Cafe Witness

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who Starts a Company During Economic Collapse?

Yesterday, I attended Demo Day for AlphaLab, a local tech startup incubator here in Pittsburgh (and a sponsor of PodCamp Pittsburgh 3). The six companies they're currently working with will be nudged out the door at the end of the year, so yesterday was their chance to spread their wings (and make their pitch) in front of a roomful of potential investors, advisers and other interested parties.

But will any of their ideas fly?

Web-Wide Ripples of Discontent

Earlier this week, Steve Woolf of Epic FU (formerly JetSetShow) announced that they'll be ending their relationship with (formerly-considered-to-be) rising web video production company Revision 3. Due to international economic calamity, among other factors, Revision 3 is dropping numerous shows from their lineup, including Epic FU and Gary Vee's Wine Library TV -- which is odd, considering they're some of the web's most successful niche shows.

Perhaps their production costs outweigh their current revenue potential, but the long-term implications of this decision seem to be: Revision 3 can't afford to keep incubating emerging web video hits long enough for them to take flight on their own.

So if a company that's supposedly trafficking in The Next Big Thing (aka the web video revolution) can't keep their flagship shows afloat, what does that mean for companies like AlphaLab, who are incubating similarly-positioned, service-driven companies whose business plans hinge upon Web 2.0 metrics?

Building Houses During a Forest Fire

Every new company is fighting an uphill battle during this economic downturn, not to launch or to grow, but merely to validate their own right to exist. New ideas and properties that might have had a few years to experiment and develop an audience won't have that same luxury from investors who will increasingly be looking exclusively for "sure things" -- and if there's one field that's anything but "sure," it's the entire social media spectrum.

Admittedly, the AlphaLab-supported companies I consider to have the most potential -- Chogger and GameHuddle -- seem sexy to me because they're social media-based, and that's the arena I work in. But just because I can see their potential, that doesn't mean investors -- or customers -- will. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that these companies may be the exact right idea at the exact wrong time: concepts that COULD be sticky and even useful, if only their business plans didn't rely on large numbers of niche users having the time to find them, use them and spread the word.

In this economy, time is even less abundant than capital.

So: how can emerging companies -- social media-based or otherwise -- insulate themselves from an uncertain economy? Or, do new companies need to stretch beyond existing patterns of business thought and seize upon new opportunities before those uncharted waters seem too hazardous for anyone to fund?

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Screw the Latte; Where Are the Hand Towels?

I was at a Starbucks last night, overhearing the barista (who may have been an assistant manager) loudly discussing her method for getting into the flow of the workday. She was lamenting the ways customers can then derail her flow when they mention pesky needs like, "Oh, the washroom is out of hand towels." As she explained, when she's in "the zone," the customers need to wipe their hands on their pants and stay out of her way.

But here's what's funny about that: I don't care how well-managed or slickly-operated a cafe appears to be on the front end; if the back end is broken, it ruins my experience. And if you, as a cafe manager, can't be bothered to ensure that your customers have (for example) a pleasant washroom experience, then no amount of effort expended on the front-end facade will make up for the back-end derailment of THEIR "zone."

Generalized moral of the story: are YOU focusing on the right priorities to ensure YOUR audience is having a great experience, or are you mismanaging your time and effort, leaving your customers with shoddy memories and chapped hands?

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Friday, October 24, 2008

My Digital Child Is in Kindergarten

This week, we launched the 6th season of Something to Be Desired, the web's longest-running sitcom.

Since the first episode arrived in September of 2003, that makes the show 5 years old -- which means, if I'd invested all my time, money and effort in procreating (rather than this more ambivalent "creating" thing), my kid would be entering kindergarten... and, like dad, he/she would probably be skinny, sarcastic and prone to conspiracy theories...

We're also converting our site to a WordPress theme as we relaunch, so we have some bugs to work out, plug-ins to add, etc. Which brings up some good questions, like:

What do YOU like to see as part of a web video site?

What would help YOU better understand and enjoy the website / series / experience?

What information would YOU like to see more of?

And, do YOU have any suggestions on great ways to help promote and spread the word about STBD?

If you're a longtime viewer, thanks for sticking with us! And if you're new to STBD, relax: this season is going to be our best yet! (PLUS, it comes with a dog!)

