Social Networking is the New Customer Service

Up until a few years ago if you had a problem, concern, question or wanted to give feedback to a company there were three primary ways of contacting them: in person, on the phone and email.  Sure you could write a letter and slap a stamp on it, but why waste the trees.  Live chat is sometimes available for online companies but it’s often staffed by people who aren’t familiar enough to help you or they are offline.  All of these events are hidden, that is, only you and the company can see the correspondences and the likelihood a company simply ignores you is even higher.  The last two years or so have given consumers a new way to publicly convey their gripes (and praises) with companies: social networking.  The two biggest and most powerful ways are of coarse Facebook and Twitter.

Recently, I had my socks blown off with just how good and on-top of their customer base two companies are when I had some issues. First was a concern with LendingTree.com:

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8 Reasons why I don’t follow you on Twitter

My love / hate relationship with Twitter has been leading me more towards the love side lately.  I’ve found new and better ways to tie Twitter to other services I already use and automate some of the back end of this blog and my personal photography one.  Over the last two or three months the number of followers has increased greatly, but the number of people I follow haven’t.  There’s a few simple reasons why I’m not following you, even if you follow me.  This is important because you could have some really cool stuff to say or share with me and I’m not learning about it.

Use your name.  My Twitter account is setup to send me an email when I have a new follower, usually I know right then and there if it’s a bot or a real person based on the name.  The handle you use for playing video games over the last 10 years might sound cool, but I probably don’t know whom that is.  I want to know you are a real person.

@reply me.  Too often there is no pre-qualifying dialog between us, you’ve never @replied to anything I’ve said, so I don’t know anything about you or what interested you in following me.

Utilize the bio.  Twitter provides a small section for a bio; briefly talk about who you are, what you do, what you like.

Link to your site
.  If you have your own site, blog or forum or social networking page, utilize the spot that Twitter gives you and enter the URL.  Maybe I’ve been there before so I’ll know who you are, if not, it will give me a chance to see what you’re all about.

Post interesting stuff.  After I look at the bio and link section on your profile, I generally look through the last 10-15 tweets you’ve sent out.  If they are all @replies to people I don’t know, or look like you’re promoting stuff with links everywhere, it doesn’t tell me who you are.  Take the time to look at your own profile now and again, think about what someone who doesn’t know you would see on your page if they were interested in following you.

Utilize a custom background.  This is a big one, and it’s getting more and more needed.  Twitters allows you to choose one of a few themes for how the background looks or upload an image, most people upload a pretty photo here and it gets tiled around.  The problem is, it again doesn’t tell me anything.  There are several sites that will allow you to create a free background for twitter to better utilize the space so you don’t have to try laying it out in an image-editing program like Photoshop.  I used TwitBacks to create a clean, professional background.  While I think I can do better graphically, it has allowed me to convey a ton more information, which has probably helped lead to more followers.  This is very important if you are a freelancer of any kind, but still relevant if you are a stay-at-home Mom, it tells people who you are, what you do and how to connect with you.

Make a few dozen tweets.  Before you go out and actively try to follow everyone, take the time to make tweets.  There is nothing worse than landing on someone’s page to see they are following 200+ people and have made two tweets.  The first is usually a test, the second is a link to some website promoting something.  Instant red flag for me and I’ll avoid you.

Take part in #followfriday.  Every Friday Twitterers usually suggest a few of their favorites and suggest others follow them, utilizing the #followfriday has tag.  I’d suggest you participate and suggest people every Friday and before you know it, others will suggest you.

As Twitter’s popularity grows the more streamlined followers and followees will need to become and act.  Following some simple guidelines will help ensure more quality followers will be interested in you without the fear of looking like someone who just wants impressive numbers.

Follow me @mikepanic

Twitter Pro accounts confirmed, who would pay to use them?

Twitter has grown a user base to such extremes that even my own Mother asked if I was Twittering the other night after she saw it mentioned in an episode of Entertainment Tonight.  To my own amazement while flipping through the channels last night, one of the financial shows had a segment called Twitter Time but even after watching for several minutes, I couldn’t figure out how anything they were saying was relevant.  Twitter has become the buzzword for 2009 and more and more people are hoping onto the Twitter train, but is that a good thing?

