Public notebook

Don’t be too useful: the key to social media success for brands?

Basically an excuse to use Flickr Spell again (See L is for Long Lost Pals, below)

Bankervision blogger, James Gardner got me thinking a recent post Why Banks Won’t Do Social Media, by putting forward the notion that in order to engage with people in social media you should eschew the useful and focus on “the banal”.

He even went so far as to say that “not useful” might be the right kind of approach for banks (the kinds of brands he thinks about most, seeing as he works for one).

Seeing as how “be useful” more or less underpins the way I think about brands on the web, I was intrigued to say the least.

He conducted an for-fun experiment where he tried to put people off following him on Facebook by being as boring as possible (noting that he was breathing, now blinking, uploading photos of train platform gravel). What happened was that people engaged with him more than ever: 

Here is what I’ve found out so far: the less useful the content is, the more people engage with it. You’d not believe the string of emails I’ve been getting.

Now, although this is not an especially scientific experiment, it suggests to me you can build engagement with social media on things that are unimportant and irrelevant. But when you say things which, theoretically, would be interesting and useful, paradoxically, no one cares. Social media is a channel optimised for the insignificant.

Of course his “boring” updates might actually look like someone being ever so enigmatic and interesting and so attract attention. And the experiment overall isn’t proving an awful lot at all when it comes to brands. 

James continues by thinking about what has worked for banking brands so far in social media:  

…if you look at the successful social media experiments, such as VanCity’s ChangeEverything, they aren’t even about banking very much. VanCity has been clever enough to work out that they have to take a sideways approach.

Well, yes – sideways certainly, but not banal… Social media is optimised to being social, not boring. Sometimes the social value is in the details, in the things that others may think is not useful but to the people sharing it are very important, either because the information or activity is highly important to them or because the social trinket in question is actually doing another job. 

Going back to James’s experiment for a moment, the banal serves a purpose in a social network like Facebook. When my friend says “My heart is beating” I may find that amusing (such wit!) or I may just register it as a phatic expression (he’s there, he’s OK, he’s making contact). 

And beyond that, banks and other financial services comapnies will only get so far with their customers and prospective customers if the only conversation they are interested in listening to or taking part in is about their products. 

James is right, Vancity’s experiment is successful because they have come from the leftfield, that’s to say not charging down the centrefield waving a flag in the bank colours with their top saver rate on it. 

When you think about your customers in networks, sometimes a direct connection between your sale and them is not what’s appropriate or required. 

Perhaps, we should think in terms of “be useful, but don’t try to hard” or “don’t underestimate and overlook the usefulness of small things”.

Public notebook

2.3 million images geo-tagged in Flickr this month

It’s not news (although I do wonder what the trend on that people connecting their Flickr photos to points on the map is). But still, wow…

Reminds me I need to try out this geocaching lark…

Public notebook

On blogging…

I’d read people’s thought about Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog“, an essay for The Atlantic magazine.

If you’re a blogger, or you seriously want to understand more about why some people devote so much time and energy to writing in this format, you must must must read it. 

It’s the most elegant and accurate longer-format discussion of why this still evolving medium is so precious and powerful I’ve yet read.


Unlike any single piece of print journalism, its borders are extremely porous and its truth inherently transitory. The consequences of this for the act of writing are still sinking in.


The essay begins by going back to the roots of the word, to the ship’s log and how it was used to progress of a vessel through a voyage. All about the journey you see. He then goes on to explain blogging’s strengths and how it makes him a better writer (and therefore thinker). 

Here’re some choice excerpts…

On its revolutionary nature: 


It was obvious from the start that it was revolutionary. Every writer since the printing press has longed for a means to publish himself and reach—instantly—any reader on Earth. 


On keeping a blog moving (I know how dangerous it is to pause): 


…as Matt Drudge told me when I soughtadvice from the master in 2001, the key to understanding a blog is to realize that it’s a broadcast, not a publication. If it stops moving, it dies. If it stops paddling, it sinks.

And more on blocks: 


You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard. And that’s what makes blogging as a form stand out: it is rich in personality.



On writing in networks: 


The blogger can get away with less and afford fewer pretensions of authority. He is—more than any writer of the past—a node among other nodes, connected but unfinished without the links and the comments and the track-backs that make the blogosphere, at its best, a conversation, rather than a production.


On the intimacy of reading someone’s blog: 


You feel as if you know bloggers as they go through their lives, experience the same things you are experiencing, and share the moment. When readers of my blog bump into me in person, they invariably address me as Andrew. Print readers don’t do that. It’s Mr. Sullivan to them.


And if you like that… Here’s a video where Andrew Sullivan entitled catchily “Your Brain on Blogs”:

Public notebook

Google SearchWiki: brands need to watch & listen



SearchWiki results and comments for a search on "Google SearchWiki"SearchWiki results and comments for a search on


* Updated * 

There are two complementary evolutionary paths for SearchWiki: that taken by the Google engineers and the one cut by users. The comments / conversations may be poor quality at the moment, but who is to say how people will find ways to use the feature in interesting ways. 