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Post-PodCamp Pittsburgh 3: 5 Ways to Gauge an Event's Success


First off, thanks to everyone who attended PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 this past weekend. Although we haven't tallied the final check-in numbers yet, all practical indications (like perpetually running out of food) point to this being our largest and most well-attended event yet. (Either that, or everyone got a free tapeworm in their swag bags...)

Also, as one of the event's primary organizers, I can never thank my fellow organizers enough. I know how much work went into planning PCPGH3, and even though things never run 100% smoothly at any event -- much less one involving technology -- I'm exceedingly proud of how well things came together this year. Everyone did a great job and I'll be very happy to work with all of you again next year... after we all hibernate for a few months.


After throwing a huge event, I think there's a temptation on the part of the organizers to pat themselves on the back and say, "well done." But when it comes to social media events like PCPGH3, we won't *really* know how well we did at organizing the event until several months from now, because the long-term impact of education-based events like this can't be measured immediately. We have to see what people DO with the information they learned here.

So, in the meantime, here are 5 Ways I'll Be Gauging the Success of PCPGH3:

1. Attendance -- Although we had our largest number ever of pre-registered attendees, we'll need to tally the final head count before we know if our active numbers are actually increasing or remaining stable. The good news is, I didn't recognize about half of this year's attendees, which means we're definitely bringing NEW people in. (Also, weather plays a factor in attendance, so don't judge a summer event straight-up against a winter event, etc.)

2. Press Coverage -- If your event is a success in the eyes of the attendees, they'll talk about it afterward -- in our case, via blogs, Flickr, Twitter, etc. The more we see, the more we'll know that the PCPGH3 experience was share-worthy, and that's always a good thing.

3. Who Follows Up? -- We're holding a smaller, informal gathering on Wednesday, November 19 @ 7 PM at the Firehouse Lounge in the Strip District. Our goal is to support the conversation (and the community) that coalesces every year at PCPGH, but then seems to recede as the months intervene between events. Knowing that people want to keep the discussion (and the activity) alive beyond an annual clip is a good indicator that the ideas they encountered at PCPGH3 have traction.

4. Who Takes Action? -- Since PCPGH is an event designed to help people learn more about creating web media, it follows that we like to see our attendees creating newer, better things all the time. The long-standing content creators here in town won't be fading out anytime soon, but for the dozens of attendees who don't yet blog or podcast, who among them will start experimenting and reaching out for help when they need it?

(One great way to stay involved is to join the newly-created OMGPittsburgh blog, launched for us by Bostonian weekend-expat Chris Brogan live at PCPGH3.)

5. Who (or What) Will Become Next Year's Success Story? -- A year ago, none of our attendees had been a finalist for major web awards like the Bloggies or the Yahoo Video Awards, but this year, that (twice) changed. So did the idea that you can't invent a new word and have the public take notice (bacn, anyone?).

So will someone else take the lessons they learned (and the relationships they built) at PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 and use them to build the next killer app, the next red-hot web series or blog, or even expand their business? If they do, then the concept of PodCamp Pittsburgh as a reliable incubator of game-changing ideas will live on.

How do YOU think we did at PodCamp Pittsburgh 3?

Photo by Locobone, who would have made this available under Creative Commons License if he'd thought about it... ;)

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

PodCamp Pittsburgh 3: Meet Our VIPs

Although PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 is a free event, we decided to offer this year's attendees the opportunity to pre-register as VIPs. The perks of being a PCPGH VIP -- in addition to having a lot of abbreviations to throw around -- include some advance notoriety (i.e., a listing here), a swag bag and a free PCPGH3 t-shirt.

Following are the profiles of some of our PCPGH3 VIPs -- namely, the ones who wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to get some extra exposure for themselves and their work. (Those who didn't must only be coming for the free t-shirts...)

PCPGH 3 VIPs (Listed Alphabetically by Last Name)

Aaron Aiken (Twitter)

Aaron is a Web 2.0 junkie who will jump on any bandwagon offering private beta invites. He is passionate about personal finances and happens to write a blog on the subject with his wife, Lindsay. He writes to fulfill his passion and dreams of writing full-time one day. Aaron believes strongly that change can only come if one is willing to grow. His advice (to anyone who does not ask for it): “Track your spending for the next 30 days and get on a budget.”

