Monday, July 30, 2012

Startup Exploitation

Boston is home to many startups, from TripAdvisor to HubSpot to Proxy Apparel. Most of the startups are tech or biotech based (that's a thriving industry in the area), but I do see a fair number in media, ecommerce or education.

Recently I had a meeting with one of these educational startups; their focus is to create high quality content as an alternative to expensive college textbooks. This idea really appealed to me, as someone who has both had to purchase textbooks as well as research textbook selections for use in curriculum. Textbooks are very expensive, and they are updated often enough that it's difficult to find cheaper, used versions.

This startup was working on creating content for certain subjects, and the content was created by Ph.Ds and other high educated sources. Since the business model is "Freemium"--students can sign up for free and then pay a modest fee to use more of the content, or the premium content, I asked if the company had a permanent stable of writers.

The answer was no. According to the person I spoke with, they could hire on a freelance basis enough writers for good enough content that they didn't see the need to burden themselves with the costs associated with a full-time hire. They were also expecting to increase productivity per writer, which seemed not to be a goal aligned with a full-time hire.

This answer soured me on the company. I have worked with adjunct faculty before, and as any academic will tell you, they are the slave labor of the ivory tower. They teach one or two classes a semester (Say 4 hours of teaching time per week, plus lecture prep, plus grading, plus testing, plus office hours, etc.) with meager pay, and absolutely no job security. These are highly qualified, educated professionals, who work hard and earn nothing. In my time in higher education, I always disliked the increasing reliance on adjunct faculty instead of hiring full-time assistant professors who could provide better service and have far greater benefits.

Essentially what this company envisioned was using adjunct faculty for the writing of their online textbooks. They saw it as "efficiency," I saw it as "exploitation." There wasn't even the faintest hint of hiring full-time writers later on when the company had more funding (although they aren't lacking for funding currently).

I am somewhat disillusioned with the startup model, because nearly each one I encounter (with some exceptions, such as HubSpot), seems to treat its workers as expendable pieces, easily replaced and worth very little. Many startups will boast of their amazing employee perks (nap room! game room! fully stocked kitchen!), but I see these as incentives to keep employees at work, not examples of work/life balance. (If you are sleeping at work, you are not achieving work/life balance.)

Do you see startups as exploitative? Or do you see this model as a necessity to starting a long-term business?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Through Writer's Block

It's been a tough few weeks for writing Chez Hutchinson. For whatever reason, I start writing, and then stop, my mind drifting through ideas that seemed interesting five minutes ago and now are totally irrelevant.

In the past, when writer's block has struck, I've tried to step away from the laptop and focus on something else, like my garden, cat training, or going for a walk to try and "reset" my thought process. But lately it hasn't worked.

So today I'm trying something that I normally wouldn't do: I'm letting you know that I'm a human being and I suffer occasionally (like everyone) from writer's block. I see this blog as a manifestation of my professional persona, so it seems like a big risk to me to say, sometimes I don't have all the answers.

Today I'm writing for the sake of writing, to do it to prove to myself that I can.

Do you have any good tips for getting through writer's block?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Thinking Inside the Box

Today's post may be a little more philosophical than usual. 

I am currently reading Michel Foucault's History of Madness. It's a fascinating look at how the perception of madness has evolved since the Middle Ages, following the theoretical development of the concept of madness: the cause, the experience, the treatment.

In the section on the Great Confinement, where Europe decided to confine those on the margins of society, we learn that those who fit the criteria for confinement were not simply the insane, but also criminals, the poor, the indigent, and homosexuals. To the modern mind, these groups are incredibly different and lumping them together seems inherently wrong.

But in the theory of the time, there were essentially two states of being: Reason and Unreason. Those who were Reasonable, or lived within the confines of Reason, were accepted members of society. Those who lived outside the bounds of Reason, those who were Unreasonable, were therefore a threat to society, and the solution was confinement. Sometimes this was workhouse confinement, sometimes in hospitals, and often in repurposed leprosariums since leprosy had long since receded as a scourge of Europe.

Over time, theories of madness and the morally unsound (for that was often the definition of madness in the early days) changed, and medical theorists (or nosologists) began to conceive of different types of madness, and causes for it beyond simply rejecting Reason.

