Tuesday, May 6, 2014

It's not you, it's me

A few days back Techcrunch published a terrific behind-the-scenes account of Google+'s early days, written by someone who was an intern on the project.

There's a ton of dishy details on the social network that so many people love to hate, but ultimately I think it boils down to insight into two fundamental mistakes that Google made.

The first is a common pitfall for engineers: they fall in love with features and capabilities. They focused on building things like "social circles," privacy controls (ironically, as it turned out), and even wasted time arguing whether to enable logical operators in search, when the only thing that matters to a social network is the social element (namely, are the people you want to connect with already there)?

Technology is not the destination. Technology only matters so long as it's a means to an end -- in this case, a socially desirable end.

Google's second major error is similarly widespread: Google+ was always far more about what the company wanted than what its users wanted.
It was clear that Facebook, with its ever-expanding social graph, was developing an extraordinary dataset that could undermine the supremacy of Google’s key search product. At the time, Google had a relationship with Twitter to access the social network’s firehose of data, but that agreement expired in mid-2011. Google needed a way to get social data, and fast. ... These fears manifested themselves in what would eventually be called Google+. The vision for the product is clear, albeit complicated: create a social network for everyone that would simultaneously provide Google with enough data about each user to ensure its search engine could adapt to a more social world.
Google needed user data, and so they created a network by which users would furnish them with data. The problem was that its would-be users, of course, cared quite a bit less about Google's data needs than Google did.

Whether you're building a product or crafting a message, the first requirement is to connect with the end-user/audience. Those people don't care what you want and need; they care about what they want and need. Focus on the former, and (like Google+) you'll end up with something that no one has much use for.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When less is more

My alarm didn't go off this morning. Well actually, it did—and that's the problem.

For several months now I've been using my iPad as an alarm clock. It has a number of advantages over a more traditional alarm: I can set alarms for different days of the week (so, for instance, I can wake up at 6:00 on weekdays, 7:00 on Saturdays, and sleep in on Sundays). If I get sick of the alarm sound, I can switch to something else. And it's very portable, so I don't need one alarm solution for home and another for when I travel.

For months the solution worked flawlessly, until just recently. Possibly as a result of the iOS 7.1 update, now sometimes the alarm doesn't sound. Technically it does go off on schedule, but every now and then it's completely silent. I have no idea that it's time to get up until our hungry cat wakes me up and I see what time it is.

This reminded me of something important. In general I like iOS 7. It's full of features that I use and enjoy. But an alarm clock going off on time is a completely feature that is both completely unsexy and non-negotiable. I need that to work reliably, and if it doesn't, it won't matter how cool all the other stuff is.

You can give me a device with 1,000 features, but I'm only going to depend on three or four. If delivering 1,000 features means that those three or four things become unreliable, don't do it. Focus on the fundamentals and make sure they're rock-solid. That's the cupcake; everything else is frosting.

This is true of any project: there is some core element that might not be exciting at all, but it is indispensable. When you push to include extra elements in that project, you can't allow your unexciting, indispensable core to suffer.

Less is more, when giving less makes less better.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Strength is not in numbers

The backlash has already begun against content marketing. We're all going to be drowning in content, they say. Brands will flood their platforms with mediocre, me-too filler that accomplishes nothing, except to the extent that it trains customers to stop listening.

Just when everyone was gearing up to start developing their content, that approach to SEO has already been declared passé.

If you're listening, though, you can hear the sound of opportunity. When everyone else is chasing after content quantity, the opportunity is in content quality.

I spent years as an editor, and the method I always applied—the method that always worked—was to cut and condense. Fewer words work better than more. Shorter headlines drive higher engagement. Customers almost always prefer less content to more—particularly if we use the "less" requirement as an opportunity to make your content better.

The people who never really had a content strategy in the first place have devised plans built around empty numbers, and now they're adding their weight to the backlash against that non-strategic strategy. Your focus, though, should be on quality, not quantity: fewer, better, and shorter pieces that answer questions and solve real problems in your customers' lives.

When the world is full of noise, your opportunity is to provide a clear signal.