Archives for November 2009

Ad Agencies Slow to Use Social Media Themselves

Ad agencies, while quick to recommend social media to their clients, are slow to use it themselves. A study by RSW/US and Second Wind shows that while nearly 75% of the agencies they polled have a social media presence, but most a majority of them don’t use it more than once a month.

According to an article on

Nearly three-quarters of the 212 agency leaders polled in the online survey are connected to LinkedIn, 66 percent to Facebook and 56 percent to Twitter. But when asked how frequently they use each, the majority said no more than once a month. For example, 47 percent conceded that they never tweet, 7 percent said they tweet less than once a month and 4 percent tweet just once monthly.

The findings were similar for blogs, with 56 percent of the respondents saying that their agencies have blogs, but only 6 percent use them daily. A whopping 66 percent indicated that they blog no more than once a month.

I’m not sure if I should be surprised by all of this. (I’m not.) Many agencies suffer from the shoemaker’s children syndrome. They have the knowledge and experience doing the things they recommend, but they don’t have the time or energy to implement the strategy themselves.

How many web designers don’t have an updated website? How many social media strategists don’t monitor their own ROI and stats? We’ve certainly seen our share of agencies that aren’t eating their own dog food, but is it because they don’t have the time or because they don’t actually believe in it themselves?

We like to think it’s because they’re just too busy doing client work. But there are more than a few large agencies that just don’t get social media, and the only reason they’re on Twitter or Facebook is because they told an intern to set up the accounts.

Six months ago.

If agencies want to be in the position to tell clients why they need to use social media, they need to use it themselves. They need to eat their own dogfood. How else will you keep up with the developments in the field — developments that your clients will need to know about — if you’re not using the tools on a regular, frequent basis.

Appoint someone in a senior position to use social media, and give them permission to speak for the agency in their own voice. Make sure they’re given some time each day to use it Chris Brogan recommends 2 hours per day. (Hey, some of us work for a living, Chris.) We usually recommend 30 minutes a day, especially if it’s not part of your regular job description.

If you’re going to tell others to use social media, you need to do it yourself. This is not a “do as I say, not as I do” business. You’re doing your clients a disservice if you’re not tweeting using Linked In, or using other social media tools on a nearly daily basis yourself.

The Best Way to Get and Keep More Readers

When I was in graduate school, I noticed that most of my fellow grad students, and our professors, loved to use big words and long sentences.

They tried to use the most complex words and sentences as possible in their scholarly works. Paragraphs were measured in linear feet, not number of words. And it was not unheard of to spend 12 – 15 hours writing a simple 10 page paper.

Not me, of course. I had cut my writing teeth at my college newspaper, so I wrote like a journalist: short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. (Something that would send my 7th grade English teacher screaming from the room.)

I constantly got easy A’s on my papers, while the other students were getting B’s and hard-won A’s, and spending a lot more time on their work than I did.

It never occurred to anyone in the department that it was how I wrote that made the difference, not the quality of my ideas or the way I expressed them. I didn’t even stumble on this little revelation myself until many years later.

What I learned was, if you want to be read, write simply. Don’t be flowery or use $50 words. Write at an 8th grade reading level, or possibly even a 6th. That’s where most newspapers are written these days. TV news copy is written at the 4th grade level.

The American Marketing Association even backs me up on this.

In January 2008, authors G. Alan Sawyer, Juliano Laran, & Jun Xu published the study, The Readability of Marketing Journals: Are Award-Winning Articles Better Written?

In a word, yes.

Basically, they wanted to see if award-winning journal articles were written more simply than the non-winners (we call them “losers” outside the academic walls). They ran the text through Microsoft Word’s Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level grader, and did a whole bunch of complicated stuff with statistics that I won’t even pretend to understand.

The Reading Level score corresponds to the grade of education of the reader it would take to understand it. If your score is 8.4, it’s suitable for an 8th grader. A 14.6 is suitable for a college sophomore. A score of 21 or higher is suitable for Stephen Hawking, although he may find it a little pedestrian.

Here’s what they found:

Of the 15 articles with the best readability scores, 13 of them were award winners. They had scores from 12.3 to 14.4. Of the 11 worst least readable articles, 9 of them were “non-winners,” and carried scores from 18.3 to 21.3.

(Their own article has a 13.98 Flesch-Kincaid score. This post has a 6.7. I guess I win.)

So why is a lower reading score so important? Are we getting dumber? Do we all have the attention span of a bunch of hyperactive 12-year-olds?

