important tradition of anonymous dissenters like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.  But the irony is, serious dissent found on an op-ed page would require editorial identification, while the ugliness in the comment section goes unabated.

I believe the press has applied their standards inconsistently for economic reasons. They fear the anonymous comments (and readership they generate) will go elsewhere if regulated online. True?

Jack’s counterpoint:

The short answer is Web site operators don’t have the same legal liability in online comments as print publishers have with printed letters to the editors.

Yes, I believe comments increase the “stickiness” and time on site and a sense of community that articles alone can’t achieve. Anecdotally, I often hear people say the comments were better than the story (maybe in an entertaining if not enlightening way).

But basically, I don’t view comments as “letters to the editor.” I often find them more akin to callers on talk radio, where people are identified as “Jim” or “caller from Knoxville.” (If you applied the “same rigorous identification standards” to radio call-in shows, they wouldn’t have any callers.) The dynamics of online story comments are similar to what happens in forums and fairly open mailing lists.

They are, I think, a participatory experience unique to the online medium and whose benefits outweigh its negatives. That said, we’re still grappling with ways to minimize the negatives without stifling the speech.

Do we have story comments merely to generate additional page views? Maybe, but I suspect the cost of managing comments negates nearly all of the additional revenue. A page view on a news story is worth at best just a couple cents.

As Google’s economist Hal Varian recently said: “The fact of the matter is that newspapers have never made much money from news.”

Where does the {grow} community come down on this issue?   Over to you …

This dialogue was inspired by a post that originally appeared on Jack’s excellent blog, Random Mumblings. His original post also contains many important references on this issue.  For another timely perspective on the subject of hateful comments, read Jeff Jarvis’ blog post this week.

Is your company built to blog?

Every company is getting into blogging it seems but somany people seem to be struggling with it   What would you guess the biggest problem is?

Not enough content?

Not enough budget and/or resources?

Poor writing skills?

No, not usually.  These are the obvious aspects of the care and feeding of a blog but many organizations overlook the ORGANIZATIONAL requirements to successfully execute a blogging strategy. Your company has to have the right culture to sustain a blog.

If your company blog is floundering, keep reading. You might see something familiar!  Some signs that you company may not be built to blog:

  • Corporate culture mis-match — You need to build your strategy around the realistic capabilities of your company culture.  As grandma used to say, you have to deal with what is, not what you wish for.  If your CEO simply is not going to blog, deal with it.  If he is not going to tweet, forget it.  Move on.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be successful, you just have to adjust. Your culture is your culture. Your blog isn’t going to change it.  But your blog can probably conform to your situation and still have an impact.
  • Lack of executive sponsorship– On a related topic, if you’re counting on a “grassroots” effort to establish a company blog, you’re setting yourself up for problems.  To be successful in the long-term, you must have support from the top. Why? That’s the person with the purse strings and resources. That’s the person setting the strategy.  And if a blog doesn’t fit in the picture, you’re vulnerable. If you need to sell your boss on the concept, you might start here.
  • Lack of executive engagement — To really build community, you need your executives to be involved in the planning of content and engagement of your audience.  Some executives will relish this opportunity. Others will hate it. If your boss is in the second group, you need to lower expectations. I’m not saying executives actually have to blog … but they have to be involved.
  • Unwieldy politics. Every organization has politics.  But when everybody is trying to own a piece of your blog, watch out. If you find that Legal, HR and the janitorial staff demands to approve your blog, it might be a sign that your company is just not built to blog. Remember, the beauty of the social web is an ability to react.  Pages and pages of blogging and content guidelines might be a sign of trouble.
  • Unrealistic expectations — … and her brother “impatience.”  It takes time to connect and build an audience.  If your boss is making your employment contingent on the number of blog comments you get, it might be time to leave : )

Any of this sound familiar?  What are your experiences with corporate culture and blogging success?


Exploding the “It’s all about the conversation” social media myth

One of the most pervasive mantras of the social media hype circus is that it’s “all about the conversation” with your customers.  But if you look at what’s really happening out there I think you can conclude this is a load of hooey.

