For Emma

This Sunday will be the thirtieth anniversary since Emma Mae Waters, my mother, was murdered by Robert Bruneau, her estranged, abusive husband — and my stepfather.

002 2 1024x8011 For Emma

Thirty years. Three decades. Over 80% of my life.

It’s almost easier to count the things that happened when she was alive, instead of trying to say what she missed. My sister and me being adopted by a loving family and growing up. Her grandsons being born and — faster than I would like — growing into strong, (mostly) responsible men. A lifetime of change from 1984 to today.

To mark 30 years since her death, Meg and I are raising money in Emma Mae Waters’ name to benefit Jane Doe, Inc., a Boston-based anti-domestic abuse organization. They are working to create policy change and programs that will help women and families escape the tragic impact of domestic violence in their lives. Thanks to Jane Doe Inc., other families may be spared the tragedy we experienced that Friday night three decades ago.

Please consider giving in Emma’s memory today.


Getting Unstuck. 2

man running Getting Unstuck.There are two kinds of busy social media strategy folks:

1. Those who continue to publish at their blogs, no matter what, so their presence stays fresh, and readers come to expect their perspective on the issues of the day; and…

2. … everyone else.

If you’ve been keeping tabs on my blog for a year or more, you’ll note that I have little rushes of content… and then I’ll disappear for a few months. Or more than a few. Which puts me squarely in the second camp.

I think it comes from an odd sort of perfectionism — I don’t want to write anything unless it’s useful, and I actually like what I’m saying — combined with the need for a bit of a mental break after my typically busy day as a community manager. We’re either responding to customers and looking ahead to the next content we’re going to share, or exploring what initiatives or projects we want to take on… so to come home after that and produce something salient?

Bit of a challenge.

But as with most things in life, the fact that it’s a challenge seems like a good reason to try it.

That, and my belief that the impulse to express yourself is one that should be rewarded.

I’ve just started running after months away from it (I’ve gone running twice this week! Points for effort!) and my lungs and my legs are feeling challenged, to say the least. I was a track and field guy in high school, so there’s muscle memory in there somewhere, but it’s going to take a bit of time to get my distance and efficiency up to par.

The decision to get back on the trail was one I made on Monday. And as soon as I made that decision, I headed to City Sports, down from my office, to get some running pants suitable for the weather. I didn’t wait to see if I had something at home I could wear, because I knew that could put things off for a day.

And it was great to be out there in my new pants with my not-exactly-new-but-remarkably-unworn (oops!) running shoes. Great to breathe deeply, great to do something for myself.  It was great yesterday, too. And it will be great on Friday.

Mind you, I’m not going to be ready to run a marathon anytime soon… but that’s not why I’m doing it.

I’m doing it because I want to train myself to act on the positive impulses in my life, and to act on them right away. If I feel like a run? I should go for a run. If I’m thinking I should drink eight glasses of water a day, I shouldn’t wait for the next day to fit in the full eight… I can go get a glass right now. If my allergies are driving me bonkers, I should make an appointment with an allergist. How much longer do I need to wait and see if they’ll get better, anyway? The desire for change right now is a good reason to act right now.

That’s why this is my third blog post of the week.

I’ve been thinking about things and pondering ideas and shoring up opinions just as often as I normally do, but I haven’t been taking the time to put them down in words. I tell myself that I can start tomorrow, or that it would take too long to express things clearly, or that I haven’t been reading enough of what everyone else is writing to see if I’m rehashing what’s already out there, etc. etc. And I’m tired! And I already published a bunch of content!

But the impulse to do it, as easily quelled as it may be from day to day, is a good one. And good impulses deserve to be obeyed.

So I’m going to be writing more regularly.

And it won’t even require special pants.


Big Convenience (and a Little Jar of Curry) 4

IMG 0414 Big Convenience (and a Little Jar of Curry)Last night, we had a rare occurrence: Meg forgot we were out of an ingredient critical to our planned dinner: Thai curry paste. But no worries… we live a short walk from a small neighborhood grocery store. I walked down and scanned the international foods aisle, but couldn’t find the paste. We were out of luck, and would have to order out — a $40 mistake, perhaps.

