How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest [en]

“Information Gluttony”, a previous post, provoked interesting reactions among social media enthusiasts and editors. The need to become more picky is widely felt. Jan Gordon wrote:

I think this is most important for all of us, continually refining our ability to select only what we need and leave the rest. Today everyone is a publisher and everyone has an opinion. Aren’t we suffering from meaning overwhelm as well?

To address her comment and the others, I will try to deconstruct the process of content selection and explore ways in which we might fine tune our filters together.

How to Select Content

In my own journey through content, I try to consistently refer to first filters. A piece of content must pass a series of tests before I link to it. They may be performed consciously or unconsciously, but these questions do get asked. At least, one of the following must get a yes.

  • Does it support a goal?
  • Does it make an emotional connection?
  • Did I laugh while reading it?

Yet, these three questions aren’t specific enough. Meaning overwhelm occurs because there’s too much “good” content out there. In fact, it makes me quite uncomfortable to talk in terms of good or bad content. This distinction isn’t helpful or clear anyway. If it were, we wouldn’t be discussing “content gluttony”, “meaning overwhelm” and how to avoid being “content fried”. Relevance seems to be a far more appropriate way to talk about content. Unfortunately, relevance is contextual. Aiming for relevance in edition is trying to align your goals and purposes with the ones of your readers and the ones of the content creators you share, re-blog, etc. As Jan Gordon wrote, it will be a “continual” process of refinement but you need a solid and documented strategic foundation.

If you are starting out, choose your topic wisely. Then, there are three main areas which require your focused attention.

  • Know what your curation efforts’ purposes are. Do you want to learn more about the field? Establish credibility? Do you want to encourage people to action about a certain issue?
  • Understand your audience, their purposes, and goals. Once you have started, listen to them and ask questions. Take notes of the articles which gather the most responses. Try to figure out what features distinguish them: topic, tone, format, angle.
  • Develop a talent to quickly evaluate content. Revisit the basics for evaluating web content. Determine whether or not it aligns with your goals and your audience’s.

Whether you are doing it for yourself or an organization, create a short document about your findings, the tools you will be using, ideas for recurring sources, etc. Review it often. Your future self will be glad.

What You Can Safely Dismiss

After that, it’s practice, practice, practice. Even with a strategy in place, the actual task of monitoring all the sources has no clear beginning nor end. This is taxing. Beth Kanter offers insights in how to stay sane while doing it. Her last piece of advice “Just say No” is where the most power lies.

Saying “No” is useful, not only to pace yourself and make pauses during the week, but also to dismiss pieces of content in a heartbeat. I would love to learn how to become more picky. In other words, what can I safely ignore? is a question I ask myself often. Here are a few answers:

Poor form. Good writers pay attention to grammar, edit, and proof-read. As an editor, you should pay attention to these things as well. Here’s how to do it. By directing people’s attention to well-written content, you prove how much you value their time and attention.

Tips and tricks. Nobody acts on tips and tricks — especially long lists thereof. Unless you have acted upon them and have personal experiences to add, don’t pass them along. For example, when I identify a problem in my workflow, I go on Lifehacker.com or search the web for solutions but it never works the other way around. The problem with tips and tricks is that you never get enough because they feel like action when they are anything but. They don’t encourage anybody to do anything. Really.

Advice. Shoulds and shouldn’ts can be just as toxic as tips and tricks. Everybody bathes in “expert” advice all day. We should (!) all raise our standards or stop paying attention to advice altogether. Each situation is unique and advisers try to shove a standardized solution in them. Pieces of content which ask questions and encourage your audience to see their situations more clearly will bring more value in the long run.

Helping each other update our filters will save us from becoming content fried. I hope to make this list longer with your suggestions. What types of content do you say “No” to?

Image credit: “Workers sort through dried tea. Kunming, China” by Steve Evans. Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License.

I wrote “How to Select Only What You Need and Leave the Rest” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on February 23, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Content Rivers and Information Gluttony [en]

As the festive season was drawing to a close, I –like a large portion of the online population– became concerned about ending the cycle of over-eating. The sense of satiety is easy to numb and hard to get back. It is not only true for food but also for content. Non-physical items can lead to gluttony as easily as the very physical foods and beverages of Yule. Similar mechanisms are at work. Only, content doesn’t have a season. The feast is all year round.

Information overload or gluttony

“Information overload”, I hear you say, “we know that already”. Is it really the problem, though? As Clay Shirky argues in his talk “It’s Not Information Overload. It’s Filter Failure”, information overload is our new environment of plenty and not a problem that needs solving. We celebrate the availability of information in many great ways. Yet we experience problems with it sometimes. It lies upon us to create internal and external filters to manage our time and attention because they are our most precious resources.

Excited by the wealth of information available, we lay the traps ourselves by using the tools in an unsustainable manner. I’ve been doing it myself. At some point, I was following three hundred Tumblr accounts and around four hundred RSS feeds. Soon, I started operating under the impression that I should see every item and extract value out of them. These expectations were unreasonable and they were making me crazy. I cut more than half of my RSS feeds. I left Tumblr for a while. Only now that I have returned a wiser man, do I understand more about this information gluttony.