* Areas of expertise: Writing, creativity, learning, and his Blackberry Curve 8310

* Areas he'd like to learn more about: Podcasting, getting more traffic to our site and developing repeat visits, growing a community, and using social media to raise awareness of our website.


Lindsay Aiken

Lindsay is a full-time nanny and part-time college student studying Massage Therapy. When she’s not working, she enjoys writing for her personal finance blog that she maintains with her husband, Aaron. She hopes that their blog will be useful to other people their age, helping to teach them the importance of properly managing their money so they will be prepared for the future.

* Areas of expertise: Writing, creative organization, and frugal living


Kathleen Danielson (Twitter)

"I am a college student just learning about social media. I'm eager to learn more about the way information spreads online and how people connect and develop relationships using different tools across the web. I'm studying International Affairs at George Washington University, concentrating in Global Public Health. Hopefully, I'll eventually be able to combine my passion for international affairs with my passion for social media."

* Areas of interest: viral marketing, social networking, human interaction, lolcats, video, blogging, building community, evangelizing web 2.0


Megan Engle (Twitter)

Megan is the Social Media Manager at the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and is currently working on revamping the MNA blog. She enjoys exploring new ways to cook vegetarian food, polishing her near-extinct Arabic skills, and figuring out what's going on in the world of social media.

Outside of work, Megan can generally be found walking her chocolate lab Mort, sporting a Kentucky Wildcats t-shirt, thinking about whether she passed the Michigan Bar Exam, and mourning the loss of The Wire, which she thinks may possibly be one of the greatest television shows, ever.

* Areas she'd like to learn more about: blogging, audio (podcasting), video, social networking, and ways for nonprofits to use social media.


Shawn Farner (Twitter)

Shawn Farner is a senior at IUP with an unhealthy passion for both social media and community service. After his December graduation, he hopes to work for a web startup or for a business trying to establish a social media presence.


Tim Grubb (Twitter)

Tim podcasts with Jen Sadler on Brain Gravy and insists, "We're not alcoholics with a drinking problem, we're Alcohol Enthusiasts with a podcasting problem."


Tim Hindes, Pittsburgh Tech Council (Twitter)

In his current position, Tim oversees all aspects of marketing and communications efforts for the Pittsburgh Technology Council -- one of the sponsors of PCPGH3. Tim's job focuses primarily on electronic media and strategic communications. In addition, he was responsible for project management of the Council’s new Web site, dedicated to highlighting membership benefits, member profiles, case studies, new products and added services. Strategic planning, brand development and marketing partnership relations were additional areas of Tim’s responsibility. While at the PTC, he developed other viral marketing media, including social marketing channels, blogs and interactive networking groups. His communication plan helped earn the Council the ASAE Gold Circle Award - Honorable Mention, in 2007, for electronic communications.

Based upon his marketing expertise, Tim also serves on two advisory boards including the Business Administration Advisory Committee for Pittsburgh Technical Institute and the Sales & Marketing Network Advisory Board of the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Tim is a 2000 cum laude graduate of Allegheny College in Meadville, PA, with a bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts and a minor in Society, Art and Science. He currently resides in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, PA.
* Areas of expertise: Marketing, Blogging, Lead Generation, Social Media Strategy

* Areas he'd like to learn more about: Networking, More Blogging, SEO, Podcasting, Business Usage


Blake Imeson (Twitter)

Blake is a junior at Grove City College, working on a degree in Entrepreneurship. Blake does part-time SEO and Social Media consulting. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

* Areas of expertise: SEO, Blogging and Social Media

* Areas he'd like to learn more about: He is a huge fan of Wordpress and Firefox.


Alan Jakub (Twitter)

Alan is a Web Designer with experience in WordPress, Podcasting -&- Graphic Design  He's also online at Dr-T.


Julie Morey, ElasticLab (Twitter)

Julie Morey is currently the Chief Creative Officer at ElasticLab -- one of the sponsors of PCPGH3. In 30 years as a designer, art director and brand strategist, Julie’s work for brands like Vehix, AT&T, Quiznos, Nextel, Herman Miller, American Express, Nordica and Public Television has resulted in both dramatic results and creative recognition. With a strong background in commercial production, a mid-career opportunity to lead creative efforts promoting a spirit of ethnic diversity for AT&T, MTV, HBO and TBS has fueled Julie’s love of the social medium. In 2007, she began developing Elastic Lab with a firm belief in the creative future of film and new media. Julie has earned more than 150 awards including the One Show, Communication Arts, Clios, and International Broadcasting Association (IBA).

