Introducing Mobile Museum

I’m ramping up to launch a sister site to this one. It’s called Mobile Museum and will be a series of semi-structured written interviews with people who have developed, authored or project-managed mobile solutions. Some of these people will be museum people, others won’t…

If you’re interested you can find out more over on http://mobilemuseum.org.uk/ where there’s a link to a signup form. Expected launch date – end September 2011.

WordPress culture hackday, anyone?

A long and interesting thread on the MCG list prompted a thought – how about a WordPress hack-and-knowledge-sharing-kinda-day for culture?

We could talk about stuff like:

  • best approaches and favourite plugins
  • ways to hook into existing systems like Omeka
  • building some simple plugins to interface with CH open data
  • building some simple plugins to interface with other CH systems (collections management, library systems, etc)
  • how to deploy, move and scale sites

Dunno – I’m making this up as I go along. But if you’re interested in this totally vague proposal, chuck your name and thoughts into this form * and we’ll see if it goes anywhere.

(* If you’re in one of those institutions who have a short-sighted IT department that doesn’t let you look at the whole internet, just add your thoughts in a comment on this post….)

QR isn’t an end, it’s a means

QR seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own over the past few weeks. Not only have I seen far more of the codes in the wild, but there seems to be many more people writing about it, many more news articles – and also (which is nice) – lots of people emailing me to ask how they can “do QR”.

Google Trends graph for "QR"

QR is a great technology. Actually, no – it’s an ok-ish technology. The more important thing is that the awareness means gains in popularity, which in turn means more people will know what a QR code is, how to use it – and also make them aware of some of the foibles. As with anything, this isn’t about how awesome the technology is. Many, many geeky people will tell you QR is crap – which in some ways it is per se – but the important thing is market penetration, expectation, device support – and (most importantly), the content experiences which underly it.

Underlying the concept of QR though is something rather more important, which I think many people miss in their rush to play with the latest and greatest thing. The important thing is this: QR is a way of poking the digital world into the real world. In a way, QR is simply one technology in a line of technologies that does this. Remember the first time you saw a URL on a piece of print advertising? That was digital poking into real, albeit in a slightly crap way. Then bluetooth. Now QR.

Ultimately, the concept is the same in each of these cases: put a marker in the real world which allows your audiences to connect with content in the virtual world.

The technology with which you do this can be agnostic. This year it might be QR. Next it might be NFC or AR. The following – who knows, image recognition / hyper-accurate GPS / whatever. The facts remain the same:

First: People have to have a desire to engage with the marker in the first place. Why would you go to the effort of scanning a QR code with no knowledge of what that code might provide for you? Nina Simon just recently blogged about QR Codes and Visitor Motivation which asks this question. The cost curve – as always – has to balance: the value that your user gets out must be greater than the effort that they have to put in – and (almost more important), you have to make this value clear before they scan.

Second: A proportion of people will never take part / have the technology to take part. QR scanning (or – even more so – NFC or whatever the next big thing is) will be a niche activity for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that not only does your user have to have a QR code reader installed, they also need the right kind of phone, an internet connection at the point of scan AND a contract with their provider that lets them use this connection. These things are becoming more real, but it is by no means a given yet.

Third – and possibly the most important – the content that you deliver should add something significant to their experience. This is tied to the first point. Here’s a banner I snapped when I was in London recently:

UCL zoology QR code

If you scan this you get a link to the UCL Zoology Museum (and ironically, out of shot to the left is the URL that the QR code sends you to..). From a user experience perspective, I bet you 50p I can get my smartphone out, type in the url and be looking at the relevant content quicker than you can boot up a QR app, scan and open.

In this instance, you do actually end up at a mobile-friendly site and some interesting links to QR technologies in use at UCL – which is fantastic. But the use case and motivation aren’t really articulated in the physical world.

Finally – you can easily put some measures in place to track usage, and use this to inform future activity. Here’s another example, this time from the British Library:

British Library QR

If you follow this link, you’ll find it goes to http://www.bl.uk/sciencefiction. The problem with this is that the URL is the same one as is being used on the poster, around the web and in all their other marketing. So when it comes to evaluating the use of QR – and whether it has been successful as a means to pull in new visitors – my suspicion is the BL won’t have any idea how to separate out these clicks from any of the others.

The simple solution to this is to use something like bit.ly and create a unique URL which is specifically for this QR code. More advanced techniques might include things like appending a string to the end of the URL (for example www.bl.uk/sciencefiction?source=qr) – or using Google Analytics “campaigns” to track these.