Or were we out of luck?

The commuter rail station, between the grocery store and our house, is home to five Zipcars. And in my pocket was an iPhone. As I walked out of the grocery store, I opened the Zipcar app and saw that a Honda Insight hybrid was available right that minute. I finished the reservation process — a couple taps on the screen, really — as I arrived at the car.

I spent $7.75 to reserve the car for an hour, but could have spent half that if I was willing to wait another 12 minutes (I wasn’t.) For less than 1/4 the cost of take out, I rented a car, drove to another grocery store, and bought the missing curry paste. AND some other stuff we remembered we needed on the way.

Zipcar’s incredible growth over the last few years is based on a pretty basic formula: They have reasonably nice cars (the Insight is just about the worst car I’ve ever driven, but that’s Honda’s fault, not Zipcar’s), they’re affordable, and they make the entire process easy.

Whatever industry  you’re in, think about your typical customer experience. Do you offer a good product? Is it priced right? Do you make it easy — pull-out-a-phone-and-make-a-few-taps-easy — to buy? If you can’t say yes to all three of these, the Zipcars of your industry are going to happily, easily steal away your customers.

Any other examples of companies providing similar services with similar ease? What other companies could be rock stars if they just made it more simple to buy?


Be Your Own Tough Editor

I’ve been blogging since 2006 in one form or another, and when I look back on posts I wrote more than five years ago, I have to admit I cringe a little.

Spelling mistakes, grammar issues, rambling paragraphs, obscure industry jargon… you name it, I did it. Repeatedly.

While my friends might chalk up my improvement in the years since to my relationship with a fierce editor (who I married last year — good editors are hard to come by!), that’s not the whole story. I was always passionate about what I was saying, and the value of where I was saying it, but that same passion didn’t extend to how I was saying it. They’re inextricably linked, though, that what, where, and how… and great writing demands that all three get the appropriate amount of attention and consideration before you click ‘publish’.

Once I realized that was the case, I wanted to do better. And so I did.

Since I produce a ton of content every week in my role as Community Manager for Citizens Bank and Charter One, I’ve adopted the following four questions to avoid veering into garbled territory. I call them my ‘quality filter’… kind of like a Brita jug for my words.

(And while the title of this post talks about being a ‘tough’ editor, the process is actually pretty quick and painless.)

Here they are:

1. Have I edited out the ‘no brainer’ mistakes? While typos are bound to happen, a host of repeated typos are unacceptable — and distracting for many readers. Before you publish, read what you’ve written from start to finish. And then read it again. Worried you won’t see the forest for the trees by that point? You’d be surprised — the second read is where I spot mistakes.

A good trick is to read the content ‘out loud’ in your head (or even out loud, if this won’t scare/annoy the person in the next cube over.) This makes  jumbled syntax and misspelled words stick out like sore thumbs.

2. Is this ‘scannable’? Many people scan content before they decide to dig in and read it all, and a large block of uninterrupted, dense text makes that tough. If they can’t scan your post, they may put it on the back burner — or shelve it entirely. A good rule of thumb is to keep your paragraphs to two or three sentences in length, and ensure your sentences don’t stretch into an entire paragraph (I see you cringing, comma abusers!)

Formatting content this way acknowledges natural reader behavior, and is rewarded consistently with more time on page.

3. Is this approachable for people outside of my space? Most of us err on the side of “inside language” and jargon when we’re talking about an area or subject matter we know well. While many people who approach your content may be just as well versed in your topic as you are, there will be some who are completely new to the conversation — perhaps even people in your industry. So when you post content, consider…

  • Have I used words or terms that could be misunderstood by someone less familiar with what I do? Is there a jargon-free term I could use instead?
  • Have I introduced a concept that I assume everyone understands… but where a bit of explanation could add value?
  • Could I link to other posts or pages that provide definitions for terms or concepts I’ve mentioned? Could I assign keyword tags or place the content under a category that would give it further context?