* Areas of expertise: brand design, film production, advertising

* Areas she'd like to learn more about: music, new technologies, blogging


Melody Platz

* Areas of expertise: Travel writing, maintaining multiple blogs and creative writing

* Areas of interest: Humor, History, Eating, Science, Good Friends and Sleeping


Walt Ribeiro (Twitter)

Walt Ribeiro's "in your face" teaching style has created an entire community of those interested in music or not. "The Internet's Music Teacher" has consistently created a fleet of dedicated viewers, and shares his lessons, passion, and knowledge of music (and more) everyday. Ribeiro now teaches music lessons full-time online as "Your Daily Music Lesson with Walt" for sites like Revision 3, Ustream.TV, and more.

* Areas of expertise = The Internet's Music Teacher, Social Media marketing, Orchestration

* Areas he'd like to learn more about = Networking, production, distribution, marketing


Jen Sadler (Twitter)

Jen is a Podcaster/Freelance Social Media Consultant from Essex, Ontario, Canada. She podcasts at Brain Gravy.


Scott Tyler

A beer geek and snob extraordinaire...


Come meet these fine folks and hundreds more at PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 on October 18-19!

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This Weekend: Pods, Puppets and Smarm

PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 happens this weekend at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and as a primary organizer of the event, I'm excited to meet, teach and learn from fellow social media creators -- as well as people who haven't created anything yet but who are very eager to learn how.

In that vein, PCPGH3 is helping to promote the 10th Annual Black Sheep Puppet Festival that's happening all week here in Pittsburgh. Part of the event involves a live 24-hour "puppet reality" experiment, in which teams of puppeteers are grouped together and given 24 hours to create a full performance -- including making the puppets from scratch. In addition to helping the BSPF set up a wireless connection for their live webcast of the experiment, we're also helping them use Twitter and other services to spread the word.

Plus, I'm launching the sixth (!) season of our web sitcom Something to Be Desired on Monday -- but if you're at PodCamp on Sunday morning, you'll be able to see the first episode of our new season in front of a live audience. Meanwhile, we'll be filming scenes for an upcoming episode of STBD during the Black Sheep Puppet Festival, so look for excerpts from the BSPF on STBD and see them both at PCPGH3.

(And now I'm out of acronyms for the week...)

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Broadcasting to an Audience of... None?

KTEH TV Auction

Yesterday, I was invited to speak about Something to Be Desired (the web series I produce) at Point Park University. One of their broadcasting classes likes to invite local media creators to chat with the students during an informal luncheon, and help them understand what "working in the field" is really like. Since they thought STBD was a good example of a web success story, I was happy to share what I know (and admit what I don't).

The students were friendly and inquisitive, and lobbed several tough questions (beyond the obligatory "how do you make money" and "why are you still in Pittsburgh?"). I and STBD actor Will Guffey (Leo) gave them all the information we could, bored them with endless anecdotes about our "process," and did our best to demonstrate that our six year-old web media series is just as viable a communications option as... well, as a paying job...

Interestingly, when I asked the students what web TV shows they currently watch, or what podcasts they listen to, they told us they watch very little -- mostly existing TV shows that they didn't have time to watch during the week. None of them subscribed to any shows, and they didn't download them to watch on a mobile device, either -- even though several of them had video-enabled iPods.

Then one of the students asked if either of us blog, and then she asked why ANYONE would blog, or why anyone would take bloggers seriously. Admittedly, this is not an easily-answered question, especially in light of chicanery like the (false) CNN iReports of Steve Jobs's heart attack. But, more importantly, even asking this question proves that journalism and broadcast students (or their professors) are highly suspicious of "new" media -- and why shouldn't they be?

So... if the future broadcasters of America aren't watching web media... who is?

And... if web media is not being taught as a viable option in most broadcasting classes... why?

(I think I know, and it has to do with "credibility," "economy" and "job security." What are YOUR thoughts?)