Essentially, there was one box, the Unreason box, and secular authorities put into it anyone who might possibly shown signs of Unreason. Then that box was taken away and replaced with multiple boxes: the Melancholy box, the Mania box, the Hysteria box, and so forth. People who might have belonged in the Unreason box, say a poor widow who begged for her dinner, were now not a match for these new boxes.

In Marketing, everyone loves the phrase "Think Outside the Box," as if boxes are where ideas go to die. But what if, instead of thinking the box is the wrong idea, that the box just isn't the right box?

I'd like to specify that I'm not talking about confining people here, but rather ideas. The idea of Unreason was a huge box, and it was difficult to understand what happened in such a broad category. But by replacing the idea of Unreason by separating out madness, and creating new boxes for the different theories of madness, medical practitioners were moving closer to isolating what caused madness, how it affected a patient, and what treatment might be best for curing madness.

When you look at your current marketing efforts, what box are your ideas in? Are they in one giant box marked "Brand"? Or do you have a lot of boxes, one for each product, or one for each customer segment?

I was asked recently if I am a "think outside the box" kind of marketer. And honestly, I don't see myself that way. I see myself as an analyst who makes decisions based on information and research. Sometimes that can lead to an innovative solution, but I'm not simply throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. You could say all along that I am labeling boxes and thinking strategically inside them.

Do you think in terms of boxes? Or do you see a box as a confining idea?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Should You Have a Twitter Follow Policy?

Social media is an ever evolving field, and as such, there aren't a whole lot of rules and set procedures for how to use it from a professional angle (or even a personal angle). Actions that one day seem de rigueur suddenly fade out; something else will take their places. For example, the #FF (Follow Friday) tag that used to overwhelm my stream at the end of every week has slowed to a trickle.

Since the beginning of Twitter, following has been a contentious issue. Who should you follow? If someone follows you, must you follow them back? And now we are seeing the rise of the "Follow Policy."

Here's an example from MySocialPro:

No Bullshit Twitter Follow Policy:  
Who we Follow… we follow all those that are Awesome, this includes any persons, places, or things that exhibit Badassery. Simply put, we follow back everyone who follows us. If for some strange reason you don’t understand what this means, feel like you’re not Awesome or feel like you’re not exhibiting Badassery, that’s okay because we believe you’re Awesome even if you don’t! 
Who we Unfollow… 99.9% of the time we unfollow those who don’t follow us back. We’re looking for win-win relationships on Twitter and very rarely are we able to create a win-win relationship when one of the parties is not interested in getting in to a relationship in the first place. We also unfollow people who clog up our Twitter feed with 100% self promotional Tweets e.g. “Get 2,000 followers for $5, no password required” all day long. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not doggin’ this type of activity/tweets. Believe it or not, there is a time and a place in our world in which this stuff adds value. It just so happens that it doen’t add value to OUR Twitter feed.

This Follow Policy is somewhat aggressive in its language, but in addition to telling you who they do and don't follow, it's conveying a message about MySocialPro's online persona as well. For one thing, the policy shows that this company is looking for a mutual relationship on Twitter, not a one-way dispersal of information. What's interesting is that they don't address whether they will continue to follow you if you never interact with them.

Author Debbie Ridpath Ohi, also known as InkyGirl has a lovely, concise Twitter Follow Policy. An excerpt:

I will likely follow you back if: 
  • You're someone I would like to get to know better because of your job, intriguing bio, interesting tweets, your Web site, or devastating wit. 
  • You're an aspiring or published writer who often posts about writing, especially if you write for young people. 
  • You're an editor who often posts about editing, especially if you edit books for young people. You post about e-books, digital publishing initiatives, or the future of publishing. 
  • You post book reviews and we share reading interests.

This policy neatly lays out, in a friendly manner, that Ohi uses Twitter to communicate with others about books and writing. Simply put, if you aren't tweeting about books and writing, she's probably not going to follow you.

So, is a Twitter Follow Policy necessary for everyone? No. Who should have a Twitter Follow Policy? That would be the people who have a particular focus on Twitter and want others to know that they are only on Twitter to talk to certain people or about specific topics.

For myself, I follow many different people for plenty of different reasons, and keep them separated in HootSuite columns. I follow the #UsGuys chat group for lively conversations about social media and customer service. I have a group of feminist writers that I follow for news about women's issues. I separate out my favorite news sources for breaking news, and have a stream of local twitter accounts to know what's going on locally. I see Twitter as a giant smorgasbord, and I like to sample a bit of everything. I do honestly check the bios of every new follower, and if I see something interesting, I'll follow back. 