No, the reason is our mental bandwidth. Let’s face it, we’re all busy, harried, and are running eight things through our brains at once. And that’s on a good day. When we’re confronted with a piece of text, we want it to be as simple as possible.

Simple doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that our brains are shutting down. It means we don’t have to devote as much time and energy to it. We can process the text easily, absorb the information, and move on. We can absolutely read something that’s long and complex. We’re all smart people, and we can certainly read something written at a 12th grade reading level. It’s just that people sometimes need the break from the long and complex. Simple writing gives that to them, and as a result, is more readily accepted.

Basically, if you want to win readers, stick with the writing style the newspapers use. Short words, short sentences, short paragraphs. Most important information goes up front, least important goes last. Avoid needless words.

Otherwise, your readers will eventually get bored and go elsewhere.

(Note: If you’re a Mac user, and don’t have access to Word’s Flesch-Kincaid grader, you can download Flesh, the document readability calculator. I used it to grade this post.)

Photo: Peyri

Five Quick and Easy Blog Writing Techniques

Yesterday, I gave a talk about Blogging Basics for Job Seekers to our local Business & Professional Exchange organization, a networking group for people who are looking for new employment.

I tried to explain blog writing as simply as possible, but as I was talking, I realized there’s more than one way to skin that cat, so I thought I would assemble a few of my favorite blog writing techniques here. Use any of them when you’re stuck, not so much for what to write about, but how to write it.

  • Dear Mom: The nice thing about blogging is that it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s as easy as writing an email. And the important thing about blogging is that you make the subject matter as simple and easy as possible. “Easy enough so that your mother can understand it,” I tell people. So start your blog post like this: “Dear Mom, Let me tell you about this cool thing I learned today,” and then tell her about it. When you’re done, delete the salutation and opening line, and you’ve got your blog post.
  • What Can [Insert Movie/Song/Sport/Esoteric Trivia] Teach Us About [Industry/Job/Social Movement]: I very nearly wrote a post about “What Ultimate Frisbee Can Teach Us About Blogging” once (I was an avid Ultimate Frisbee player many years ago), but then I decided I hated those kinds of posts. Still, they’re very successful, and they do serve a purpose. They force you to do some lateral thinking, and find weird connections between your chosen song/sport/etc. and your subject matter. It also gives you a framework to start building the post, which makes the writing much easier.
  • Use the News: This one is especially important if you’re writing about your chosen industry or field. Find news articles in other blogs, trade journals, or even the mainstream news, and write a news-opinion piece about it. Talk about the basic details of the story, and then offer your opinion on how this will affect your industry, for good or bad. Spend about half your post summarizing the story (don’t forget to cite the article and link to it), and then the other half putting forth your own ideas.
  • Once Upon a Time: People love stories. We’ve been passing knowledge through stories since before we had a written alphabet. Storytelling is in our DNA. So rather than just put forth an idea in the most general, vague terms, tell a story about how you saw it used. Tell a true story, or make one up, as sort of a modern-day parable. If you need to, tell your story to someone out loud before you commit it to paper. You’ll find a story flows much more easily than just reciting dry facts and banging out 30,000 foot overviews.
  • Lists: Create a list of ideas or techniques, and give it a descriptive and persuasive title. People love lists, and they’re easily drawn to them. (Hey, it got you to read this far, didn’t it?) Plus it makes writing much easier. Rather than coming up with one really long idea, you can instead create five simple ones. A list will keep you focused and let you lightly touch on the different ideas you want to cover. Then you can expand each of them for later posts.

When you’re trying these techniques, don’t let them turn you into a word factory. Try to stick with the mantra, “one idea, one post, one day.” If you find your posts are getting too long, split them up into two different ideas, or make your post a two-parter.

Photo: plindberg

Blogging and Social Media are Forcing Professors Out of Their Ivory Towers

The unnamed folks over at Microgeist posed an interesting question in the article, Will Social Media and the Internet Kill the University System.

The answer is no. No it won’t. The University system is too firmly entrenched in our business culture, and too many businesses believe you must have a degree in the area you’re seeking a job in. Social media won’t unseat the university system any time soon. The Internet may change how we obtain knowledge, but you’ll still need a degree from an accredited university to get that job.

They did raise an interesting question however.

Will The Internet force professors out of the Ivory Tower?

We’re starting to see this somewhat. The Ivory Tower was originally the idea that professors were isolated “from practical matters” so they could work unimpeded toward “greater levels of abstraction which can then be converted via various design, engineering and business principles into something more pragmatic.”

The problem is, some professors began to see themselves as the Philosopher-Kings of society, and we unwashed masses were left to scrabble an intellectual existence out of whatever crumbs they might carelessly drop.