Major news outlets including TV, newspaper, local media and magazines send out tweets with links to their articles, this allows people to stay up to date on current events.  Some, like @reuters have sent out nearly 25,000 tweets, often sending bursts of 10-30 within only a few short minutes of each other.  That’s a lot of information to digest, and the main reason why I don’t follow any major news outlet on Twitter.  For those of us who have tweets sent to our phones via SMS or use an app on iPhones, this leads to an unmanageable amount of information to deal with.

News outlets are only part of the problem, many other Twitter accounts are used solely to spread spam, bad links, or sell you something.  The problem is, Twitter has such an open API that forcing someone to pay for what they are already doing or have already incorporated into their online presence might prove hard to do.  There is talk of premium services, which can only mean worse things for the vast majority of “free” accounts as I see it.  I’d imagine premium services would be faster delivery of tweets, tweets delivered at a specific time or an unlimited amount of tweets per day or month.  What else could they possibly offer? What’s a price point that would entice someone to pay for the premium service? Would @guykawasaki pay $100 per month for it?  How about $500 per month?  With nearly 100,000 followers, every message he sends out is transmitted that many times, more if they are also sent to followers cell phones or retweeted, not only does that cost money from a server side, Guy often is promoting one of his online sites or answering a question from one of his followers, either way, it’s usually to gain traffic.  @the_real_shaq is approaching one half million followers and power user @kevinrose is responsible for shutting down his fair share of websites due to bandwidth limitations whenever she sends a link out to one of his 350,000 followers.  While Shaq and Kevin usually tweet about what they are doing or to stay in touch with fans and rarely push their own sites, Guy, Reuters, CNN, ABC, etc. do just that, advertise with little regard to the users who follow them.  Who should pay and why?

Speculation on the value of Twitter has ranged from $10 million dollars to nearly $1 billion dollars, yet the company turns a zero dollar profit, they actually don’t make money, it was never part of their business plan.  Like YouTube several years ago, it was built out of a need, to fill a hole, and now it’s struggling to figure out how to make money after they’ve declined several buy out options.  In my opinion, YouTube has suffered in the quality from a user perspective since Google bought them, as most videos have ads on them, which you must click to close.  Sure Google brought HD, more bandwidth and a better search algorithm to the plate, but in the end, it’s a better experience to watch a video at Vimeo than YouTube.  I won’t even bother going into a rant about how unstable Twitter is now, I’ve seen the fail whale too many times this week alone.

If this is the only way Twitter can generate income, so be it, just as long as they don’t start throwing in worthless tweets from bots in the hopes of generating income.  This paid pro account will be the tipping point to the success or failure of Twitter, as I’m sure there are a dozen other similar services ready to take their spot with a similar user interface and a real business model laid out.

Ironicly, as much as it sounds like a bitching session, this article will be tweeted from my account, @mikepanic, automaticly thanks to the open API and a plugin done for me.

Goodreads is social networking for bookworms

In an attempt to be less chained to the TV and to learn more about some topics that interest me, I’ve started to read.  While I’ve never been a fan of reading books, I’ve been a magazine reader for almost 20 years.  Some of my desire to read more changed recently when a friend sent me Heft on Wheels, which I devoured, along with Lance Armstrong’s book on cancer.  Some of my other friends have been telling me about this or that book and how amazing it was, so I have a new found passion for reading, but only have a limited time to do it and was starting to forget the titles of books that I wanted to read.

This all changed about two weeks ago when a random Twitter message from @kevinrose came up with a link to his profile on www.goodreads.com, a social networking site for readers to not only review books they have read and are currently reading, but to add books that interest them in a list.  In a manor similar to Netflix, goodreads will also suggest books that might interest you based on the ratings of books you’ve read.  It’s also free, and doesn’t ask you to do anything other than give a review of a book after you’ve read it.

The site work, well, no extra fluff, with some nice features.  Some of the features I like are the lists, groups and local events.  The lists are great, they are both content generated, top reviewed books, and user generated lists like, Worst books of all time.  The groups feature is nice because people seem to get into bonding, but the local events groups are pretty amazing.  Just going off your zip code, goodreads will tell you what book related events, groups and readings are in your area.  If you have a child, this information is priceless.