(Note that you could also get even more clever by having separate unique QR codes for separate advertising zones or even for separate posters – imagine the impact of being able to track which posters or areas have been most successful…now that’s cool use of a technology…)

Coming back to the beginning of this post – the overriding point here is that QR, and many other technologies similar to it, provide a very exciting way of bringing digital content into the real world. With some upfront thinking, genuinely interesting content can be delivered in this way and users can be made to engage. As ever, though, it isn’t about the technology but about the use, motiviation and content which lies behind the technology. These are the things that count.

What to do about Facebook?

Ah, Facebook.

On the one hand:

…this is the single most dynamic, engaged and engaging platform for user generated content that there has ever been. 500 million people, converging on a single web application. Wait, read that again – 500 MILLION people. That’s a noticeable chunk of the entire global population.

That’s a totally, utterly and completely insane amount of user penetration. And when you use it (I don’t, much, but I watch my wife and her friends and I dip in to see what is happening every so often) – it’s obvious why. Facebook is slick, it’s user-focused and it’s all about the connections. Critical mass + friends + photos? Of course it works.

On the other hand:

…Facebook is regularly cited – actually, cited is way too gentle a word – screamed about – for being EVIL. Reasons vary, but they tend to focus on what is seen as a hugely lax approach to privacy. Actually, it’s layer upon layer of laxness – from totally baffling privacy controls to requiring a PhD to delete your account to the latest “facetracking by default” functionality. It’s a general “don’t give a ****” thing, it appears.

When it isn’t privacy, it’s concerns about “domination of the web” (particularly now things such as the Like Button are out in the wild) or how closed their so-called “Open Graph” is in reality, or the possibility that Zuckerberg did something wrong once or – well, go read “10 reasons to delete your Facebook account” for some more.

And here’s the tension, beautifully summed up by Jason Scott in a stunningly entertaining rant about Facebook. Cover your body organs if you’re of a sensitive disposition:

People aren’t just eating Facebook’s Shit Sherbet of overnight upgrades, of lack of guarantees and standards, of enveloping tendrils of web standard breaking. They are shoveling it down. They’re grabbing two crazy handfuls of Facebook every minute of every day when they’re not forced to walk down a hallway or look up from their phones or ipads or laptops or consoles. They’re grabbing buckets of Facebook and finding ways to shove it down with one hand while pawing around for a second bucket.  People have bought the fuck in.

So what to make of this? For someone like me – a generalist who straddles two very different groups of people – the tension is very often felt. I have geeks in one ear talking about open standards, pushing for privacy controls and hoping upon hope that the Semantic Web will get here one day. In the other ear I hear people who couldn’t give a monkeys about open standards, probably have “password” as their password, and seem remarkably relaxed about posting pictures of themselves hunched over a bucket bong. With these people there’s no denying the pleasure, the engagement, the rich content and the opportunities that Facebook offers.

On thing seems sure: rant as much as you like, but there’s no escaping. Facebook – in fact, big companies of all sizes – will dominate the internet landscape for a long time to come, and they’ll always find success.  There’s a reason why there is no alternative to Twitter, no alternative to Google and no alternative to Facebook: these are the places where everyone goes. It’s horrible, and uncomfortable, and we all wish people weren’t so terribly dumb, but the fact of the matter is – people choose social, and they do it at the expense of – well, lots of things: privacy, openness, safety. The utility of these tools is easy to underestimate in the general scheme of things, especially if you’re a geek – but utility, ease, sociability are the non-geek world’s open standards, the defining shape of their lives.

This seems to be the sting in the tail of large-scale social web activity. In order for it to be compelling, it requires a large social graph. In order for a large social graph to work, you normally need a big company or concern behind the scenes. Where there’s a big company, there’s money. Where there’s money, ethics almost always start being eroded. Bang.

I don’t think anyone should be under any illusions that everyone is going to delete their Facebook account (when they can work out how) just yet. Learning, awareness, going into this with eyes (yours, or your institutions’) seems to be the only possible answer to the question in the title. A moderate, not polarised approach.

Clearly I’m getting old.

Going freelance

I’m delighted and terrified (in pretty much equal measures) to announce that at the end of June 2011 I’ll be leaving my current employer Eduserv, and heading out into the wilderness of the freelancer.

As with any move, I’ll be very sad to leave the fine people I’ve been working so closely with but I’m also totally over-excited about starting something up. I fooled around with my own company when I left university in 1995 but it all went horribly wrong and it’s always felt like an itch I wanted to scratch properly.

This time, I won’t be alone in my endeavours. My excellent and massively talented wife – ex Science Museum, ex-Natural History Museum, ex-Colston Hall, mum – will be joining me as co-director of our new company thirty8 *. We’ll be focusing on web consulting, web and mobile strategy, training, content development and also some WordPress-based site builds. Naturally with our backgrounds we’ll be looking for museumy work, but we aren’t going to be limited by sector in any way.