Do you have a Twitter Follow Policy? Please share your experience in the comments. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why I Am Leaving Your LinkedIn Group

Dear Moderator,
When I first found the listing for your group, I was very interested. The group focused on a topic that was relevant to my career path, and seemed to have some interesting members.

But after a few days, I noticed the group wasn't really that active. For one thing, a new post entitled "Manifeste Relations Work" was reposted every single day, in both the Discussions and Jobs sections of the group. It was reposted by the same person, who always "liked" her own post, and no one ever replied to it. As a moderator, you should have noticed this sort of spamming and deleted it, or removed that person from the group. 

I never see any group manager's choice discussions, which means you probably aren't monitoring the content or even interested in the content. Discussions don't go anywhere, but it's your job as moderator to try and spur more conversation, or post relevant links to start a conversation.

I belong to a lot of LinkedIn Groups, and I get a lot of "daily digest" emails. I don't think I need to keep deleting the digest from your group. Please let me know if you start actually engaging your group community.

Best of luck,

Monday, July 2, 2012

Facebook Enforces Email Feature and Users Aren't Happy

Image via Toro Magazine
If you have ever had a conversation with me in real life about Facebook, you would know it's my favorite social media whipping boy. Facebook really doesn't care about its users, except for how they might be exploited as a revenue stream. They don't test enough. They change on a whim. 

(Okay, yes, I love being able to keep in touch with old friends and have conversations with my college professors and high school teachers and chat with my husband, but I still don't trust the company.)

Over a year ago, Facebook launched Facebook Email, giving every one of its users the option to claim an email address ending with It was immediately ignored by the majority of its users, and articles like "Why You Shouldn't Use Facebook Email" and "Why You Won't Use Facebook Email," started appearing all over the web. There were many issues with this new "feature," from the usual worries about privacy on Facebook to the fact that it lumped every communication from a single source into one comment thread. And don't forget you couldn't use it in a regular email client. 

Facebook email had one major objective: To keep users locked into the Facebook website. The longer you stay on the site, the more likely you are to view and click on ads. The longer you stay on the site, the more information you are likely to share that can be sold to advertisers. Facebook may be free, but that's because you, the user, are actually the product they are creating. 

Last week, Facebook, in its megalomaniacal tendency, decided to overrule its users' rejection of Facebook email and replace everyone's email address with a Facebook email address. Savvy users noticed the change almost instantly, and began to outline how to change your email address back (Lifehacker instructions here). 

Now it appears that some users, even those who quickly changed their email addresses back, are missing some emails, and Facebook has even inserted itself into address books and synced those new email addresses. Gizmodo has a good rundown of what systems were affected, and you should probably go check your own phone and online address books to make sure your contacts haven't been affected. 

But despite this kerfluffle about email addresses, this episode is just one in a long string of Facebook changing from a site where you can "hang out" with your friends to a for-profit, publicly traded company that needs to show its investors that it can bring home the bacon. I have serious doubts that its current business model and its modus operandi of rolling out changes at the drop of a hat can sustain the company.

Let's get back to the fact that Facebook's product is not its site, it's you the user. If the product is free, you are the product. You are what's being sliced and diced and served up as 12 different kinds of fries to investors and advertisers. At this point, Facebook has reached a critical mass in acquired users. There is no way to recreate the amazing growth in new users that it has enjoyed in the past. So what Facebook will have to do is hold on to the users it has.

Changes like this "email consistency" move alienate users. Users had already voted on the Facebook email feature by not using it. Instead of respecting that and finding a different way to engage its users, Facebook just forced it on everyone, and didn't even make an announcement to say, "Hi Everyone, starting Monday, we're giving you this email address!" Transparency in the Internet age is critical to customer retention. By using a stealth option to enforce this new feature, Facebook angered a lot of its users and I'm sure there are some who are leaving. Not to mention the previously noted exodus of younger users, who are leaving because their parents are now monitoring them on the site.

If Facebook really wants to keep its web dominance, it needs to start listening to its users. A great way to do this would be to ask for information from focus groups, or work with influencers on the network. However, they have already tainted their credibility seriously, so any outreach they do will come at a great expense.

What's your view of the Facebook Email Debacle? Leave your thoughts in the comments.