News from the Pipemaking Workshop with the Funk.
Talbert Pipes Website - Kentucky Fried Popcorn - My Web Comic.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Social Networks - An Exploration

Social networking - You just can't escape from it these days; it's everywhere.  Some of it is good, a lot of it is crap, but if you want to market your own work online, you pretty much have to dive into it in order to get your work seen by others.  I thought I would try and post my basic experiences with the current crop of networks, from the perspective of someone who does business on them.

I've had an account on Facebook since it was the underdog alternative to MySpace.  In fact, I have two pages there - My personal page and my business page.  I would strongly recommend that if you're going to have a Facebook account, you learn to use their customized friend lists, because you're going to need to divide your posts up among your personal friends and the hundreds of people in your hobby who will "friend" you because they know of your work.  Use this custom list when you want to post about politics, religion, or seriously controversial topics like the American Godzilla movie.  Believe me, all your customers do NOT want to hear you ranting about this stuff.

My impression of Facebook?  It's a monster, and a monstrous mess.  FB gives you the broadest reach for your marketing efforts but your posts are being broadcast to a polyglot mixture of family, friends, customers, your old high school class, and more.  Your business page will attract a more targeted audience but the unfortunate fact is that most likely, FB people will be searching for your personal page first because that's the name they know.  Some people are interested in the personal lives of the artists & artisans they like, others are not.  YMMV.  Also, it may sound cold to say, but it won't be long until your news feed becomes useless, as your daily wall will be filled with posts about what your college roommate's brother had for dinner.  If you want more control over what you see, that brings us to Google+...
G+ was supposed to be the hot new network that would knock Facebook off the pedestal, but instead it seems to have lapsed into a sort of low key torpor, broken by keen discussions on a few popular interests.  G+ improves on FB by allowing you to group your friends into "Circles", letting you see only the chatter from specific circles and easily post to specific circles.  Facebook offers similar functionality with its customized friends lists, but it's a much clumsier execution.  That said, G+ has one serious issue that remains a problem for business types - You can't "broadcast" your own circles and allow people to subscribe to them.  The simple description of this problem is, I get a notice that Joe Joejoe has added me to his circles.  I don't know Joe Joejoe, and have no idea why he has added me.  In my case, odds are he is interested in pipe postings, and that's where I put most of my G+ contacts - Into my pipes circle.  However, he might want Kentucky Fried Popcorn updates instead, and there's no way to know.  You have control over what you broadcast to whom, but there's no way for others to choose which topics they'd like to hear about from you.

The other G+ problem is the lack of traffic.  Don't get me wrong, it's a terrific site for commercial networking - The pipe community there is huge and thriving, and I probably get more click traffic from G+ website announcements than I do from Facebook.  But that's all there is - Most of my personal friends are not on G+, they're on Facebook.  I don't go to G+ to see how a buddy is doing, I go there to post website updates.  This lack of informal chatter is compounded by serious site slowdowns over the past month or so.  It has reached the point where I can open a G+ tab, then open my FB tab and read and reply to messages there in the time it takes for my G+ page to finish opening.  It's really interminable, sitting and watching the page drop in chunk by chunk...  In the beginning, it was light and fast, but recent additions of extra features and now an ungodly slow YouTube page link have made the site crawl.

The plus side is that G+ interactions tend to occur on a higher level.  As one poster said, "Facebook is where people go to return to high school behavior; G+ is where I go for intelligent discussion."  I can testify that threads and conversations on G+ tend to be more in-depth and literate, and wonder if G+ is gradually siphoning off the tech savvy from Facebook, leaving it to be ruled by Farmville moms.
I really don't understand the popularity of Twitter in the broader world, but it serves ideally as a tool for focused interaction with people interested in what you're selling.  Again, I have a personal and a professional account there, and the professional one is for people interested in 100% pipe talk.  The short post form is annoying - It's really impossible to have anything like a complex interaction, but what Twitter excels at is quick notices.  Website updates, workshop news, and sneak preview photos of pipe in progress - These are an ideal use for the service.  My personal account is about as useless as my Facebook personal account, being a boiling morass of people connected with me via a dozen different interests, and I restrict it mostly to trivial chatter.  At this point, I kind of regret even having a personal Twitter account.  If I had it to do over again, I'd have started a Pipes account and a Kentucky Fried Popcorn account and used them each for strictly focused news updates.