Additionally, goodreads gives away dozens upon dozens of books a month, most before they are released to the public.  All you have to do is sign-up to the interested in reading list for that particular book and they draw randomly, again asking that you write a short review of what you thought after you’ve read it.   The site has minimal advertising which in no way clutters the site, which makes it even more apealing to me.  You don’t have to worry about clicking a link to get more info on a book and be redirected to buy it.

The site is not a book-swapping site, that is to say, you don’t mail books back and forth between members.  It seems like that might work, but clearly this is for people who use the library or buy their own books.

So, if you are a member, or join (it’s free after-all), add me as a friend, you can view my profile here.  By all means, if you don’t join, leave a comment on a book you think I should add to my list that’s a must-read.

Back up your Twitter account with Tweetake

Over the last few days a friend of mine has been experiencing a slew of problems with Twitter.  They were removed from people they were following, their followers were removed from the account and in total, more than 200 contacts were lost.  When two people don’t follow each other it makes direct messaging impossible and even more complicated when one account is set to private.

Since Twitter has proven to not exactly be the most stable of web apps out there, I figured it would be a good idea to backup at least the people I follow, in case something similar happens to me.  How though?  There is nothing built into Twitter to allow this to happen and I sure as hell wasn’t going to take screenshots of everything.

A quick search on Google led me to Tweetake, an uber simple that will backup part or all, and I do mean all, of your Twitter information into a handy, downloadable spreadsheet.  This is made possible due to the open API of Twitter.

To use it, simple enter your username and password, wait a few seconds, longer if you have a huge amount of followers, and an .xls page will be made available for you to download.  For the first one I did, I backed everything up, including all conversations and tweets I’ve had, so much data!  If you don’t have Excel running on your computer, simply import the file into Google Docs, no biggie there.  There is seriously more data in this spreadsheet that you’ll know what to do with, so now I’m waiting for someone to write some creative macro’s to widdle down the data to some nice charts!

Seeing how Twitters future is somewhat blind, and the app has had issues being stable, I’d suggest doing a backup every few weeks, it’s free, simple and painless.

Book review: Heft on Wheels by Mike Magnuson

It’s been no secret to long-time Randomn3ss readers that back in the summer I started to ride a road bicycle, then complete the MS charity ride and I’ve gone as far as losing 54 pounds, only 6 pounds away from a goal I set when i started riding just 5 months ago.  I’ve also been very active in the social networking site DailyMile and been rather addicted to tracking the miles and reaching new goals; I’ve even started to run.  Because DailyMile is tied in with Twitter, another service I love to hate and hate to love, I managed to grab the attention of long-time internet friend, fellow photographer and on-again off-again cyclist Ed Hidden hooked on DailyMile as well.  During one of the posts I made on DailyMile that got tweeted out via Twitter, he sent me a message asking if I’d like to read a book he recently finished, he’d mail it to me if so. Twitter continues to work for positive things!

Super stoked on this offer, I took him up on it and a few days ago Heft on Wheels arrived.  I had only done a quick search to see what the book was about, Ed told me very little other than it was a gritty, fat guy to skinny guy story.  Amazon has this to say,

a 255-pound, pack-a-day 40-year-old who’s desperate to get his life back into shape. And he chooses the challenge of cycling to achieve that, largely because of its total lack of mercy.

I’m not a reader, I’ve admitted that before, but I was stoked on this book.  Ed told me this isn’t so much of a story about a fat guy and how he got skinny, rather one’s struggle with getting thin.

I blew through just over one third of the book in my first sitting, finishing the entire book in 3 days, Mike Magnuson’s writing style is a bit odd, coarse and seems to be filled with a tad too much ADD if ya’ know what I mean.  Mike was an average guy who was always a little chubby and through years in college and then becoming a professor in college got himself up to a 100% full fledged drunk, seven days a week.  Teaching creative writing in college often led him to the bar with his students until 2am at which point they would go back to someones home and drink till 5, 6 and sometimes 7 the following morning.  This helped lead him up to a whopping 255 pounds, smoking more than a pack a day and overall, not feeling like the man he should be.