More and More

As humans we’re drawn towards content. There’s a drive to accumulate experience and learn about things because it helps us survive. Putting aside immediate threats, it helps us reach our other goals too. This drive, however, has a tendency to extend. Soon, we start consuming content because it might help us reach a potential goal. Our scope widens out of proportion. That’s also why we hop from entry to entry on Wikipedia and catch ourselves only four hours later. This is why people keep updating their Tumblr dashboard to see more shiny things.

Yet, if we go down this path, neophilia –the love of novelty– becomes the purpose. In the mass of indiscriminate content, true interestingness constitutes a surprise reward. As our brains try to unveil the secret pattern which leads to more such rewards, it sends us on a quest for more and more content. Infinite scrolling or infinite pagination can keep us on a site or service for hours.

Too Little Information To Decide What To Ignore

Dumb aggregation tools collect an endless chronological sequence of content items. The absence of an unread count makes it into a “river of content”. Somehow, this should be enough to change expectations and make it OK. It doesn’t always work and we get stuck on sites like Tumblr or Facebook.

Understanding what features of such content rivers cause you to slip into gluttony is key.

  1. Piles make us want to get to the end…
  2. but rivers of content have no edges or limits. Trying to consume all that passes on our screens is futile. So, we should know what we can safely ignore…
  3. yet, rivers of content are often indiscriminate messes which make it difficult to decide what to read and what to throw out. Posts are often unstructured and stripped from categories: source and date are all we have to decide. Links on Twitter are inscrutable shortened URLs so we don’t even get that precious little indication regarding the source.

Deciding with certainty which pieces you can ignore is important for content consumers as well as curators. Design can help us with that. As publishers and designers we should ask ourselves what relevant information we can provide to help our audience decide what they should or shouldn’t read. Metadata can be richer and more relevant.

Lists and Folders

Until then, we might have to use old tools to organize our incoming streams and restrain ourselves. Lists and categories provide order and visibility. They help us decide what to pay attention to and what we can ignore. To come back to food, you have better chances to avoid picking up candy if you make a list of groceries in advance and stick to it.

Mark Zuckerberg is often quoted as saying: “Nobody wants to make lists”. Most people don’t want to, yet, some order must be imposed if we are to stop treating content like formless stuff. Lists have a long and rich history in helping us make sense of the infinite, as Umberto Eco says. What makes list-making unpopular on the web is the lack of a strong incentive.

Paper.li and Google+ both encourage their users to make lists and categories.

  1. Google+ asks you to put the people you follow into circles.
  2. Paper.li functions best with public Twitter user lists and, hence, provides a strong incentive to use them.

Yet, there’s something to note about categorization in Twitter lists, Google+ circles and folders in RSS readers. They categorize the sources but not the items they publish. Put a Twitter user in a list and then, regardless of what she publishes, the content is going to be in the list. Same with Google+ and most RSS feed readers. You put a feed in a category or folder and then, the items from that feed are all stuck together. There’s a general lack of granularity and an opportunity for more intelligent tools. Paper.li, however, is different. It shows the source and puts the links in categories like Technology, Business or Education automagically. The result is not perfect but –oh so– helpful. I would love to see other tools do the same.

Bearing this limitation in mind and with practice, it is possible to gain a little control back. Take a little time aside, while we’re still in the beginning of the year, to review your lists of sources and the folders/categories they’re in. It is worth doing.

Image credit: Portion depicting Gluttony in Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things”.

I wrote “Content Rivers and Information Gluttony” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on January 13, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

The limits of automation and the curator’s role [en]

Frank posted earlier about Popping the Filter Bubble, arguing that there wasn’t a real problem. Although, as he argues, the concerns about the filter bubble are framed as a conflict to sell the idea, it doesn’t mean the filter bubble is not a real and potentially problematic phenomenon. As he shows using the example of his Paper.li, editors and curators have an increasingly important role to play.

Filters require intention

Filtering makes social media platforms more appealing and useful. Algorithms select what you see on Facebook and Google Plus. Even Twitter does. It used to show every update of the people you followed until @replies got filtered out. The change brought by these filters is that those willing to expose themselves to new subjects or dissenting views must work towards “intentional surprise”, as Frank wrote. And those unwilling to do so aren’t forced to confront other views any more. This “noise” filtering adds barriers to discovery and perhaps to dialogue which must be intentionally overcome. It’s a change. Problems may arise when these filters work in secret and can’t be tweaked by the users.

The limits of automation

Fortunately, the services which relied heavily on automation until now are aware of these problems. They are coming to the conclusion that algorithms cannot solve all problems. It takes a human editor to craft great experiences with the right mix of familiarity and novelty, confirmation and healthy dissent. Karyn Campbell’s Return of the Editor: Why Human Filters are the Future of the Web on Sparksheet quotes interesting numbers which suggest that, as we’re figuring out what algorithms are good at and what they’re not so good at, editors and curators are given a bigger role in organisations like Facebook.

The curator’s art

To understand where the editor’s art lies, we might turn to Maria Popova, curator extraordinaire of Brain Pickings. Her article: Accessibility vs. access: How the rhetoric of “rare” is changing in the age of information abundance explains it with clarity. The value “human sensemakers and curiosity sherpas”, as she calls them, bring is tremendous in a world in which everything is accessible but not necessarily accessed.

Of course, you won’t find every post of generalist curated blogs such as Brain Pickings, kottke.org, Bobulate, or Boing Boing interesting. But skimming through them, you find gems that often light fires of life-long interests. As the Paper.li community exemplifies, real magic happens when technology is harnessed by editors to craft great experiences.