Over the last week, there’s been a great deal interest and not a little froth on tech blogs about the Google SearchWiki, the feature in Google that lets you edit your own results and leave publicly viewable comments about them if you are signed in with a Google account.

It’s a highly interesting development, although some of the controversy has been a little overblown: people hunting out reasons to be irritated. 

The head of search at iCrossing UK, Jonathan Stewart has posted an analysis of the new service from both a search and social point of view, which incorporates some feedback I gave on the social media and PR front. 

We’ve been monitoring it since the beginning of November when we noticed Google bucket testing it, but it’s only been since last week, when it was officially launched, that it’s really been making waves. Anyone who doesn’t know what it is can read Dan’s explanation of Google’s SearchWiki here.

Google have stated that personal result manipulation won’t be used to determine the results for others – at least not in the short term – so the standard SEO rules will still apply for a while. What’s really causing problems is the amount of comment abuse that’s appearing – either in the form of spam, utterly inane conversations (a la Youtube), or blatently obscene and unmoderated abuse.

Essentially, Jonathan feels this is a “wait and see” issue. Google is likely to use the information from the way people use SearchWiki in the way it delivers its main results – but claims not to be yet. 

The most interesting thing from my point of view is the comments feature. Interesting because it represents a new social space, albeit one which users have to hunt out rather than it appearing front and centre on Google search results. 

There are two complementary evolutionary paths for SearchWiki: that taken by the Google engineers and the one cut by users. The comments / conversations may be poor quality at the moment, but who is to say how people will find ways to use the feature in interesting ways. 

: : If you can’t find the comments feature – and it’s not obvious to everyone – then Jonathan provides the following step-by-step:

  • Make sure you’re signed into a Google account
  • Type a query into Google, and then scroll to the bottom of the page
  • Click on the “See all notes for this SearchWiki link”
  • Immediately underneath the URL of each website in the search results, there is a link that tells you how many comments have been left. Click on that
  • Immediately underneath the URL of each website in the search results, there is a link that tells you how many comments have been left. Click on that
  • James Lappin on TFPL also has a great analysis of what the SearchWiki means. He sees it primarily as a social play by Google, very much with an eye to the usefulness of services like delicious.

    Public notebook

    Do Tanks

    Er, well, metaphorically we should take the stairs instead of just thinking about it or taking the less challenging escalator. Um...

    Sometimes I think I would like to work for a think tank. Sounds like my kind of thing, all that thinking. 

    Imagine. Get into work, sit down and have a ruddy good think. Lovely. 

    Something niggles me, though. The last couple of years have taught me the about the power of doing as much as thinking, as especially thinking while doing. 

    So the other night, I decided that what would be better than working in a think tank would be being in a Do-Tank. Kind of like an innovation team without a company. Maybe it starts companies as it moves along, taking on edge challenges, riding new waves. But always creating things (technologies, services, models, products, ideas, whatever)…

    M’learned colleague Jim says that of course companies like IDEO are Do Tanks. I guess they are, really: applying innovation and creative thinking to challenges that companies face and to those problems that just take their fancy. 

    Of course, following the first law of ideas and the web (“Whatever you think of, someone’s probably doing something like it already”)…

    There’s the cool-looking DoTank Studios, a digital design firm in London: 

    There’s a public sector performance organisation in the Netherlands called Do Tank (although I seem to recall that “Do!” in Dutch is a word much like “‘Bye!” in English). 

    And there’s a fair amount of “Think-Do Tank” discussions out there. And naturally, the brilliant Word Spy has the skinny on the phrase “Do Tank”: 

    do tank n. A research institute that focuses on actions rather than ideas. Also: do-tank. 


    Example Citation:
    Like Elihu Root (1912), the first president of the Carnegie Endowment for Intertational Peace, [Jimmy] Carter heads a “non-governmental organization.” (But while Carnegie is a think tank, the Carter Center is more of ado tank.)
    —Hedrik Hertzberg, “He’s no. 19,” The New Yorker, October 28, 2002



    Earliest Citation:
    Midwest Research now ranks as one of the top not-for-profit private research facilities in the country. There are larger research institutes, but few with the growth record of MRI. Revenue for this year is expected to exceed $46 million, twice what it was just three years ago.

    A science journal recently labeled MRI “a small think tank in the Midwest.” Not so, says Harold M. Hubbard, MRI vice president for research. “We’re a ‘do-tank,’ not a ‘think tank.”‘
    —Scott Kraft, “Washington Dateline,” The Associated Press, November 18, 1979

    : : Stat fans may get a frisson of big-round-number-joy to know that this is post number 1,000 on Open… hurrah!