So that’s it. Obviously if you’re looking for people to work with or just want to say hello, please do get in touch by dropping a comment on this post or via Twitter.

See you in July 🙂

{ * And why “thirty8”? Well, that’d be telling.. }

What if Twitter goes rogue?

Since the dawn of Twitter, the big question about the micro-blogging service has always been “but how will they make money?”.

To date, Twitter have taken a now-very-typical approach to this: rely on funding to grow a massive, engaged and dynamic community without worrying about the money, and then once the community is in place, apply the business model.

There’s three recent-ish developments that many people think point to the fact that things might be changing soon:

  • First, Twitter made some changes to their API which essentially takes the developer focus away from Twitter clients and instead suggests a focus on data,
  • Second, they just announced the acquisition of Tweetdeck for an astonishing $40m,
  • Third, they have just in the last few days started sending emails by default on all replies and re-tweets

These things might look slightly disparate in nature, but the overall shift is one in which Twitter has more control over the stream of content emanating from the service. Tweetdeck is an interesting acquisition for Twitter in this sense – yes, it may  be an extremely powerful and widely-liked client but it also crucially allows users to filter what they see.

When you consider that the most likely business model for Twitter is to start populating the Twitter stream with ads, suddenly all these developments start to appear a bit more strategically connected. Once Twitter has control over the stream and has moved control away from client developers, ads are going to be much harder to filter. You can bet too that those incoming emails will be ad-populated before long too.

Clearly, any online business needs to make money or at least be self-sustaining, and having burned through a big pile of VC money Twitter is going to be looking to claw back wherever they can. It’s lovely that Twitter is free and not filled with ads, but it is also unrealistic to think that this might go on forever.

Working on the assumption that things are going to have to change, where does that leave the user? Talk of heading off to Identi.ca or other microblogging services is unrealistic; Twitter has (and knows it has!) a huge critical mass. The only other offering on the horizon (albeit what looks like a distant horizon) is Diaspora – a lovely model (you own your own stuff) but again totally lacking in real-world usefulness right now.

We’ve all invested hugely in Twitter. It’d be very hard for many of us to imagine life without it – but we’ve all bought into a service which is a commercial service, and one which is subject to the whims of profitability.

So – back to the title of the post. What if Twitter goes rogue – and by “rogue” I mean “starts doing something that you personally find unacceptable” (so for the sake or argument, imagine a scenario which makes you wince, be it ads in-stream / membership fee / company bought by the Chinese / content moderation at source / etc). What then?

Personally, I think I’d pay a membership fee in order to use the service. I’d also likely pay in order to not have ads in my stream. What about you?

Writing a book

As you might have noticed, things have been kind of quiet around here on the Electronic Museum blog.

Two big things have been occupying me recently and form the basis for my non-blogging excuse. One: I just co-organised a ridiculously exciting mobile conference in Bath called The Big M. I won’t talk about this more here – if you’re interested, go have a look at the conference blog over on http://blog.thebigm.mobi. But needless to say, it has been eating up most of my spare time in the last few weeks.

Two – and the thing I want to just quickly write about here – is that after more than a year of writing I’ve finally submitted the last draft of my book to my editor. Hurrah.

Here are a few slightly random observations that I’ve take away from the whole experience. These are my observations about my experience, by the way – I’m not suggesting they’ll be right for you…

1. This hasn’t felt like childbirth*

You know those loooong projects? The ones where you get to the end of them, send the final email / go live / etc – and then swear blind that you’ll never do that EVER again as you take up smoking and cry over about 10 pints of cider?

That hasn’t been the case for me in this instance, at all. This has been one of the most sustained things I’ve done for a while – writing every single day for more than a year – and yet I can say with my hand on my heart that I have enjoyed the entire thing – and not only that, I very much want to do it again. This has come as some surprise to me.

(* disclaimer: yes, I’m being facetious; no, I obviously don’t know what childbirth is like; yes, I was there; no, it didn’t hurt…)

2. Being disciplined is absolutely key

When I started writing I took the unusual step (for me) of deciding to be totally regimented with my approach. Here’s what I did – and please promise not to laugh – it worked for me 🙂

Right at the beginning, I knocked out a quick Google spreadsheet which calculated how many days remained between the current day and my deadline. I then simply divided things up so I ended up with a “how many words you need to write today” figure for all the time remaining. I also did a bit of maths to show what percentage of this daily target I managed to write on each day.