4. Have I welcomed further conversation? You want your readers to feel that their contribution or response would be welcome (at least, you should want to…), and a good way to do that is to ask questions. Lots of questions. It’s a bit ‘Blogging 101′, certainly, but it’s also a step that many of us forget when we post.

Thoughtful questions show people you care about their perspective and opinion, and provide them with an easy framework for their response. And when readers do contribute, be sure to thank them for sharing their thoughts, and (if appropriate) offer a response in return. By acknowledging your commenters consistently, you’ll find that your commenters will be consistent in returning.

Now it’s time for you to go through this post and see if I missed any errors.

HA!

OR, you could share what you do to edit or refine your content before you post it.

Do you have a process or checklist you go through? Someone you show things to before you post them? How do you avoid looking back and cringing at your mistakes?


Say It Now 5

A member of the social media community died this past weekend. Who he was or how he died won’t be a part of this post. I never met him, and had only conversed with him a few times, so using his information to win a boost in visits from Google would be, well, sleazy.

But the tweets, updates, and posts that followed his passing got me thinking. So many people had so much to say about him, and what he gave to them, and the social media community at large — was he aware of the high praise of so many people? Did they have the chance to tell him when he was still around? If they had the chance, did they tell him?

I’m not sure I would have. We all have our stories, our quirks — one of mine is that I don’t readily talk about my feelings for people. If you and I are friends, I’m more likely to make fun of you than to tell you why I like you.

This is why I’m taking the chance to talk about people that are special in my life. Some I haven’t seen in person in years, some I see every day. They all mean the world to me.

Joe Varnum – After moving to Chelmsford, Joe was my first friend. Regardless of where I came from or what I’d experienced, he was simply an eight-year old that shared a number of interests with me — namely, Transformers, GI Joe, and Legos. After graduation, he joined the Navy (he’s the only member of the Navy that I’ve heard of that never served on a ship!)  Now, he’s engaged to Lori, one of the coolest, craziest girls from our hometown. Since we graduated, we’ve grown apart (but are connected on Facebook — thanks, Zuckerberg!) He’s still one of my favorite people on this planet.

Alan Grant – In suburban America, distance is a strong indicator of the likeliness of interest. Alan lived about 150 yards from my house, which meant we were destined to be friends. As middle schoolers, he told me about the greatness of Aerosmith (I still question his logic on that one). In high school, we spent our time skateboarding, talking about cars, going to punk shows, and being proudly drug free — he, Matt, Ray, Bill, Jay, Robb, Dave, Nate, and Joe were my straightedge crew — aside from my parents, these are the people that have had the greatest impact on who I am.  Now, Alan lives in New Hampshire and I’m in Boston (and carless), so we don’t see each other very often. But if there’s someone I love like a brother (other than my brothers), it’s this guy.

Kevin and Joyce – As far as I’m concerned, they are and always have been a pair — when he was little, my son didn’t know Kevin or Joyce, only Kevinandjoyce. I met K&J in college; we were all BFA majors at U Mass Lowell, a school known for engineering. I’ve followed them from Lowell to Boston (our new home is about 3.5 miles from their loft), but busy lives keep us from getting together very often. They’re two of the funniest, most caring people I’ve ever met. They’re also two of the first modern design enthusiasts I knew, and have helped me hone and develop my own taste for clean, comfortable design. Oh, and their daughter Eva is just about the cutest little girl ever.

Christopher Norfleet – When I first started DesignBoston, I’d go to the DWR in the South End for monthly discussions on modern design. There, I met Christopher. What began as a common interest in furniture we can barely afford (me more so, unfortunately) became a deep friendship over the last five years. From relationships to jobs, we’ve each had our share, and he’s always been there for me.

Jeff Cutler – You probably know him as the scooter-riding, Patriots-hating, there-is-no-such-thing-as-a-Citizen-Journalist ranting food photographer. I know him as all of those, plus one: from the first time I met him, giving me a spare power cord for my (now replaced) iBook, Jeff has been one of the most amazingly giving people I’ve ever met. No one is more loyal, more silly, or more consistently himself than Jeff. And through him, Meg and I met Gretchen.. who, as good as Jeff is, is his better half.