Image credit: Soyer Isabelle

I wrote “The limits of automation and the curator’s role” on the Paper.li blog, it was originally published on November 5, 2011. Reproduced here with permission.

Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire” [en]

Late as I’ve come to George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice And Fire” book series, I can’t put the books down now. They’re well-written and engaging. Engagement is — of course — the paramour of social media. If we can understand how to drive engagement over such long pieces of writing, we will become better online storytellers. So I tried to uncover a few lessons (without revealing the story).

Embrace Constraints

Rules might seem cumbersome and unnecessary. On the contrary, they guide story-tellers. Rules help you decide which chunks of content do not fit your strategy. And they help your creations shine.

For example, “A Song Of Ice And Fire” uses only a limited number of point-of-view characters. The author follows this rule even when it becomes difficult. As he says in interviews, POV characters should have a story, which makes it impossible for them to be simply pairs of eyes. Sometimes this creates complicated problems, such as the one he refers to on his blog as the Meereenese knot.

For online story-tellers: informational needs of audiences, tone, article length, and the channels they prefer provide plenty of opportunities to create rules. Seize them. Your audience doesn’t need to be aware of them at all. Yet, being consistent in these helps you meet audiences’ expectations and makes your content more easily digestible.

Relatable Characters

The lawful-good Starks’ introduction at the beginning of the “Song” sweeps the readers into the story. Their family life is introduced, and immediately besieged by their environment and the political situation of the realm.

Characters’ flaws, the pressures of their environment and their story help audiences to relate to them. Even when they exhibit major flaws, people will still relate to them. As the author says in his interview on Sword and Laser, people — especially women — relate quite strongly to Sandor Clegane, nicknamed “The Hound”.

For online story-tellers: of course, most content marketing is non-fiction — one would hope. Yet, there are still characters to be built. In a case study, for example, both the caring employee and the client have to be fleshed out. You have to decide which aspects of their personality to include and which to leave out. Are your clients laid-back or corporate? Are they demanding or outright anxious? How do you or your employees respond to them? Such details become apparent in case studies or any other type of narrative document. Better plan for that.

Use Familiar Elements To Build Rapport

The novels in “A Song of Ice and Fire” introduce a fantasy world full of wonders but in such a way as to not confuse readers. For example, the numerous religions present in the series are based on mixing and matching tenets of existing religions and adding some imaginative elements. Anchors of the storyline are references to dynastic wars from British history. Grounding things in reality makes them more plausible, George R.R. Martin says in his Authors@Google interview.

Richard_Burchett_-_Sanctuary_(1867)_contrastedFor online story-tellers: in your own efforts, beware that people need to put your service or company into an existing category. Same thing with your content. Breaking expectations in subtle ways like George R.R. Martin does in his books with unnatural eye colors, for example, will help you build your publication’s personality.

Pace and Variety are Everything

Books longer than 500 pages tire me. I seldom finish them. Most of them are poorly paced and too monotonous. “A Song of Ice and Fire” is neither. The rare times I would get tired or the more frequent times I would become disgusted with the story’s cruel twists, I’d glance a few pages ahead. Seeing which character would be the next point-of-view, I’d quickly finish the chapter at hand in anticipation of reading the next one.

For online story-tellers: social media and blog posts aren’t as sequential as novels but they’ll tire your audience all the same. To prevent this, provide different types of posts, don’t make them longer than they need to be and don’t publish too often.

Reveal the past as you go forward

If you are going to reference the past, it helps to uncover it little by little. When you anchor your reminiscing in the flux of current events and concerns, you provide important information without diminishing the momentum of your story. In “Song”, George R.R. Martin uses this technique all the time, he says in his Authors@Google talk (31st minute). From time to time, a character will start telling the story of another character’s parents or grandparents. He even introduces conflicting accounts of the same events from different characters. And it’s up to the reader to piece them together.

For online story-tellers: social media users in general and techies in particular are obsessed with the future. One step ahead, always one step ahead. Past and current events don’t get discussed in much depth. The rise of topic pages in new services might alleviate that — in the future. But for now, this is the way it is.

As a result, posts that are out of beat or explore the past don’t get much attention, I noticed. Hence, dropping the name of current cultural phenomenons such as the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” and its HBO adaptation “Game of Thrones” is an effective — albeit inelegant — tactic.

Don’t Overpromise

For a time, George R.R. Martin would announce estimated completion dates for his works. Now, the book will be written when it is written and no interviewer in his right mind dares ask the question any more.

For online story-tellers: although building up anticipation can make sense in some cases, most of the time it is best to keep expectations low. Do not make promises you cannot keep. Publishing many posts in a short period of time might also count as a promise for more. Pacing yourself will ensure that you won’t set expectations too high.

Image credit: “Der Grossvater erzählt eine Geschichte” (oil on canvas), Albert Anke, 1884. And “Sanctuary — Edward IV and Lancastrian Fugitives at Tewkesbury Abbey“, Richard Burchett, 1867

I wrote “Storytelling lessons from “A Song of Ice And Fire”” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on November 12, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Empower Writers, Do Better [en]

Social media and blogging software have made publishing and sharing frictionless. Publishing organisations and individuals experiment with them: often focusing on technology and not enough on content and users. Yet, as the strangeness of the tools wears off, the pendulum is swinging back from wild experiments to fundamentals of our crafts. Because, as Sara Wachter-Boettcher wrote, “technology can’t help you make good decisions; it can only help you implement them”, the industry is bound to learn what the tools are good for and how to use them. This is happening. Many outlets reconsider their editorial practices and exciting case studies come out about their successes.