The book starts off with Mike talking about getting hit by a truck while riding, then goes on to explain what got him there.  If this was a movie, it would say Present day under that part and 4 years earlier where the story picks up.  In a nutshell, Mike realized in his mid 30’s that something needed to be done, and by the age of 38 he was pretty disgusted with himself.  It was that birthday he quit smoking, drinking and got back onto a road bicycle, a Trek 5200 that he raves about heavily in the first few chapters.

Ed was right, this isn’t a how-to book, this is more of a journal, a journey to be more correct, of a man’s struggle with himself.  To speed the diet, Mike consumed nothing more than water and three 400 calorie protein shakes for months.  He talks about being the slowest, weakest rider in the group rides he does at his local bike shop, about buying XXL cycling gear and about his love and passion for the sport.  Outside of the time-line jumps he does fairly often, this book really kind of grabs ya.

The interesting part is that Mike almost seems to punish himself, he looks for pain, he traveled to North Carolina to climb the highest hill east of the Mississippi, he rode what many consider to be the toughest American road race in a total downpour.  He rode 12 months a year, in the dead of winter and in the searing heat of summer.

For this, he not only became a thinner man, dropping his weight down into the 170’s, he became a better teacher for his students and a better writer, penning several books and many magazine articles.  It wasn’t until the last few chapters of the book that I started to question the relationship with his family.  Throughout the book Mike talks about these epic rides, 100-150 miles a day, 450-550 miles per week, often waking early to ride before work and riding into the night after.  Right around the time my mind was questioning his family, of which he has a wife and two children, he addresses them, and apologizes for not being there enough.

The book is part inspiration, part entertainment and all Mike Magnuson.  Mike seriously beat the crap out of himself, in ways that were more than likely not healthy, he makes no lame excuses for his drinking problems or for how he ended up so fat.  He simply writes out a two year journey of his life and what he went through to get there.  It also deals heavily with friends he had, friends he lost and friends he made during cycling and training.

Bringing the story full circle, the end meets up where the beginning started, with the crash.  I won’t ruin the end, but it’s not a sad one.

Heft on Wheels appealed to me not only as someone who’s interested in cycling, but because Mike went through something I have, being fat and out of shape to thinner and in shape, it was easy for me to see the similarities in that.  While I don’t drink and don’t smoke, there is a lesson to be learned in here.  The only flaw with the book is Mike’s obsessive use of the term Trek 5200, an all carbon fiber bicycle that I know he must have been proud of but comes off as an advertisement after the 35th mention of it.  The scatter-brained writing style bothered me at first, as Mike often skips ahead 3 months in the first half of a chapter and then goes 2 months behind within the same chapter to better explain the story.  I learned to like it, and I think it actually helped me get through the book faster.

During the Twitter conversation Ed and I were having, Brad, who follows both of us had said he heard of the book and was interested in hearing more about it when I was done.  After a quick discussion with Ed, he said the best thing to do with the book would be to give it to someone else who could appreciate it.  So, it will be in the mail shortly Brad!  I hope it brings you the same enjoyment as it did Ed and I and you in turn give it to one of your readers.

If you’ve just read a book that blew your doors off and think I should read it and write a review, Contact me for my shipping address, maybe we can turn this into a huge book-passing thing.  Since this whole thing more or less started because of DailyMile and Twitter, follow me at:

Special thanks to Ed for mailing me the book to read in the first place!

Twitter friends mug, aka TwitterMug

Found from a Tweet by @scottwyden, CrowdedInk, a Social Media Swag site, has combined two Web 2.0 technologies to give you a mug wrapped with all the profile pics that your Twitter friends use.