This did two important things for me. One, it meant that my big fear of an end-loaded panic a month before my deadline was easily avoidable. Two, it meant that I could bust a gut on some nights and knock out way more than my “quota” and then relax at the weekends and not do any writing at all.

As I said above, this kind of discipline isn’t natural to me, but – more by accident than design – it really worked. I’d recommend it.

3. Software matters (a bit)

Much as book writing is obviously all about content, the process by which that writing happens can obviously be helped along by the technology. I had the good fortune to discover a piece of desktop software called Scrivener (used to be just Mac, but now PC as well). It is specifically designed for people writing long scripts – and lets you do things which are very clumsy in “normal” word-processing software like Word: shuffling blocks of text around, comparing one block from one chapter with another, finding and replacing, section word counts and so on. There are probably other ways of doing this, but I for one couldn’t imagine the horror of working on a 60,000 word document in The Beast that is MS Word…

Secondly – it’s an obvious one but always worth re-iterating – backup, backup your backup and then backup the backup you did before you did the backup… I’m a huge Dropbox fan, and trust it implicitly, but that didn’t stop me making copies and FTPing them into hidden folders on my web hosting, emailing them to my mum, putting them on a CD, etc, etc. The disaster of loss was too much to countenance…

Thirdly – although this came as no surprise, it turns out my publisher doesn’t use any of the tools that would actually make their lives very much easier: in an ideal world I’d have had a shared Dropbox folder with my editor, compared documents on Google Docs and so on. The reality – of course! – was email + Word with tracked changes. What a missed opportunity!

There’s lots of other stuff I learnt as I went along but this post is in danger of becoming a book all of it’s own, so I’ll stop there.

It’d be interesting to hear what you think, especially if you’ve gone through this yourself…

It’s all about the communication

Here’s a story for you:

Once upon a time there was a man who bought some hosting. He bought it because he liked the flexibility, freedom and functionality that it offered. He bought it knowing that it was cheap, and that cheap sometimes means compromise: he did this because he isn’t terribly rich, and decided that the risk was acceptable.

The man was happy with his hosting until one day he happened to head over to one of his sites only to find it was down. He tried another of his sites, then another. Also down. He went online to the support site and tried to raise a ticket – nothing worked in the browsers he tried. He emailed Support. They got back and told him there were “some problems”.

Now, 48 hours later, despite repeated emails to Support the only additional information he got was a link to a page showing a [very slow] “bare metal” install (whatever that is) of the offending server.  His sites remain broken. Man becomes increasingly pissed off.

You’ll obviously recognise that the man in question is me. The host in question is http://www.wpwebhost.com/. You’d probably guess that I’m pissed off because my sites are all down.

As it happens, you’re totally wrong about that – I understand that bad shit happens to servers, and I understand that I get a good service from these guys, most of the time.

The thing that has really pissed me off is this: the abysmal communication I’ve had from them about the issue:

  • I had to find out about this on my own. I haven’t had a single communication from WPWebHost letting me know that my hosting is borked. Presumably this means that they have a number of clients who are still – 2 days later – unaware that their sites are down
  • When I did email Support, I also raised the issue that you can’t use the website support portal to raise a ticket – and even sent them a screengrab explaining the problem. Nothing back, just a stock “sorry for the inconvenience, please see this status link” email
  • I’ve repeatedly emailed asking them for ANY kind of ETA – in this instance I have a site with some time-critical stuff on it and making the “bugger, let’s switch DNS and hosting” decision could have been made had I known that 48 hours later things would still be broken.
  • As of time of writing, the @wpwebhost Twitter account also hasn’t been updated since 12th January – not a peep about the current issue

Actually, for the most part this isn’t abysmal communication – it’s NO communication.

So now I’m thinking – righto, I hate everything about switching hosts, but I’m really going to have to think quite hard about doing it.

The huge irony is this – if I’d had ONE proactive email from WPWebHost along these lines:

Hey, we’re really sorry but we’ve had a big fuckup on one of our machines. Your sites are affected. As of time of writing we estimate it’ll take 60 hours to get them back up and running. If you need help switching DNS during this time, please contact us and we’ll be pleased to help. Once again, accept our apologies.

…then I’d probably be much happier about sticking with them into the future.

This isn’t about the hosting. The hardcore geeks among you are already lining up to tell me how many backups, failovers and dynamic DNS switching tools I should have had at my disposal. I know all that, I took the risk. The point isn’t about the technology, it’s about the relationship they have with their customers.

This is 2011. In this world, the people who get this right are the ones who are honest with their customers, not those who try to ostrich problems. If WPWebHost turn around to me and say – “You know what, everything you had hosted with us here is lost” (here’s hoping not, but they’ve already failed with one install, and I’m a realistic kind of person..) – then I’d be in a much, much better mood to accept this if they’d been proactive in communicating the problems they’re having.