End Me-too Content and Let Writers Write

Publishers often try to translate the paper model to the web and offer everything to their audiences. It leads to a me-too content explosion in which publishers struggle to cover everything in order to stay household brands. In the digital world, however, nobody limits themselves to a single source of information and hyperlinks makes browsing from one to the next easy. Publishers learn how to be valued brands without offering everything to everyone and how to follow the new rule: “Cover what you do best. Link to the rest”. There’s way too much “news” or discussion for every publisher to push an opinion or fresh information on every particular issue.

Charlie Sheen’s problems were all over the media a few months ago. Peer pressure meant that lots of different publications ran related stories without adding much in terms of information or point of view. The coverage of Charlie Sheen’s breakdown lead Kerry Lauerman, Editor-in-Chief of Salon.com to reconsider their strategy and push for original reporting:

Lauerman calls the shift “piecemeal” and says it will be largely up to staffers to figure out how they can best contribute to the site’s evolving overarching mission.

Give contributors an “overarching mission”, empower them and give them the tools to pursue it. It works and, most of all, the alternative is gloomy.

Chasing Twitter trending topics, paraphrasing other pieces to create me-too content, trying to publish a few minutes before the competition doesn’t make a big difference in the end. However, it erodes the writers’ motivation. Writing a half-funny SEO-conscious introduction for a cute goat picture, cat video or a critique of the latest Tumblr sensation only to draw people’s attention can be a drag. Most writers produce their best work when they feel knowledgeable, informed and have enough time to develop an angle on the story.

Gawker’s Editor-in-Chief, A.J. Daulerio, recognized this and decided to assign page-views as the focus of a single staff-writer each day and give more freedom to the others. Gawker’s experiment is analysed on Nieman Journalism Lab. Although the page-view numbers aren’t conclusive either way, the staff seems happier. It will no doubt also help them with their goal to “demonstrate a rounded personality” and clean their brand.

Long-Form Branding Opportunities

In matters of branding, original content and personality matter most because publishers have to make themselves memorable. Forty-percent of the time, I can’t remember where I read about a piece of news. Most of my friends who are bombarded with content are the same. Pay attention and you’ll find you have a similar experience. However, longer pieces which develop a point of view and an interesting angle give the publisher a better opportunity to make a lasting impression. People still value long-form journalism very much according to Bob Cohn, editorial director of Atlantic Digital, in this interview on Mediabistro:

We routinely publish 6-, 8-, even 10,000 word stories on the website. It is not surprising for a magazine story to get a million page views. If you accept that people still believe in high-quality, long-form journalism, then they want it wherever they can get it.

In the end, getting caught up in the tools and the pace of online life can destroy our precious sense of purpose and have unintended consequences. Publish or perish seems to be the motto of our time. Yet, we can’t work well in a constant sense of urgency. We don’t work well when the goal is to take up space and time. Merlin Mann’s essay Better explains this better than I could.

Doing good and being original still works at least as well as the alternative. So, we can choose to empower the writers — whether it’s you or an other — and push things forward.

Image credit: “Newsroom” by Mephisto 97.6. Creative Commons License BY-SA.

I wrote “Empower Writers, Do Better” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on April 25, 2012 . Reproduced here with permission.

Report and Curate With the Same Passion [en]

Recently, I wrote about the focus on original reporting that online magazines such as Salon.com and Gawker have decided to develop. According to this article by David Skok, these changes in editorial strategies are normal and have historical precedents: TIME magazine went through a similar transformation.Skok, therefore, concludes that “the aggregators of today will be the original reporters of tomorrow”. Yet there will always be a place for smart curation. Each publication has to find the right mix to serve its audience.

Curation Lacks In Journalistic Institutions

However, original reporting and curation aren’t mutually exclusive and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. They both need to be used in their place and adapted to our purposes.

As Mathew Ingram writes in this GigaOm article about the debate around aggregation and curation as theft, “the question that matters is whether it serves the reader”. Patient, thoughtful and enthusiastic curation is helpful to both author and reader as another way to make sense of a complex and noisy world.

As journalistic institutions take the narrow view of journalism, they miss out on opportunities to bring value through curation. This is what Martin Belam calls the “curation gap”. He writes:

For me ‘the curation gap’ is that, at present, most mainstream media organisations seem lacking in the tools, or the will, or both, to bring the best of the voices in those niches and make them relevant to the mass audience.

He also says that journalists have the right tools with their “ethics, legal training, mass cross-platform audience” to become great curators. I second this with all my heart.

Some institutions and old-school journalists have a hard time understanding the value of curation because they focus on their feeling of being ripped off. They don’t make the distinction between content scraping, aggregation and curation. They fail to see that curation and writing share most their core processes.

Writing and Curating, Same Skills

So much so, I would argue curators are bound to be good writers and good writers have it in them to be tremendous curators. Both are a labour of love, a constant learning experience, and take courage. The courage to face the gaps in your argumentation and build bridges over them to be clear.