Meg – I’ve written about her more than once. No matter how many times I tell her I love her, or hug her, there’s no way that I could ever put how I feel for her into words. Her beauty, intelligence, and caring heart are unparalleled. And, even though our wedding is still six weeks away, she’s already the best stepmom possible. She’s the person that I dream of growing old with.

All of these people have something in common: they’ve seen me at my best, and at my worst. They’ve stood by me, and helped me become a better person. And they haven’t heard from me how I feel about them.

Is there someone that you should talk to, and tell them how you feel about them?

What are you waiting for?


#10x10X10: The Radian(t) Lauren Vargas 1

Back in February, I started a series of conversations with people who participate in the operation of social media programs for a variety of different brands. Today, I’ll continue with thoughts from the spectacular Lauren Vargas.

Lauren Vargas, Director of Community at Radian6, is a Boston-based communications professional with a decade of experience in community relations, internal and external corporate communications, and government affairs. At Radian6, she assists organizations with building sound objectives and strategies for listening and measurement, and helps them engage with the communities they serve by fostering authentic relationships built on trust through conversations and participatory media.

1. When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is _______.
Take the 30 second commute to my office, grabbing a Coca Cola on the way! Oh, did you mean my job? To get my cylinders fired up, I begin my day with a couple rounds of Set or Bejewled and then read the posts in my Must Reads file in Google Reader. I dedicate only 30 minutes to skimming my Inbox for any urgent issues, or risk being swallowed alive by email for the remainder of the morning. I make a fresh to-do list and start diving into projects. There is no typical day in the life of a community manager, but I build routine into my morning to help me start the day on the right foot.

2. Define “brand” in 140 characters.
A brand is the soul of a business, service or product; the intersection of thoughts, feelings, and experiences linked to said business.

3. What’s the best tool in your social media arsenal?
The best tool in my arsenal will adapt with me through any job and any communications channel. It is integrity.

4. Why is it important to have a real live human behind your social media efforts?
People talk about “humanizing” the organization like it’s some sort of collective thing. Instead, we should be highlighting the individuals that power our businesses. People want to talk to other people, not a faceless avatar.

5. How much of your content is pre-planned vs. real-time responses?
Responses are not pre-planned, but our community team does have a playbook to guide our responses or actions. We encourage our community managers to have personality in their responses, and express individuality. This attitude fosters deeper conversations. Real-time conversation deserves real-time response.

6. We all know social media isn’t a part time job. Realistically, what kind of hours do you put in and what are some typical tasks in a normal work week?
As a community manager, to some degree, you are always “on” if you are participating online. Our community team puts in the hours we need to, to serve our community. We work with other departments (support and our account managers) to scale our response. The planning and creation of content is a task that takes up a significant amount of our time, but it fuels the conversations within the community.

7. What do you do to get away from the “always-on” experience?
It is tough, but sometimes, I just have to go off the grid. If I find myself in front of my computer, I find myself online. So I snuggle up with my Nook or Discover magazine and let my mind get lost in the pages of a science fiction novel, or get inspired by an article about the socialization of plants.

8. If you had to choose between delivering your message and caring for your community (but only choosing one), which would it be?
Caring for my community, because ultimately that IS delivering my message as a community manager.

9. What’s the wackiest/most eccentric community you’ve ever been a member of?
Oh goodness, I am fairly conservative with the communities I join online, but perhaps if I could find a Threadless support group, that would be the most eccentric.

10. The last thing I do before bed is _____. (PG rated!) icon wink #10x10X10: The Radian(t) Lauren Vargas
I always end the evening by reading fiction. A business or non-fiction book fires up my brain, so I prefer to get lost in words about a parallel universe. This type of reading helps me wind down, and helps me stop agonizing about my never-ending to-do list.

When she’s not managing communities (including her wee kids at home), you can find Lauren at The Root Report, Radian6’s Social Strategy blogs, and @vargasl on Twitter.