It’s stupidly simply to create one, simply enter your Twitter user name into the little box and click Make the Mug. In roughly twenty seconds the browser refreshes and dumps you onto the Zazzle web-page, a company that will create on-off products for you.  You’ll now be shown a live preview of how your new mug will look.  CrowdedInk randomly lays out your friends profile pics and you can’t change the, I don’t see this as a bad thing though.  The image used here is a screenshot of what a mug would look if I got one made, but for fun I did a second one to see how @kevinrose would turn out.  With roughly 83,000 people following Kevin Rose, I was kind of testing the script to see if it would break.  Sadly, it only uses the same number of images and clearly repeated a lot of them.  With 83,000 friends, I wouldn’t expect them all to fit on a mug but I would at the very least expect them to not duplicate.

Pretty cool little script, even cooler that I found out about it because of Scott posting it on Twitter.  Social networking at it’s finest.

fwdfwdfwd

Last night I was getting caught up on diggnation podcast while at the gym and Kevin blurted out inbetween studios a secret twitter account.  This twitter account only posts one tweet per day and it’s usually to something really, really cool.  Intrigued by this, I forced myself to remember the twitter account and after the gym I started to follow it and look through the history of tweets, some really cool stuff.

They follow no one and don’t link anywhere, I wouldn’t be surprised if this is someone inside digg who is picking through their site looking for the most cherry content, but in my opinion they are worth a follow, especially since they don’t bombard anyone with a million tweets a day.

I don’t feel guilding sharing since Kevin Rose already has with millions, follow http://twitter.com/fwdfwdfwd.

Twitter actually worked for something useful!

A few days ago something amazing happened, as if the stars in the sky aligned, something useful came of Twitter for me.  I’ve had a pretty well documented love / hate relationship with the micro-blogging service for a year or so now, this is truly one of the most positive experiences in that time and I’m going to share with you what went down.

A friend of mine (remaining nameless because they have their tweets protected and I respect that) made a tweet about post processing digital files.  I replied with,

Shortly after that tweet I got an email notifying me that @TheLightroomLab was following me.  Now, I’m only speculating here, but I’m willing to bet that they found me using the Search function on Twitter and the term Lightroom (Adobe Photoshop Lightroom – photo editing software).  Fair enough, let’s have a look at them and see if maybe I want to in turn, follow their tweets.

First thing I do when looking at someone whom I don’t know but has started to follow me is run down their recent tweets and visit their website, if they have one linked.  Most of @TheLightroomLab’s tweets seemed to be directly answering other Twitter users questions about Lightroom and a pretty well put together website confirmed this.  Let’s see if they can help me with a little issue I’ve been curious about for a while, here’s how the near instant tweets went down.

By this poin I obviously started to follow them.  It was to my delight that the very next day, on TheLightroomLab.com this amazing tutorial with screenshots and video was published on the short topic we discussed via Twitter.  What’s more amazing is that this cost me, the consumer, nothing.  Scott, owner of TLL does make money (I’m assuming) with affiliate ads and similar on his site, so he does get a great piece of content that hopefully others can use and learn from, but it cost me nothing out of my pocket.  Scott also gained me as an RSS subscriber to his site and Twitter follower, in addition to this post which is promoting both.

This is how social networking should happen.  Like-minded people exchanging ideas and concepts on an open and level playing field.  Scott, again I’d like to thank you for taking the time to write a tutorial on something I needed to learn and kudos on having an extremely well put together site.

FFFFOUND!

Randomn3ss reader Scott sent in another great link over the weekend, FFFFOUND! (not always safe for work), a new twist on social bookmarking.  FFFFOUND,

is a web service that not only allows the users to post and share their favorite images found on the web, but also dynamically recommends each user’s tastes and interests for an inspirational image-bookmarking experience!!

Now, I don’t sign up for every Web 2.0 social networking / bookmarking site out there, and I haven’t signed up for this one yet, but I have subscribed to their RSS feed and been somewhat hooked on it all weekend.  It’s photos, graphic designs, marketing material, basically anything that is found that someone thinks is worth sharing, all in one blog.  Because of FFFFOUND I found some really cool photo blogs along with some inspiration for design concepts.

They are currently on an invite only basis, which I’m sure is fueling the fire and making people even more curious as to what the back-end offers users, but I’ll just continue to lurk for now.  If you are into cool imagery, FFFFOUND might be for you, just wait till you get out of work to view it since occasionally there is a fine art nude photograph on the front of the site.