Taking different arguments made by other people, using them in a new argument, and taking the whole thing one or several steps further than the preceding authors did is the essence of essay writing, isn’t it? Curation is like that: curators summarize, quote and link other people’s work. They also add contextual information which tells audiences what the information means and — more importantly — why they should care.

Like strawberry picking, the process of curation is difficult, time-consuming and impossible to fully automate. Sometimes the ties that bind collections together are shy and take time to come out. The context is hard to explain clearly and the purpose of the collection might be hard to uncover and convey.

There is a real difference between reposting content and creating meaningful collections. Gawker’s lone strange goat pales in comparison with Buzzfeed’s collection of disappointed animals, for example. Both are trivial but the latter represents a greater curation effort.

disappointed-animals

The result of these efforts is valuable, too. Journalists need not fear but join curators as we touch the audiences who wouldn’t understand or relate to the relevance of a piece right away. We make the wonders of the world more accessible. We need more attempts at making sense of the world, not fewer.

If you need a quick way to understand or explain curation, Percolate offers a thoughtful definition of curation and a manifesto packed in a short video (via Brain Pickings). Time and attention, contextualization, communicative enthusiasm: the most important aspects are covered in the video.

Thorny Question of Money

Since curation is an emotional and intellectual labour much like writing, true curation can’t be cheap. The thorny question of publications’ business models is still hanging over our heads. Whether they produce curation, original content or a mix of the two, money remains an issue.

Brain Pickings is supported by donations. Salon.com has a freemium model. The Browser makes money through Amazon referrals and plans to move to “a mixture of sponsorship, advertising and ‘freemium access’,” according to The TelegraphGawker‘s 100% ad-supported.

There’s no single business model for web-based publications and probably will never be. Curation is as expensive and hard to monetize as any content but it is a useful service and represents true opportunities to serve needs which aren’t fully served yet.

Top image credit: “Strawberry Picking” by bigbirdz. Creative Commons License BY.

I wrote “Report and Curate With the Same Passion” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 3, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You [en]

I was prompted to think about the costs and value of comments after reading a post about the latest changes made to Gawker’s comment management system in which Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media, laments the poor state of comments sections. Engagement is difficult to get and even more difficult to keep. Whether you get no comments at all or too many, they are always an issue online.

When and How to Invest in Comments

Comments have their place when your blog is about making sense of the world around you — for yourself and your audience. They are for you if you use it to

  • learn and teach
  • gather insights
  • and spot opportunities.

This spirit of quest can encourage great comments and launch deep conversations. If you are willing to participate in comment threads, they offer tremendous help. In “Yes, blog comments are still worth the effort”, Mathew Ingram cites Fred Wilson’s blog A VC as an example of rich comments. Wilson, a well-known venture capitalist and blogger, is ever-present in his comments and nurtures his community because their exchanges are valuable to him.

He shared the main factors behind his blogging success. On the subject of engagement, he wrote:

5) Engage everywhere. That means on Hacker News, other blog communities/comments, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc. This takes a lot of time. Too much time. But I get so much value back from doing it that I make the time.

If you’re not in tech, maybe Hacker News is not for you. Anyway, you get the idea. To get more comments, it is very important that you

  • leave comments on the blogs of people you respect. They or their audience may take an interest in your point of view
  • tweet people asking them for their perspective on issues of interest to both of you
  • advertise your post in relevant places.

For more, you can turn to Marcus Sheridan who lists many tips on engagement in comments with illustrations and examples.

Comment Management Tools

Whether you’re a multi-million-dollar publisher, a small business owner or an individual blogger, it’s necessary to filter out spam and moderate to have a healthy comments section. Fortunately, semi-automated solutions are widely available. Akismet, Mollom and Defensio, for example, offer to stop automated comment spam for you. All three have free plans. Akismet is active on WordPress.com blogs by default.

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If you have your own WordPress install, you can activate Akismet easily. All you need is to open an account: you will receive a string of characters called an API key that you’ll then enter in the administration area of your WordPress installation.

You can also use services such as Facebook, Google+, Disqus or IntenseDebate which offer to host your comments on their servers for free. Such solutions may seem simpler and less prone to spamming attacks, but they have hidden costs. Comments may load slowly or temporarily go missing if the service goes down. Search engines may not take the comments’ content into consideration, which might impact your SEO.

Moreover, you run the risk of losing your comments if the service shuts down or you change your commenting system. Disqus and IntenseDebate let you export comments if you leave. However, few blogging platforms or commenting systems let you import comments back in seamlessly.

As you can see, solutions exist to make comments work but choosing the right one is a challenge. Whichever you choose, they always demand an investment of time and attention, and sometimes significant amounts of money.

Last year, comments on The Huffington Post crossed the symbolic 100 million line.  According to Arianna Huffington in this Mashable interview, their success comes from a commitment to

  • moderating comments using humans and software
  • personalizing the display by ranking comments from your Facebook or Twitter contacts higher
  • and recognizing good commenters with badges and privileges.

This commitment is real and costly. Their 30 moderators and a robot called Julia cost them a large sum. Lots of dedication and significant investments are necessary to make comments work well.

Another Option: No Comments

When you post reviews or opinions and have no plans to take the feedback into serious consideration, you don’t need comments. When you lack resources or an interest in moderating and participating in your comments section, you might be better off without them.

Solo entrepreneurs and small businesses have limited resources to allocate and that’s OK. You don’t have to accept comments. You can encourage engagement by other means.