To understand the shortcomings of “conversation” on the social web, let’s look at what happens in the old-school format of the focus group.  The focus group is one of the most popular qualitative methods for determining consumer wants and needs because it’s a relatively inexpensive and quick way to get feedback and ideas.  There are many formats, but generally you get a group of consumer volunteers together and, with the help of a skilled facilitator, conduct a “conversation” about the company, product, service, etc.

The biggest downfall of the focus group is that is nearly  impossible to get feedback that represents the true views of your target consumers. First, a lot of people simply aren’t interested in participating in these groups and second, the feedback tends to center around the most dominant members of the group. A real danger is that feedback of an entire group can be influenced by the forceful opinions of the brash few.

In most cases, the social web does not represent a true “conversation” with customers.  It is, at best, an un-moderated, non-representative focus group dominated by aggressive personalities likely to complain and force their view on others. Are you really having a “conversation” with your customers and prospects  if …

a) It’s only in English?

b) It’s only with people who have time to be active on the social web?

c) It’s with the minuscule percentage of people who are likely to engage on a subject?

d) It’s with people who may not even be the core users of your product?

e) It excludes people who are simply shy or quiet?

Experienced marketers can see this trap. We can also look at the wonderful opportunities of the social web and put them into proper context.  But I’m afraid the “social media conversation” is another over-hyped sound bite from the new age gurus eager to play on the fear of somehow being left out. If I hear “it’s all about the conversation” one more time I think I’ll lose my cookies.

Look, there are TREMENDOUS opportunities presented by the social web and there are lots of ways to have social conversations that are meaningful. The {grow} community on this blog is an example.  Tapping into real-time sentiment is another. Every marketer should be immersed in this channel to figure out what really makes sense for their company and brand. But don’t check your brain at the door because you’re afraid of being left out of this “conversation.”

The moment that changed my life

It was a beautiful sunny spring day and I had just taken my nine-month-old son on a walk in his stroller.  He was a chubby, healthy, happy baby and I loved to make him giggle and gurgle. He was just getting old enough where it felt safe to let him crawl around in the grass and play around in the sandbox.  Every day was a new adventure as my little boy grew before my eyes.

When I laid him down in his crib for a nap after our trip to the park, he seemed to be acting strangely.  More than tired. Something else.

I checked in on him in an hour and he wasn’t sleeping. He was lying on his stomach just staring blankly. How very strange that he hadn’t conked out after our day in the park.  I asked him playfully why he wasn’t sleeping and he just stared.   I made a funny face to make him laugh. Nothing. I picked him up and he was like a rag doll. He was completely unresponsive to any stimulation.

My wife and I rushed him to the hospital.  The doctor looked very grave and said he suspected that my son had spinal meningitis and that they were going to do a spinal tap immediately. He took my baby from my arms and told me he would bring him back when he was “cleaned up.”

I was 27 years old.  I had been promoted three times in three years as I clawed my way up the corporate ladder. I was focused on being in the right places and meeting the right people and saying the right things to get to the next job grade. I had just bought my first home and was embroiled in a nasty lawsuit with my builder. My wife’s parents were going through a messy divorce that had cast a cloud over our daily lives.

But at that moment, all I wanted was my baby.  You could have my job. You could have my house. You could take my very life. Just give me back my little boy, safe and sound.

This story has a happy ending.  He didn’t have spinal meningitis … he didn’t have anything they could detect at all. In a few days he perked up again, the victim of some mysterious virus that never showed up again.

But that day changed everything for me.  My priorities shifted for good. I know I became a better man, husband and father after that scare.  I lived with less anxiety and fear because I knew nothing I ever faced in my life could be as bad as the moment my son was in danger.  When I face trouble in my life, I think, is it as bad as that day?  The answer has always been “no” and things settle back into perspective.

Today I see many of my young friends and students filled with the same piss and vinegar I had at that age …  life priorities determined by money, fashion, gadgets, and now, “followers.”  My wish for them, and for you, is that you don’t have to have  a life tragedy to re-set priorities.  My hope is you can just imagine what it would be like if the thing most precious to you were ripped away … then live your life with the grace, kindness, compassion and urgency of knowing that everything could change in the span of one, single heartbeat.

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