Get with the shit, guys.

Strategic digital marketing: don’t be dis(integrated)

I was asked to speak at At-Bristol recently at a gathering of marketing people from the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres.

The topic of choice was strategic marketing. Now, as I made it clear on the day, I’m not – officially, at least – a “marketing person”. Nonetheless, I’ve spent more than a decade working with content-rich organisations on the web, and a core part of my role has been about getting people to stuff. And if that isn’t – at some level at least – about “marketing”, then I don’t know what is.

Rather than doing anything too fluffy and high-level, I thought I’d focus on ten practical activities which ultimately help pull together strategic ways of thinking about digital marketing. The list certainly isn’t definitive, by the way, but it should help…

#1: Develop a Shared Vision

This sounds obvious, but it is actually one of the hardest things to do. When you’re working with cross-departmental teams such as IT, web, marketing, a clearly defined strategy is a difficult thing to agree on. One of the best tricks I’ve found for doing this is to map (visually, if you can!) your high-level organisational strategy to your web and marketing strategies and look for common ground. It helps keep you and your team heading in the same direction, but is also useful for “justifying” digital activity.

#2: Decide What “Success” Is

Too often, organisations have badly-thought-out notions of “success”. Measuring success is easy in a profit-making organisation: leads, conversions, sales – etc. For everyone else, it’s often much harder. Strangely, our organisations often then fall back on “virtual visits” as the metric of choice, ignoring things which can be better indicators of engagement and success.

#3: Use Google Analytics

There’s italics on “use” on this one for a reason. L0ts of organisations have installed GA and use it a bit – but few actually use it properly to try to understand how users are engaging with their content. This is hardly surprising given the huge and sometimes baffling amount of information the system offers you, but nonetheless something to focus on.

#4: Have a Social Media Strategy, Not Just A Presence

In the particular context of this conference, almost all of the organisations represented had a fairly strong presence on sites like Facebook, Twitter and so on. But few of them (and this is very common) had a sense of why. Social Media needs thinking about strategically in order for it to succeed in the longer term – and it needs to fit with your strategy and purpose. Sometimes this means not doing it!

#5: Be Aware Of How Your Organisation Fits

This one covers a whole range of stuff, from user testing to things like keyword monitoring and feed-reading. You can’t hope to market your content if you don’t understand the trends, people and technologies of your environment.

#6: Use A Dashboard

This one is for all the “I’m too busy to do all this stuff” people out there. Using a dashboard (for me, it’s a combination of Netvibes and Google Reader) saves a huge amount of time when it comes to monitoring all this activity. The Google Analytics dashboard is the same – use these tools to radically reduce the noise and replace it with signal.

#7: Build Internal Knowledge

Building knowledge within your organisation is often forgotten. Let people know what you’re doing – whether you’re talking about marketing activities, ways of measuring success or wider strategic goals. Send a monthly “KPI” emailing, have a “lunch and learn” session – do whatever it takes to keep people in the loop and break down those organisational silos. If you do this regularly you’ll start to understand what the barriers are and how to remove them – and you’ll probably get some interesting ideas from others about how to improve what you do as well.

#8: Fail Quickly: Be Iterative

It’s as true in marketing as in anything else: try stuff, see what works – build on what does work, kill off what doesn’t. Use things like multivariate testing to rapidly tweak on the fly and then use this knowledge the next time you launch a campaign, send a mail shot or whatever.

#9: Understand Search

Search is a powerful web traffic driver, but it needs to be understood in the context of SEO, “Search Intention” and other factors. Do what you can to get up to speed with how content and links can improve your search engine rankings, and what this means to your traffic and auciences.

#10: Share!

Talk to people at other similar organisations and ask them what they’re doing. Find out what works, what doesn’t, and why. Set up a monthly meeting to discuss your web stats and campaigns, or put together a discussion mailing list. Your peers are probably going to be the single best source of information – use them!

That’s it.

What do you think? How do you join up your digital activity in strategic ways in your organisations?

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“Activate the world” (or: what “mobile” really means)

I’m talking at the CETIS conference next week on “Next Generation Content” and as with all my recent talks, I’ve done a mindmap to help me structure my thoughts…

Here’s the basic premise: “mobile” isn’t just “designing for mobile devices” but goes much deeper. We need to start thinking about what mobile means from a user experience perspective, from a privacy perspective and from a product design perspective.

When internet-connected devices (all 5 billion-ish of them) start becoming the norm, how does this change our lives?

Click the image for a bigger version version. It helps.