Photo by digitalvisions.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

An Audience Without A Reason to Care Is Just a Bunch of People That You Have to Clean Up After

Carson Summit - Audience

Every three months, downtown Pittsburgh's art galleries unite for a free Friday Night gallery crawl. All the spaces are open to the public, the arts organizations mount new works and performances, and there's free food and drink for everyone who attends.

As you might imagine, people usually show up in droves for these events. And then, afterward, almost none of them come back. (At least, not until the next free event.)


Because just getting an audience in the door once isn't enough to make them want to come back on their own. You have to make the effort to get their attention, yes, but you also have to dazzle them while they're in your space AND give them a means to stay involved even after they've left.

And all of that requires a lot more effort than just handing them a mailing list.

The Fallacy of Eyeballs

At concerts, all bands love to leave mailing list sign-up sheets around the merch table. Mailing lists are useful, but getting people to admit that they want to hear more about you is only one step toward RETAINING that audience; it has nothing to do with GROWING an audience in the first place.

If all a band did was play four shows a year and then hound their mailing list to buy a CD every week, they'd have the support of very few people. So why would an arts organization -- or YOUR company -- be any different?

Give People Handles

The takeaway is the key. A band sells (or gives away) copies of its CD. Their fans play that CD for other people, and their interest in the band spreads. People start talking about that band and developing an emotional or intellectual alliance with the band's style, content and point of view.

Being a fan of the band becomes an active part of each fan's daily culture, and it becomes a natural act to share their passion for that band with others.

The organizations involved in Pittsburgh's quarterly Gallery Crawls can hand out postcards, fliers and mailing lists all they want, but they're not handing out anything people can actually take away and share. Nobody gives their friend a flier, but they will give them a CD.

So what can artists or organizations provide that would be a "CD equivalent"?

What could someone take away from your business / site that would enable them to tell another person about you, and illustrate WHY they think you're so interesting and worth getting excited about?

You Don't Know a Thing About Me

The other major stumbling block most of the Gallery Crawl organizers face is that, for many attendees, this will be the first (and only) time they'll ever walk through a gallery's or theater's doors. If they don't understand what that space is about, what kind of work it normally produces, and why its work actually matters (not to the world at large but to them, the individual visitor), they won't have a reason to come back because they won't even know why they should.

How many websites do you visit where you can't immediately figure out WHY it exists? Did the site designers provide you with sufficient answers on the About page? (Did the site designers provide an About page at all?) If not, was the site still sufficiently interesting that you cared enough to explore it on your own, or did you press the "back" button and try to find something else more obviously rewarding?

Artists face this challenge every day, and yet so few of them bother to make themselves interesting AND easily explainable. The same conundrum applies to social media. If I visit your site or download your podcast and I can't immediately understand who you are and why you're doing what you do, do you really expect me to spend my own valuable time figuring out why you matter?

If you or your organization / site / company is able to generate occasional bursts of traffic, but you never seem to actually RETAIN it, ask yourself what it is that you're NOT doing to dazzle / engage / explain yourself to them before they leave. Then, make every effort to solve that problem. Because if you don't, all you end up with are some half-eaten cheese plates and a few scribbled names on a mailing list, and neither of those are going to pay your bills.

Photo by Pete Lambert

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Thursday, October 02, 2008

Tweeting Up Is(n't) Hard to Do

The first (to my knowledge) Tweet-Up in Pittsburgh happened last night at the Firehouse Lounge. Organized my Holly Maust, Mandy McFadden and Nicole Miller -- three women I'd admittedly never met -- it was great to get out and meet some new faces in the social media space.

One thing I find amusing about all of this is that none of us involved with PodCamp Pittsburgh 3 had ever met anyone else at the tweetup -- which means, if Pittsburgh's social media scene is this splintered / varied (and we've already had two PodCamps to get everyone together), imagine what your city's scene is like.

What else does this mean? That our social media scene is growing, and that's a very good thing.

Also: if you're looking for a great dessert, try the Firehouse Lounge. The bartenders tell me that their chef is actually a pastry chef, and the dessert I tried -- a triple chocolate mousse -- was amazing. (I also heard rumor of "bananas foster wontons" being experimented with as a future possibility, and that's just intriguing enough to be worth a return trip all by itself...)

I hope to see our new Tweet-Up friends at PCPGH3 in two weeks. Meanwhile... when's the next Tweet-Up?)

Photo by Teejay Hanton

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