The Internet is starting to knock down the Ivory Tower though. Now, people are able to share knowledge with one another, without professorial filtration. Graduate students are publishing articles in blogs. Professors’ class notes and lecture videos are available online. And thousands of entrepreneurs are writing books about subjects that are making their way back to the universities, not the other way around.

It used to be that new ideas and new practices came from the university level, and were slowly absorbed into business, medicine, or the arts, as the graduates entered the field, were promoted, and the old ways of thinking died out.

Now, it’s the professionals who are writing the books and developing the ideas that are slow to catch on in higher education. Social media is a great example of this.

I’ve spoken with a few friends — social media professionals and experts — who have spoken at different college classes, and are finding that not only do students not know how to use social media (collaboration, tweetups, networking), but many of them don’t even know what tools are out there beyond Facebook. And the concept of face-to-face networking with others to form beneficial relationships? One friend said the students just stared at her blankly when she brought it up.

Basically, colleges and universities are going to have to realize that life has gone on without them, and knowledge has grown beyond them. They’re going to have to climb down from their ivory towers and catch up with the rest of us. Start spending time in the real world. Hang out. Learn from the people you were teaching 5, 10, 20 years ago. They’ve got a lot more they can teach you now.

What other information is getting shared outside of the University’s influence? What new knowledge is being spread— or have you spread — without them? And what can the universities do to keep up? Leave your ideas in the comments section.

Is It Authentic to Delete Your Tweets?

Is it okay to delete your own tweets? Is it authentic and transparent to do this? What if you’re in the business of authenticity and transparency? Is it less okay?

My friend Lindsay Manfredi tweeted this question yesterday, and it got me to thinking.

Lindsay Manfredi
What if you delete your own embarrassing tweets?
Is that being transparent??? Just curious.

What if they’re embarrassing? What if you said or did something that, upon reflection, made you look like a total idiot, and you just wanted to erase all evidence of it?

If you were David George-Cosh (@SirDavid), technology reporter for Canada’s National Post, you probably would. (I’d link to his Twitter page, but it was suspended.)

In April 2008, he had a veritable Twitter meltdown and got into a profanity-laden shouting match with PR pro April Dunford.

It started when April tweeted Reporter to me”When the media calls you, you jump, OK!?” Why, when you called me and I’m not selling? Newspapers will get what they deserve. Then things got all F-bomby.

Somehow, his dustup made it to the MediaStyle blog, plus several other social media blogs. After attracting a lot of unwanted attention, @SirDavid deleted the evidence. Too late. Someone took a screenshot of it, and it lives on now and forever. Including here. (Hey, I’m helpful that way.)


While his embarrassment is more than understandable, it raises the question about whether it’s appropriate to delete your tweets. After all, social media is about authenticity.

Let the real world see the real you. If you’re a kind and helpful person, put out kind and helpful ideas and information. If you’re a teacher at heart, teach others. And if the real you is a short-tempered foul-mouthed jerk, and you put that out into the Twitterverse, let it ride. If you get drunk at your friends’ weddings, feel free to post the evidence of your lack of decorum on the My Friend’s Getting Married, I’m Just Getting Drunk Facebook group (with nearly 200,000 members now).

Just be prepared to deal with the consequences when you do. Like when your Facebook photo gets found at the top of a Google search by an HR director. Or when your blog about your anti-government screeds are discovered by your pro-government boss. Or when your Twitter meltdown on a public relations pro makes the social media rounds.

If you’re in the business of being authentic and transparent — like a newspaper reporter — then you need to let your mistakes live on. (After all, you’re in the business of exposing other people’s shortcomings.) Or better yet, just don’t put tweet/post/upload that stuff.

If you don’t want any skeletons in the closet, don’t stick the bodies in there in first place.

Bloggers Are Citizen Journalists

A common complaint I hear from big-J Journalists about bloggers is that we’re not “real” journalists. That we’re somehow beneath their contempt and notice.

I first saw this attitude when I worked at the Indiana State Department of Health, and a few of my colleagues said we would never deal with bloggers because they only wanted to put out bad information. And in dealing with other Journalists, they almost seemed to say “blogger” with a sneer. As if “blogger” was something they stepped in on their way to the office.

As a result, many Journalists don’t believe things like Reporter Shield Laws should apply to us. For example, if an environmental blog were to uncover environmental violations by a large corporation, that blogger could be forced to reveal who his or her sources were. But if a newspaper wrote the same story, the reporter would not.