If you turn off comments, be sure to write a post explaining your decision. People might accuse you of not being humble enough to accept criticism and dissent. State clearly that you’ll continue to listen to your community. Encourage them to tweet to you, send you e-mails, etc.

Blogging with comments turned off is a sensitive issue and a matter of much debate. Matt Gemmell links to many articles about this question and offers his own take (via Build and Analyze).

There are no absolute reasons for or against comments. It depends on the purpose of both your blog and its comments section. Ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish with your site and whether comments help or hinder your ability to reach your goals.

There are bad reasons for having comments turned on. They are often used to inflate the number of page views on ad-driven sites. When you submit a comment, you have to re-read it and then submit it. That’s two more page views. And when people read comments, they are often displayed on several pages, which adds even more page views. You don’t have to emulate this behavior because page views aren’t the most important metric any more.

In the End, it is Your Decision

You should have a clear idea about what your site is supposed to accomplish; you should think about your comments section with the same care for purpose. Then you can decide whether to have one or not, and how much you are willing to invest in it. Don’t hesitate to think aloud in the comments.

Photo Credits: It just won’t go on! (switch) by derekGavey and Margin Notes by plindberg.

I wrote “On or Off? How to Make Comments Work for You” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 16, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Inject Gameplay into Your Content [en]

Gamification is a very popular term with web product managers these days. It designates the introduction of game mechanics into seemingly unrelated products and processes. With the success of social video games such as Farmville and services such as Foursquare which give you points and badges to reward engagement, social gaming mechanics have arrived in the consciousness of millions.

Getting Started With Gamification

By tying desirable rewards to actions you want to encourage, you can achieve positive outcomes in web apps but also in project management and — yes — publishing.

The basics are quite simple. To create a game-like experience, you need to:

  • define a desirable outcome
  • find a metric to measure it
  • define win conditions and corresponding rewards
  • define loss conditions and corresponding punishments
  • build a feedback loop around them.

Gamification has been around forever, like frequent flyer miles and consumer loyalty systems in hotels, grocery stores — bookstores, even. With the rise of the social web, the trend is only accelerating and becoming more complex.

New companies are appearing who try to specialize in the production and management of game-like features to add on top of your services like badges and scoreboards. Often, the basics listed above are mistreated and this results in shallow experiences. You can’t treat gamification as an afterthought; you need to incorporate it wisely into product development.

You can find these reflections and more about how they apply to popular location-based services such as Foursquare in Episode 41 of “Let’s Make Mistakes” with game producer Stephanie Morgan.

In this episode, the hosts and their guest comment on the fact that Twitter is a good game. You post something, your post will elicit a reaction or not. The reactions are the reward you’re after. Hence, crafting tweets becomes a game. You’re encouraged to post provocative and inspiring things at the right time so you can get retweets and faves.

In fact, it can work for many aspects of content creation and publishing whether you want to encourage yourself and your contributors to post more, get more comments, or encourage content discovery and engagement.

Add Gameplay to Your Work

David Seah’s Concrete Goal Tracker is a great resource for solo-entrepreneurs and freelancers. It is a printable scoreboard for your week designed to direct your attention towards the tasks with the highest pay-offs. You can use his list of achievements or write your own.

  • Shipping billable client work
  • contacting prospects
  • writing new blog posts etc

are all worth 10, 5 or 2 points. Each time you complete one of these tasks, you award yourself those points. It becomes most effective when you define win conditions: 300 points per week for four weeks, for example, and promise yourself a nice reward. You can also add loss conditions if you like.

This self-reporting makes it only suitable for yourself, really. But it is a simple example of how gamification works and a tremendous foundation to be building upon.

Add Gameplay to Content Creation and Management

You can also move beyond encouraging posting and try to have an impact on the quality of the content. Choose a metric that you want to improve and then tie a strong reward to the improvements that you seek. Don’t do that lightly. You have to think hard about what it is you want to accomplish and how to encourage behaviours which will bring you closer to your goals. In short, you have to get a strong editorial strategy and process in place before experimenting with these techniques.

Some blog publishers famously tie the revenue of writers to traffic levels or revenue streams such as affiliation programs. Again, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. If you tie your win conditions to the wrong metric, other important metrics might take a plunge. Tying blogger revenues to traffic encourages big volumes of short lived, SEO-laden content. It may be OK for traffic hoarders who rely on ad revenue. It might not be the smartest move for niche blogs trying to establish credibility, create lasting value to drive steady traffic and close sales.

Arcade_gamer

Outside the narrow realm of blogs, you can’t afford to encourage the churning of content because — remember — a piece of content that has been created must be maintained and/or retired. In such cases, you can use gameplay to encourage content audits and maintenance instead of creation. However, you have to make sure all the players who get to make decisions about your content have the right skill set and domain expertise.

Encourage Your Audience to Read and Share Your Content

The paper and pen system doesn’t scale and you can’t use it to encourage reading, social sharing and comments. There are experimental solutions to encourage engagement and sharing of content using gameplay mechanisms.

Gourmet Live, Gourmet magazine’s iPad app uses an innovative reward system. Exploring content, you will sometimes stumble upon a story which, once you read it, will grant you access to exclusive content such as recipes. Then, you can share this reward with your friends on Facebook and Twitter, so that they can access the exclusive content too.

These “achievements” don’t require any skill or real work. Therefore, it isn’t a game but it still uses gameplay. The more you explore their app, the more likely it is you will get rewards — more or less randomly. They give you the ability to share rewards with your friends who use the app, however, without asking anything in return. People crave recognition for their efforts and love it when you give them gifts they can share with their contacts and friends.

Their ambition was to create a sticky experience by blending gameplay in a beautiful app and show their audience that content itself is a reward worth sharing with your friends. If you’re curious about the design process and underlying technology which power the app, Anil Dash who worked on the project, offers more thorough explanations.

Don’t Go Overboard

The frontier between introducing gameplay in your product design and manipulation is thin. It is possible to focus on positive gameplay aspects but beware, however. Don’t fall into the Zynga Abyss: don’t use social obligations to compell your users to participate in a shallow game-like experience.

The design principles of Zynga’s social games encourage you to beg and annoy your friends on Facebook with spam. They even acknowledge publicly that it is one of the most compelling features of their games. This is a little too much cynicism, I think.

You don’t have to approach it with the same attitude. Build fun into your useful products and content from the get-go without trying to condition your audience. It is possible to focus on the positive like Gourmet Live does.

Solutions to Experiment With

If you want to try building achievements into your WordPress site, you can use the CubePoints or Achievements plugins. While CubePoints is simpler to install and run, it primarily rewards comments. It will require the development of additional components by programmers to reward the authoring of posts and other things. Achievements seems more flexible but depends on the BuddyPress plugin until the next version comes out. It is, therefore, more difficult to get up and running.

Giving away rewards for desirable actions and improvements to key metrics is a useful tip and a great way to make your products and content better. Yet, everything depends on how you do it. If you have ideas for implementation or find other great examples of gameplay in publishing, please share them with us in the comments.

Photo Credit: A Gamer by wilhelmja and LAN Party Goodness by compujeramey.

I wrote “Inject Gameplay into Your Content” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on May 30, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

How to Establish a Writing Habit [en]

Writing is the foundation you’ll build your success upon. Believe me. Whether you’re working on a business plan, a marketing kit, looking to start a blog, a newsletter or write an ebook… writing is always the first step.It can be daunting for various reasons. Yet, it’s worth the effort. First, your thinking will get clearer. Second, your ideas will get out there for the world to see and add to. In any case, you and your business will benefit. Ready to give it a try?

Just Start Writing

The first priority is to start. Grab tools that will mark the page and get to it. Forget everything else. Forget about finding a topic. Forget about the delete key and publishing. Stop your research. Ignore your inner judge and your inner editor for now. There’s just one thing that matters: you’re going to put words one after the other.

The Resistance

Obstacles might pop up along the way. Be prepared. Research, tinkering and other weird obsessions might conspire to stop you. Don’t listen to them.

Curators get plenty of input and we often crave more, right? Because we’re curious and like to explore. Our time and attention get sucked into our favourite Paper.lis or Wikipedia. It should follow that we often have plenty to say. Yet, once we become information gluttons, the fear of not knowing enough never goes away. We think to ourselves “The next link could lead me to the information nugget I’ve been seeking all my life”. So, we continue to explore the web long past the point where we know enough to write.

There’s another well-documented way of not writing: to get stuck on the tools. You don’t need a distraction-free writing environment or a fancy Moleskine notebook right now. Nor do you need to figure out which blogging software you want and which premium theme to buy. Blogging is especially tricky. It’s full of intricate details that you can get stuck on. There’s a whole advice industry living off of your confusion about these. These details don’t matter now. Just write.

Merlin Mann, productivity consultant and entertainer, has more advice about starting creative work, the different kinds of obstacles you’ll encounter and how to overcome them. He presents his insights in a 28-minute NSFW talk which has been featured in Bullseye.

Edit, Then Publish!

Once you have finished your first draft, set it aside for at least a few hours before reading it. Promise yourself to not get discouraged. You’ll realize that first drafts are most often terrible, as Anne Lamott points out in her “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life”. Her book, which focuses on fiction writing, contains nuggets of wisdom for all writers. You might enjoy it, I did.

When you come back to your first draft, resist the temptation to delete it right away. Most drafts can be redeemed by rewriting and editing. It won’t always make it good to publish or be worth the time… while you’re building up your expertise, you should give it your best anyway.

Editing is a different skill set. It is taxing in a different way: you have to read the text over and over each time looking for different things. If you can’t hire an editor or make a deal with a friend to trade editing services, you’ll have to edit yourself. It is possible but not ideal. Copyblogger has a very good guide to editing your own work in five steps. You should take some distance with the text and with yourself.  Trim it and trim it some more. Look at the style and the form. Read it aloud. For more details on what to look for and what to do, you can refer to this complete self-editing checklist.

For web writing, there are a few more things you should always take care of:

  • Test your links in “Preview” mode.
  • Illustrate your posts and credit your images.
  • Add five to seven tags.
  • Craft an excerpt if your blogging tool can manage them.

Now, you’re all set! Ready to let go of your work and send it off into the world? The “publish” button can be the hardest button to push. Seth Godin, entrepreneur and author, calls this the fear of shipping. Exposing oneself to criticism is always hard. Yet, you have to ship because as he writes:

It’s not clear you have much choice, though. A life spent curled in a ball, hiding in the corner might seem less risky, but in fact it’s certain to lead to ennui and eventually failure.

Click the button. It’s going to be relieving. I promise!

Repeat

Now, you’ve written, edited and published at least once. What’s been done can be repeated. It is a state of mind that you have to reach each day anew. You can make the process easier by training yourself to write in a specific position, place and at a specific time of day.

Mornings are popular among writers of all kind. To start your process, you may commit to Morning Pages. They are three leaflets that you should fill with stream of consciousness prose. You don’t even have to make full sentences. Total freedom. Julia Cameron, American teacher and writer, suggests making it a daily practice in her “Artist’s Way”. After you’re done, you’ll be able to work on other assignments with more ease.

As for the place where you write, experiment with different ones. You can write anywhere that suits you best, everyone has their own preferences. In this post about the best places to write, Joe Pawlikowski says he gets the best results in hotels and libraries. I find libraries to be dangerous places to write: whenever I get frustrated by my writing, I jump to the comics section and there’s no turning back. So, yes, your mileage may vary.

The trick to getting good at beating the resistance and ship, is to do it often. It’s never trivial to sit down and write or push the “publish” button. It is hard emotional work. Once you’ve done this enough times, you can work towards better tools and smarter strategies. You can follow Penelope Trunk’s guide to blogging, subscribe to ProBlogger and other such resources. Happy writing!

Image credits: Princess of Lamballe by Anton Hickel, 1788 at the Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna.

I wrote “How to Establish a Writing Habit” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on June 20, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.

Get Started With Web Analytics Without Throwing Your Arms Up [en]

The web is a place for connection and wonder. But it is also a place for measurements, lots of measurements. With all the numbers flying around our heads, web and social analytics tools used to make me throw my arms up in the air. They can tally:

  • how many followers, favourites and RTs you get on Twitter
  • how many unique visitors find your blogs and the conversion rates of your business sites
  • how many Facebook likes, comments and friends you have
  • how many Facebook page fans you gathered
  • how many likes and reblogs you earned on Tumblr
  • and on and on. You get the idea.

From our deep need to be liked springs the desire to make these numbers go up, up and up. Always. Even though it shouldn’t, my heart sinks a little when my Klout score goes down. And I feel better when I get new followers on Twitter or Google+.

We tie our worth to these numbers. We know it’s reductive and inaccurate but we do it anyway. It’s complicated because we can’t dismiss these metrics in bulk.

Choose the right metrics or do not watch them at all

As we mindlessly obsess about them, we find ourselves trying to please everybody. Broadening and broadening our scope until it doesn’t make sense any more. Of course, we need some of these numbers. They can tell us where to direct our efforts better. However, we need to direct our attention to the right ones.

Standard reports from tools such as Google Analytics give us every number imaginable. It’s so confusing. We focus on the numbers that are easy to understand like monthly unique visitors and conversion rates.

Paying attention to the wrong metric is worse than not following any. If you track the wrong number, you’ll take all the wrong actions. Gerry McGovern explains it best in this article about an e-commerce site that connects sellers to customers. They focused on attracting more sellers and failed to focus on their customers. Of course, it didn’t increase sales or leads. Lead generation and consumer satisfaction aren’t easy to measure but, according to Gerry McGovern, trying harder to measure what matters makes a world of difference.

Hence, if you’re not going to take the time to learn how to pay attention to the right metrics, you might as well leave your analytics tool behind. People starting out on Twitter and on blogs out of personal interest need not worry about them. If you want to embark on a journey of learning, there are a few actions to take.

Measure basic website health

There are basic steps you can take to gauge the health of your website. Avinash Kaushik, who is the world’s most respected authority on web analytics, distills his wisdom and experience on his blog. Unmissable articles are clearly labelled as such and linked from the footer.

In the first unmissable he details the 10 steps he advocates you apply to any website. I would suggest you read his long post and take all the steps one by one. However, here are the gems that most probably apply to bloggers and social media enthusiasts like us.

  1. Traffic sources show you where your visitors come from. According to him, you should have diverse sources: search engines, other sites linking to you, and direct visits should all be well represented. Social media sites are big drivers of traffic as well. Pay attention at how much traffic comes from Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Pinterest, and Paper.li to see which of the services brings you more value.
  2. Visitor loyalty is important for many bloggers. Our audiences may be small but we pride ourselves on keeping them engaged. The percentage of returning visitors is where most people look for information about engagement. Unfortunately, ratios are bad because they’re volatile and, hence, unreliable. Instead, look at visit frequency and recency which measure how many times visitors returned and how many days have elapsed between their two last visits. You should also take a look at the visit’s length. Again, avoid the average and watch the detailed report.
  3. Ever wonder which of your topics resonate with your audience the most? Keyword clouds will give you hints. Lists of the 10 most-used keywords to find your site are dull and looking at them too much may make you shoot for the common denominator in your audience instead of breaking it down to serve it better. Instead, go the keywords page of your analytics tool, export the raw data and paste it into Wordle. It will give you a great visualization of what your audience is looking for and found on your site.

These pieces of information constitute a great stepping stone to make you enter the exciting world of analytics. They may prompt you to take actions or, at least, ask yourself relevant questions and investigate further. Happy analysis!

Image credits: The proportions of men and their secret numbers, 1533 woodcut.

I wrote “Get Started With Web Analytics Without Throwing Your Arms Up” on Paper.li’s blog, it was originally published on July 26, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.