Pinterest is the one network I'm most likely to abandon.  There is no pipe community there that I have found, and thus far I've only registered a account for Kentucky Fried Popcorn as a test.  In my couple of weeks there, I have found it indescribably banal.  Gizmodo describes it as "mostly for the ladies" and I guess I would agree, as the flow of posts seems focused mainly on fashion, shoes, and wedding plans.    There are no status updates, per se - It's entirely a streaming wall of images from all over the web, found and "pinned" by members to share with their followers.  Members can create boards on whatever subjects they like (My Kentucky Fried Popcorn boards are for movies I've reviewed, my favorite moments in horror, and a page of my favorite web comics).

My chief complaint with Pinterest is that it is miles wide and an inch deep.  When I set up my boards, I logically made them fairly specific to the interests I intended to post on, so followers could pick exactly what they wanted to hear about from me.  In looking at other profiles, however, what I see are extremely broad categories...  "Art", "Fashion", "Movies".  I'm not interested in subscribing to someone's movies board if half their posts will be about Woody Allen movies (My dislike for him is epic), so the result has been that I've had little interaction there.  I can see an excellent business use for it - Pipe hobbyists are all the time seeing pipes they like and want to share with friends, and a streaming wall of pipe & tobacco imagery would be a fine thing indeed, but searches for pipes give no hits.  Maybe it's the fact that Pinterest is the one social network with a strong female majority, I don't know, but thus far its chief focus seems to be as a place to see photos of food, celebrities, LOLcats, and interior decoration.

When Twitter appeared, everyone complained about the forced-simplification of its 122 letter posts.  I guess it was inevitable that another service would come along that made Twitter look brainy.  I'm interested in hearing if anyone else has had better experiences with the service than I have - Maybe I'm just missing something, but thus far, Pinterest seems to have little value as a marketing venue for, well, anything that's more obscure than what you'd see in a typical issue of Cosmo.

Chime.In is easily my favorite social network of the bunch, hands down.  This is because it is focused on interests, not friends.  Yes, you can make friends there via shared interests, but the world of Chime revolves around the stuff you like to read about as opposed to what old schoolmates are doing with their garden.  The "following" setup adds what G+ lacked - People can look at your profile to see the subjects you post about, and subscribe specifically to the topics that interest them and leave the rest.  Or, you can just set up some key interests for yourself and watch your feed as posts roll in from across the network that are tagged for that interest.  While my Facebook wall is a stream of updates from people I don't really know about topics that usually don't interest me, my Chime wall is a targeted list of posts about horror movies, Godzilla, HP Lovecraft, etc.  If I see consistently interesting posts by someone, I can go look at their profile and subscribe to the interests that I like.  It's an ideal system, really.

Thus far, there is barely a pipe presence there so I have only set up an account for Kentucky Fried Popcorn.  I would love to see this change, as it would be nice to be able to see a feed of pipe-specific postings in addition to my daily horror movie news.  That said, it is a pleasant experience to log into a social network and see only updates that interest me, and I recommend it.  It's the smallest of the networks listed here, but I even like this as it lends the place a more intimate atmosphere.  For a pipe guy, the marketing usefulness is thus far nil, but the potential is huge should a community develop.  Still, it's my favorite social network thus far.  That said, let's not forget the real "ultimate" social networking site, your own website!

I've talked with a few aspiring pipecarvers and other small artisan types who dismissed having their own site and intended to do all their selling via places like Ebay, Etsy, etc.  This is something I would strongly advise against, because you don't want to pin your business's survival on the continued relevance of someone else's website.  My site has been in operation since 1998 and it's there that I have posted, corresponded, answered thousands of email inquiries, operated our mailing list, etc.  You only have to go back a few years and Facebook did not exist.  Yesterday, MySpace was the place to be...  Five years from now, the internet architecture of "hot spots" may be totally unrecognizable.  With that kind of flux, you really need one distinct spot to stake out for yourself and maintain, year after year, to connect with your customers and provide them a reliable and enjoyable experience.  You can do what you want there, say what you want, and you never have to worry about Facebook claiming they own the rights to everything you've ever posted.  The personal website might invoke dismissive memories of Geocities nightmares, but it's a reliable anchor that isn't going anywhere as you navigate the stormy seas of social networks.
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