The biggest question comes down to who is a journalist. In the Branzburg v. Hayes case, Justice Byron White said

“Freedom of the press is a ‘fundamental personal right’ which ‘is not confined to newspapers and periodicals. It necessarily embraces pamphlets and leaflets. … The press in its historic connotation comprehends every sort of publication which affords a vehicle of information and opinion.’ … The informative function asserted by representatives of the organized press in the present cases is also performed by lecturers, political pollsters, novelists, academic researchers, and dramatists.”

— Quote from an article by David Hudson of

Even back in 1973, when Justice White threw open “The Press” to anyone who produced the printed word, technology has widened the definition to anyone who writes for blogs, the 21st century’s electronic pamphlet.

In his article, Hudson also cited Kurt Opsahl, the staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who mentioned a couple examples where bloggers outperformed the big-J Journalists

“Bloggers hammered on the Trent Lott story (Lott’s comments about Strom Thurmond) until mainstream media was forced to pick it up again,” he said. “Three amateur journalists at the blog were primarily responsible for discrediting the documents used in CBS’s rush-to-air story on President George Bush’s National Guard service. And the list goes on.”

Cox lists several other national-headline stories affected greatly by reporting from blogs, including: Dan Rather and the Texas Air National Guard memos, the White House giving press credentials to James Guckert/Jeff Gannon, the resignation of CNN news executive Eason Jordan after publicity surrounding his remarks at the World Economic Forum and the John Kerry-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth controversy.

Or to put it another way, the big political scoops in the last 5 years have not been by the media, but by bloggers. Also called little-J journalists.

So, other than an overwhelming sense of elitism by the men and women of the dead-tree media, what really separates us from being real Journalists?

Is it the medium? Many former newspaper reporters and columnists have left the printed word, and gone on to start their own blogging career:

  1. Ruth Holladay who is serving brilliantly as a cheerleader for traditional media and a thorn in the side of her former employer, Gannett
  2. Lori Borgman the former arts columnist for the Indianapolis Star
  3. Columnist Saul Friedman who retired from Newsday rather than let his column go up behind a paywall

(I’m curious what their colleagues think? Have these writers somehow fallen from grace, and are no longer “good enough” to be considered Journalists? Are they now mentioned with the same sneer I heard three years ago?)

Maybe the pay is the issue. The fact that bloggers don’t get paid as much as newspaper writers (who, frankly, are not known for their lavish pay and glamorous lifestyle) may be the deciding factor. However, there are some online writers who make a lot more money than most successful businesspeople, let alone Journalists. So that argument doesn’t seem to hold weight.

Maybe it’s the training. The aforementioned paper-turned-pixel writers notwithstanding, Journalists seem to think they have the super-secret training that makes them a font of reliability and trustworthiness. Yet I know a lot of journalists who can’t spell, don’t know grammar, and in some cases, just plain can’t write. I took several journalism classes in college, and I can tell you they don’t teach anything extra special that someone with a penchant for the written word couldn’t pick up.

Even the Washington Post isn’t immune from bad writers. Meanwhile, there are several outstanding bloggers who produce some outstanding prose that would make any big-J Journalist green with envy.

Maybe it’s because the media is trustworthy and bloggers aren’t? You know, trustworthy. People like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Ruth Shalit. Of course, Shalit is back in journalism, Blair is a life coach in Virginia, and Glass is now a multi-millionaire, thanks to the book and movie deals he has gotten.

Admittedly, these three are the exception to the rule, and not the rule themselves. But my point is there are bad apples in blogging and bad apples in Journalism. Still if you’re going to accuse bloggers of not telling the truth, you need to look at the journalists who make stuff up too.

I just don’t see what the big difference is, other than bloggers don’t kill a lot of trees to get their message out through a dying medium. Yes, there are bad bloggers, but there are bad journalists. Yes, there are bloggers who lie, but there are lying journalists as well. (Some people might say that term is redundant.) Yes, journalists are trained as writers, but there are a lot of trained writers who use the electronic medium instead of newsprint.

If the U.S. Supreme Court opened up the definition of Citizen Journalists to pamphleteers and leaflet-writers, then they can certainly open it up to bloggers. And as bloggers, we need to make sure we can meet that expectation. We need to take on the mantle of Citizen Journalist ourselves, and then make sure we live up to that standard. (I’ll discuss that more in the future.)

So what do you think? Are bloggers journalists? Or are we a bunch of cranks sitting in our parents’ basement under bare light bulbs, writing about conspiracy theories and Paris Hilton sightings?

Stacks of newspapers photo: John Thurm
Ann Arbor News photo: mfophoto

Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds