Newsletters are like teasers – they Mailing_Listhighlight issues and activities, celebrate success stories, point to useful resources and give you a hint of upcoming events. A great way to build a relationship with your target audience, an email (e-) newsletter is cost-effective and a valuable tool for communicating via the Internet.

As Nancy White, online communications expert and lead facilitator at our Social Media Workshop, believes,

“E-newsletters serve as a great summary for ongoing information that may be available in other forms such as blogs, twitter, discussion forums. The target audience that seems to appreciate them the most are people who don’t use many online tools and/or who are not online a lot and like to print and read offline.”

E-newsletters not only overcome a lack of technological know-how, they also transcend geographical boundaries and low bandwidth issues.

Used widely within CGIAR Centers, e-newsletters communicate department/project updates and Center-wide research activities. They are informative, contain useful resources and are often archived as institutional memory.

However, the BIG question is: Is your e-newsletter being read?   

To ensure that your e-newsletter is being read, there are two things to consider: target audience and content.

We know the reach of the e-newsletter is wide, and if you have an extensive distribution list, even better. But then, so does everyone else with a reasonably attractive newsletter. In effect, your newsletter will be competing not only with other research-oriented newsletters, but also with high priority emails, project meetings and an assortment of work-related activities.

Ruthless people are made, not born

People have become adept at managing their email inboxes. Many juggle several email accounts at one time, with each established for a different purpose: work, study, family and yes, even newsletter subscriptions. They can also be ruthless in deleting emails that are of little value to them, a decision that often takes place in the first few seconds of seeing an email in the preview pane of their inbox.

Unless your e-newsletter appeals to the reader in that small space, chances are it may not be opened right away, and may even get deleted.

How to garner the attention your e-newsletter deserves:

  • E-newsletter title – the subject part of the email can be used to your advantage. Use keywords from topics instead of volume number and issue.
  • Headline title – keep it short, attention-grabbing, possibly controversial
  • Subheading – use keywords, state the purpose of the news item
  • Order – place your two best stories at the top to maximize the view in the preview pane
  • Graphics – minimal is best; consider a simpler newsletter header so it does not take up too much space in the preview pane

(A little trivia: Based on eyetracking studies conducted on reading behavior, it was found that e-mail users are extremely fast at both processing their inboxes and reading e-newsletters. The average time allocated to an e-newsletter after opening it was only 51 seconds, with most participants reading only 19% of a newsletter)

So based on the data above, once your e-newsletter is opened, you have approximately 51 seconds to impress your readers.  The more discerning readers will quickly size it up by scanning the headlines and subheadings. If they do not find anything of relevance or interest, you’ve lost them for that particular issue. They may try the next issue you send out, but if the trend continues, they may un-subscribe from your e-newsletter.  So keep track of subscribers and un-subscribers.

For e-newsletter content to be appreciated, it has to be presented in an appealing manner. The look and the feel should be inviting – easy-to-read fonts, minimal images and reasonable length. Description under the headline titles should be short and succinct. Include a link to the source, for people who want more information.

Long e-newsletters risk losing valuable readership. If your e-newsletter is lengthy, it may be prudent to review the rationale behind it. Whether you split your e-newsletter content into shorter e-newsletters that are sent more frequently, or whether you decide to edit content to only showcase the top 5 -6 news items, depends on the purpose of the e-newsletter and the target audience.

There are some quarters who believe newsfeeds are slowly replacing the e-newsletter. Newsfeeds are subscriptions people can make to websites, blogs and other online sources to inform them when new content is introduced to these sites. The ‘news’ comes in the form of headlines. While this is very useful, newsfeeds are impersonal.

The e-newsletter, on the other hand, has the power to be the voice of your cause.

Till next time…

Some examples:

Resources:

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I always enjoy reminiscing about the way things were before the advent of the mobile phone or the Internet or thumb-size music machines… and I usually think to myself, in a corny fashion: Isn’t technology amazing?

Now, if you’ve been collaborating with colleagues (whether in your office or across different time zones) on reports, projects, events and meetings, you’re probably aware of the frustrations involved. One immediately springs to mind: email exchanges that involve logistics, participant lists, activities and, most annoying of all, documents that appear in various draft stages from different senders – it’s enough to confuse anyone.

On that note, I have to say that collaborative writing has evolved in ways that have left me in awe. When you need to work with several people to produce written documents, such as agendas, reports and proposals, emails are the least productive way to go.

Granted, the humble email has done a lot for collaboration between people in different locations, but there are now more effective online tools that can help you with collaborative writing in the research arena. Not only do these tools enhance your writing experience within the group, but they also reduce the ridiculous number of emails that make it hard for you to retrieve the correctly revised versions of documents from your In-box.

While collaborative writing can make us more efficient and effective, several issues need to be addressed: the imbalance in contributing to content, the lack of interest, the subtle hierarchies which hinder real collaboration, and also the difficulty in relinquishing autonomy or control over the written word.

So be warned, we are now moving into a truly ‘democratic’ zone of collaboration. Ready to let go of the control panel? Read on!

Tools for collaborative writing

Wikis: the word originates from Hawaii – ‘wiki wiki’ means quick. Wikis let you create your collaboration environment online very ‘quickly’. What this means is that you can actually create your own wiki site, place your content on it and allow access to any number of people to see, add to or edit it in almost ‘real-time’. A history of revisions is maintained online, so you can check back on earlier versions.

Ideally, a team member can add to or edit an existing draft, with equal measure. The focus is on content and not the person who contributes. So your team will need to comprise people who are willing to contribute to the content subject, who enjoy the stimulus of sharing thought processes collaboratively and who also do not feel too much pressure from having their colleagues edit them. So, wikis may not suit everyone.

It would also be wise to have an editor or person-in-charge to maintain and update the site – this is called wiki gardening, for obvious reasons. Pages will need to be linked, content may need to be removed if not relevant anymore and indexes will need to be created.

When to use wikis
Wikis are worth using when you want to build a body of knowledge online, such as a handbook, a toolkit, raw data sets, even a book chapter, but with collaboration from others. The most obvious example is Wikipedia, a web-based encyclopedia that lets just about anyone with access to the Internet add or edit content. However, there are many uses for wikis. Check out the KS Toolkit page on wikis and see for yourself!

Wikis are also excellent for planning events and documenting meetings. Once you have your team members in mind, you can create a wiki site and allow access to them. Being a collaborative tool, a wiki site lets you and your team prepare agendas, activity lists, proposals and reports collaboratively. Whatever the content, new pages can be created by anyone in your team and linked, ensuring that all documents are found in one site.

How to get started with wikis: there is a wealth of wiki tools, go to wikimatrix.org to find the one for you.

Examples

Google Sites: originally based on wiki technology, Google Sites has shortcuts and improvements that include website management features.

Taking the wiki a step further, Sites lets us choose from different page types, such as a list, a file cabinet, a dashboard, announcements. Google documents, spreadsheets and presentations – as well as videos, maps, calendars and all the goodies you can build with Google Apps and services, all of which can be easily embedded into a Google Site. Collaborators can add comments and attachments. A site map is automatically created. And voilà! You have a ‘website’ for your collaborative writing.

When to use Google Sites
Google Sites is perfect for all non-techies out there who need an online collaborative environment to write, share and collect different types of information in one place, while maintaining a semblance of order.

Examples of public sites on CGXchange 2.0 (Google Apps for the CGIAR)

Google Docs: well, you’re probably wondering what took me so long to get to this, and chances are that you may already have tried this tool out.

In case you haven’t, Google Docs lets you and your team collaborate using text documents, spreadsheets and presentations online. While it is similar to wikis and Google Sites, Google Docs is used for collaboration on one specific piece of content at a time. This content can then be exported and used in blogs, reports, proposals, etc.

When to use Google Docs
Google Docs is best used when you have one document requiring input from others. You simply prepare the document and invite collaborators (anyone with a Google account). Any revisions made will be kept online, so nothing gets lost. In addition, spreadsheet documents allow real-time discussion between collaborators, thanks to a built-in chat room.

Don’t expect the formatting power of Word or PowerPoint, or the computing power of Excel. The point is … this is not the point! The formatting is so basic that Google Docs just lets you focus on what you want to write, and helps you collect and refine the collaborators’ contributions. Then, when everything has been finalized, you can export the content or copy/paste it into the final destination format.

Examples
Docs are usually not public (with exceptions). Here, on the ICT-KM Program blog, the Social Media Tools Series posts are developed in Google Docs: Meena writes, Antonella contributes, and Mary edits. When the content is final (and it is in HTML from the start, which helps a lot), it is pasted and given final formatting in WordPress. Another great example is Silvia Renn’s post on Using Google Docs for Proposal Writing.

How to get started with Google Sites and Docs: all you need is an account with Google (i.e. sign up for Gmail): these tools are available to Google account holders.  CGIAR Staff can get started  by requesting an account at CGXchange 2.0, where they will find a fully managed set of collaboration tools included in Google Apps.

etherpadEtherpad: Taking the term ‘real-time’ literally, this is probably the next step in collaborative writing. It’s a kind of wiki but easier to use and can accommodate up to 8 participants typing at the same time. While changes are updated every 15 seconds on Google Docs, Etherpad updates a document every half second, thus providing a dizzying combo of wiki and chat (see what Etherpad looks like). Isn’t technology amazing?

Updated: The next generation in collaborative writing is close at hand. As early as end of 2009, we may be able to collaborate in absolute ‘real-time’ as Google Wave promises today with ‘live’ transmission collaboration. 

Examples
Check the Use Cases on the Etherpad site. One of the sessions in the Real Time Virtual Collaboration (RTVC) experiment, held last May 9, was run on Etherpad: check the RTVC mindmap also for other examples of real-time collaboration tools.

So there you have it! Some tools to help you get started with collaborative writing. In a nutshell, these tools can benefit you by:

  • bridging geographical distances, allowing people across continents to collaborate with regard to event/project development, information gathering and knowledge management;
  • uncluttering your email box along with the email boxes of your collaborators. While some may be content to use email for their communications, many people are looking for ways to reduce their email load. Whether working on project proposals or creating a knowledge base, these tools eliminate countless email transfers and, along with them, bits of information scattered in several different messages. These tools also house content at one location online, with researchers being able to access and collaborate on a living document.

Nonetheless, the process of writing within a team is challenging on its own, and the tools only provide a conducive environment. Getting past the hierarchies and the defensiveness requires tactful handling.

It would be a good idea to establish rules for collaborative writing, nothing set in stone, just simple guidelines on what is expected of the team, the purpose of the collaboration, and respectful editing practices that help the team to negotiate during discussions between collaborators when changes are needed.

Engaging collaborators at the very beginning, clarifying the objectives of the collaboration, suggesting a set of rules and encouraging them to add to it, may foster a sense of ownership and accountability. After all, technology can only go so far!

Till next time…

P.S. My thanks to Antonella Pastore, whose collaborative input made this blog post possible.

When I was in university, I had an ingenious way of bookmarking important facts/points from articles: 3×5 inch white, lined cards! I would use one side to write out a key point and the reverse side for a citation of the relevant book or journal article. What can I say… it was the 90’s! My 300-odd cards were so valuable to me that whenever anyone wanted to borrow one, I’d watch them like a hawk – till I got it back. Not that I’m averse to sharing, but the time and energy spent bookmarking key points, and the fact that I was relying heavily on them to complete my literature review, made this resource too valuable to lose.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and enter social bookmarking. Filling a niche need for Internet users who navigate their way through websites, social bookmarking is like a little storm in a big teacup – a storm that it is growing bigger everyday.

Some of us may already be saving links to useful websites we visit by ‘adding’ them to our ‘Favorites’ or Bookmarks in our preferred browser. While this means these websites are pegged or bookmarked, the time it takes to retrieve these ‘favorite’ links and the fact that you will need to use your own computer to access the websites, limits this organization tool.

Social bookmarking takes you, the user, to a new level of organizing your precious research, whether it’s a useful restaurant review or a comparison of pathogenic plant viruses. Social bookmarking services such as del.icio.us let you save and store your favorite online resources in a single location that is accessible from any computer with an Internet connection. All you need to do to organize your web links is to assign keywords (tags) that will help you recall the link when you need it. Bookmarks on del.icio.us can be shared publicly, for others to see and add to their resource lists, and vice versa. What a great way to filter through the information overload on the Internet!

How can you within the CGIAR benefit from social bookmarking?

Well, first, online resources can be shared across your Center between scientists and their peers. All that’s needed is a bit of thinking when tagging favorite website links with specific keywords.

As one participant of the Online Social Media workshop put it, “I can see real value in using social bookmarking to create ‘validated’ libraries of information sources on the Web. Choose a topic, set a ‘Network tag’, sign up a bunch of people interested in the topic and away you go. You could post the link to these ‘libraries’ on your own or your organization’s website.”

When you start using network tags, that’s where you really see the power of social bookmarking. Here are some simple instructions provided by Nancy White, online communication expert and lead facilitator at the Online Social Media workshop.

1. Choose a tag. This is a key practice!

2. Recruit Taggers. Here is my rule of thumb. In a group of 20 people, having 2 taggers will make a difference. It doesn’t have to be everyone. Some people are better scanners/taggers than others. I find people who are fast readers and global thinkers make great taggers. First I try and find out if anyone is already using del.icio.us and tagging. Then I ask them to consider tagging for the group as well. I always encourage people to install the little tag bookmarklet on their browser.
I REALLY love it when people don’t just tag, but they add a short annotation of why they think the link is valuable and add other tags beyond the shared tag that help further define the tag.

  • A tag should be somehow obviously related to the topic. People need to be able to remember it.
  • If it is related to an event, add a year at the end. So if we wanted to identify the CGSocialmedia resources to this year, we could make the tag CGSocialmedia09
  • If you need it to be unique to your group, you will have to work harder to make the tag unique. The tag socialmedia is used by many people so it is too generic.
  • Some caveats: Tags that are too long, have slightly weird spelling or too obtuse tend to have challenges. People forget them, mispell (and thus mistag) them. So bottom line, keep it as simple as you can while still being unique.
     
  • 3. Make the tag feed visible to users. So this may mean you are recruiting users, or simply making the fruits of the tagging visible to an existing group. You can pull the RSS feed (Meena: coming soon, I promise!) and embed it in a blog or webportal page or any site that allows simple scripts. You can find the RSS feed for any tag at the lower left of that tag page on del.icio.us.

    Social bookmarking and scholarly literature

    Maybe you don’t use 3×5 inch cards, maybe you’ve been trying various free or licensed software to keep track of your references on your personal computer. How about a web-based application that allows you to do exactly what del.icio.us allows, for your scientific literature, with no more than a mouse-click?

    There are too many web-based/social bibliography management tools out there that try to meet the needs of the scientist, created by various sources from esteemed journal publishers to PhD students. I’m going to highlight just three here, namely Connotea, Aigaion and CiteULike. Not for any other reason except that Petr Kosina of CIMMYT sent out a little question on Yammer (see post on Microblogging) asking which of these three online reference management tools would be suitable for geographically distributed research institutions – which would apply to the CGIAR.

    A quick scan of Connotea, Aigaion and CiteULike reveals:

    • All three software are free: CiteULike and Connotea are hosted services, while Aigaion is a web application that needs to be installed on a server
    • You can save and organize your links to references found online
    • Your bibliography/list of references can be easily shared among colleagues/peers
    • Use any computer to access your list of references anywhere, anytime
    • CiteUlike allows you to store your pdf files for easy access from any computer
    • Aigaion enables you to export references to other formats, like bibtext

    (Updated: Here’s another bibliography management tool, Mendeley, which indexes pdfs and manages bibliography in Word – courtesy of William Gunn)

    As you can see, your choice of online reference management software will depend on your needs. Shop around and check out some of the links below that make more detailed comparisons.

    If I can sum up the utility of social bookmarking sites, I’d say it’s the wealth of useful links you can get from having access to your colleague’s list and vice versa. Cutting out unnecessary trawling, it is time-saving and leads to the discovery of new, subject-relevant articles. Also having all your useful website links online just makes it easier to shed a few pounds off your travel gear. It’s just one more way to lose your notebook when you travel!

    Till next time….

    Examples:

    Resources:

    It would be hard to use the Internet and not come across a slew of social networking sites. Facebook, MySpace…these are just two of the popular sites that regular Internet aficionados use to keep in touch with family and friends and/or meet new people.

    Social networking sites allow users to create their own personal virtual space that includes applications like photo-sharing, instant messaging, Twitter and blogs. Users can connect to friends and family, but more importantly, their friends and family are connected to others, resulting in potential new networks. And therein lies the argument in favor of using these sites to promote our work in the CGIAR.

    Of course, there has been extensive critique of social networking sites, with people calling them ‘useless time wasters that drag users in’, ‘ isolating rather than connecting’, ‘something for the kids’… Add to that the stigma that comes with social networking sites, thanks to cyber stalkers and identity theft. Whatever the reason for getting onto these sites or getting off them completely, there will always be people who either love or hate them. For those sitting on the fence – why not give them a try before you dismiss them? You just might be pleasantly surprised.

    Why you should consider social networking sites for your work

    Well, how does having access to a huge online audience sound to you?

    Facebook alone boasts 175 million active users worldwide. LinkedIn, a networking site for professionals, hosts more than 39 million members. This no-nonsense site lets you form links for career growth, and creates a unique environment where talent and expertise can be sourced by people you trust in your network.

    Five years since the introduction of  Facebook in colleges, with many Facebook users jealously guarding their Facebook accounts as private social networks, keeping out colleagues and acquaintances, there has been an interesting development. Even in their private virtual spaces, some people are now looking for ways to engage and make a difference.

    How you can use social networking sites to your advantage

    • Create awareness. Raise visibility and build a presence for your Center. There are already more than 100,000 non-profits, universities and other organizations using Facebook to connect with people. Recognizing the need, Facebook revamped its “Facebook Pages”, now known as “Public Profiles”, in March 2009. Check out the step-by-step guide to Public Profiles.
    • Engage people. Promote issues that resonate with people, such as food security, climate change, potable water for all, etc. A recent example of the strategic use of Facebook was the promotion of Earth Hour 2009, which saw almost one million people signing up on the Earth Hour site via Facebook. People were requested to switch off their lights for one hour on March 28 to promote an awareness of climate change and send a strong message to world leaders ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in December 2009. The result: millions of people voted “Earth” by posting photos, videos, blogs and using Twitter.
    • Form alliances. As Michael Hailu of ICRAF stated during the online Social Media workshop last March, “use these tools to link up with influential people and institutions”. He cited a blog post by the UK Minister of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Hillary Benn, who posted an entry about his visit to ICRAF.
    • Find expertise or talent. Sites like LinkedIn , which contain a network of trusted, professional contacts, may lead to potential partners, service providers and other experts.
    • Virtual Marketing. Use the extended networks in Facebook or your Facebook Page to publicize and promote specific activities such as blog posts, video clips or any new content. As noted online communications expert Nancy White states “we pay attention to things that are recommended to us by people in our network”.
    • Spread the word about your work, publications, website. Post short comments and links to news, updates and new content you release to let interested people pick them up and, if they are interested, redistribute them.

    Tips for getting the best out of social networking sites

    • While there are quite a few sites that can be used to promote or publicize your activity, event or Center, it is wise to exercise restraint. How much time do you really have to dedicate towards updating and maintaining your Facebook page? You would ideally need to update it regularly (at least weekly). Do you have the resources to work on several social networking sites? These are things to consider before jumping in.
    • Make sure your profile page is complete before you present it to the online world. Incomplete information does not encourage return visits, mainly when it is about your face and credibility.
    • Content needs to be interesting, fresh, enticing … use your imagination. Remember, you’re going to be competing with singing dogs and flying babies! But seriously, there are many people online who crave knowledge and learning. Enlighten them! ICARDA’s Moyomola Bolarin had a great suggestion for YouTube videos being posted on social networking sites. It involved “combining a delicious chickpea recipe with information on how ICARDA work on its (chickpea) improvement”.
    • Keep track of whom you invite to your page; start with influential contacts who already have established networks. It is better to have a meaningful network of people who genuinely support and will likely promote your cause.

    Still unsure? Well, why not start with a small event that may be happening at your Center – promote it on Facebook or any other social networking site, and monitor the impact.

    As for me, once this blog post is published, I’m going to include the link in my email list, Yammer and Facebook!

    Till next week…

    Pssst! BTW if you’d like to explore the area of social media more extensively, check out ICT-KM’s social media workshop starting May 25th.

    Facebook examples


    Resources

    If you are responsible for communications in your organization, you will know the value of having a clear strategy and a way of evaluating it. This post will discuss some social media tools and give you ideas on how to include social media appropriately in your communications plan and measure its effectiveness.

    Setting your goal

    A good social media strategy should take into consideration goals, target audiences AND technological implications. For example, while it is true to say that most of the CGIAR’s constituents are not even online, many of its strategic audiences, such as donors, researchers and policy makers, will be. The Social Media Strategic Planning Worksheet from We Are Media will help you plan your social media strategy.

    Here are some questions you might want to answer as you start to include a social media component in your communications strategy:

    • What communications objective do you want to try to support with social media?
    • What are the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that a social media strategy might offer?
    • What value does your social media strategy provide to your organization and/or stakeholders?
    • What type of quantitative and qualitative information do you need to track to measure your success or learn how to improve your social media strategy?

    In the Blogging for impact post, you will find a number of reasons for establishing a blog. Some of the key objectives that this social media tool can help your organization achieve include: increased visibility, enhanced reputation, knowledge sharing and audience participation. These objectives don’t just apply to blogging; they can also be extended to many other social media activities such as microblogging.

    Introducing a social media component into your communications strategy requires an understanding of your chosen tools and how the network dynamics work. If you are interested in learning more about strategic social media planning and have a project that you want to introduce to the Social Web, you may want to sign up for the ICT-KM Program’s Online Social Media Workshop to be held from May 25 to June 12, 2009.

    Measure as you go

    It is fairly simple to experiment with social media and throw out an experiment that is not working for you. Think small, low risk, frequent experiments, rather than trying to build “the perfect system” and over-investing in any one tool until you can see its value to your organization.

    For example, you can create a blog as an alternative to a traditional email newsletter. By creating a central online archive for your news items, you can:

    • track traffic to individual posts – find out how many times a blog post has been viewed by using your blog software or a tool like Google Analytics).
    • read any comments you might get when you post entries that specifically ask for feedback. People are more likely to respond to open-ended questions.
    • monitor incoming links to your newsletter address and individual posts. You can monitor traffic sources (i.e. referrers in your traffic analysis reports) and keep an eye on the sites that link to your blog, simply by leveraging the search engine indexes. For example, you can set up a Google Alert to check who has linked to a specific URL or to your site, as their pages are registered with the Google index. You can also use Yahoo Site Explorer to monitor incoming links.
    • analyze those blog posts that are more popular and, accordingly, adjust your posting style, choice of topics, areas you want to focus on, etc.

    The above approach relies on quantitative metrics. For a great list of other metrics, please see Rachel Happe’s blog post on Social Media Metrics.

    Social listening

    In the early phases of using social media, you will typically try things out and begin “listening” for the response as indicated by page views, links, responses and actions of your target audience.

    Check out Beth Kanter’s blog post about evaluating first projects, where she links to Geoff Livingston’s post called “Getting Social Media Approved By Your Boss,”  in which he talks about organizational culture change and resistance, but with the emphasis on the importance of a proof of concept project. Here’s an excerpt:

    First off, we recommend using a pilot project to get through the door. Reticence is often conquered by a win, and the best way to provide a win is via a pilot project. Tips to ensuring you choose the right pilot project:
    • Begin with some form of listening or monitoring. You must be in tune with your social web community if you want this to work. Hopefully you are doing this before you begin, but just in case…
    • Simple and relatively low cost is good. When there is fear involved, an easy, relatively affordable project is an easy thing to sign off on.
    • Short timeframes help, too. You want to make this a quick test.
    • Make sure you have a measurable goal. Look at your strategy, it will tell you exactly what to measure. You must be able to attain ROI. That is why attaining something worthwhile is essential, whether it’s micro-donations, market intelligence, feedback on a new product, click-throughs to a store, registrants for a value added webinar, or some other measurable result. You must be able to declare victory.

    Social media has been around for a while (social bookmarking was already all the rage back in 2005 when Yahoo acquired Del.icio.us). However, it’s the growth in the adoption and use of social networks that has started to generate increasing traffic to the websites that get bookmarked, shared, commented on, and spread in whatever way through the networks. This is driving the demand for data related to social media: how many people are following us? what topics do they find interesting? who else is in their networks?

    The first thing to do, as stated in the excerpt above, is to identify the goal you want to measure and choose the analysis tools that best cater for the job. For example, you can create buzz around an event so you engage participants before, during and after the event, the success of which can be measured in terms of the number of times your event information is viewed. You can also check the spread of an individual message across networks.

    A great starting guide for measuring traffic generated by social media can be found at HOW TO: Track Social Media Analytics. Another article about reputation monitoring focuses on the tools you might want to set up to find out what is being said about your organisation, project or initiative so that you can participate in the conversation.

    Capturing intangibles

    Of course, using quantitative metrics is not the only way of evaluating your social media ROI. Successful communications often involves intangibles, like, say, a donor reading a blog post that tells the story of a project and, as a result, begins to engage more deeply to support the work involved. Or it could be about people who start following your Twitter messages and gain a deeper appreciation for, say, food and hunger in the world and start making small changes in their own lives. These things require a deeper listening – such as finding stories, carrying out interviews with people from your target audience, etc. For more on this, here is another blog post from Beth Kanter on intangibles as part of ROI.

    As you get a sense of how social media is helping you achieve your communications strategy, you can begin to incorporate social media evaluation into your overall communications evaluation work:

    • keep anything that is working
    • adjust those aspects that might be working
    • stop doing anything that isn’t working

    Note: Sometimes, it takes both experimentation and time to find out if something is working. So don’t give up too quickly.

    Additional Resources

    About this post. Originally developed by the Social Media Workshop facilitators, expanded by Antonella Pastore, edited by Mary Schneider.

    In the online publishing world, blogs seem to have taken off like wildfire. While the blog may have humble beginnings as a personal journal, it has transformed into a powerful tool for communicating online.  

    Not too long ago, research ideas were written in closely guarded notebooks, discussed in hushed tones over coffee and within tight circles. Research collaborators across continents shared ideas via ‘snail’ mail, which may have improved penmanship but probably did not do much for research itself.

    The  advent of the Internet and email allowed researchers and academics to learn, share and collaborate, all at a fraction of the time such activities used to take. Beyond the obvious time-saving, researchers gained from a wider network of peers.

    Imagine a research scientist working on maize crops or rice varieties in isolated fields in far-flung locations being able to connect with other researchers, academics and even farmers in other parts of the world – people, known or unknown to the scientist as yet. 

    While an email exchange connects two or more known individuals, blogging takes communications to a higher level, allowing the researcher to state an idea or question or problem out to a larger landscape of researchers and networks.

    Within the CGIAR, researchers are already beginning to see the benefits of blogging. But first, for the uninitiated, what are blogs

     

    Blogs consist of a series of regular entries displayed in reverse chronological order. They allow multiple authorship, the integration of several media in one site (photos, video, RSS feeds), and interaction with readers through comments and replies. 

     

    With thousands of new blogs launched daily, the so-called blogosphere covers an infinite range of subject matters written by professionals and amateurs alike. There are several blogging software with popular ones being Blogger, Typepad and WordPress

     

    Why should an international research organization care about blogging?

     
    Blogs are often associated with amateurs and popular culture. Many examples tell a different story, be it social activism (e.g. Global Voices) or raising awareness on global issues (e.g. blogs.worldbank.org).
     
    Based on what we see happen on the web, is there a case for blogging in agricultural research?  Let’s consider this:
    • Share and learn as you go. Enrich your ideas and validate your work before finalisation. Intranet blogs are a great avenue for informal knowledge sharing. Knowledge can be shared within a secure environment. Security options can be built-in so that different users have different access rights.
    • Reach out to interested people outside your regular circles. Regular blog posts help to increase readership, as a complement to your newsletter and website.
    • Build your network beyond the usual suspects. Comments allow for greater interaction between authors and readers which over time creates a sense of community.
    • Spread the word about your work. Blogging is direct and current, and can be used to announce newsworthy items much earlier than the time it takes for it to be published in a newsletter or press release. For example, you can share news of your article’s acceptance in a reputed journal, or an award/grant that your work has received. The potential is limitless. Information is shared instantly, and discussion threads can generate tangible knowledge. 
    • Get your name out there even without publications or while preparing a publication (which takes you back to the first point on sharing and learning).

    A blog can help you ensure more interaction and increased visibility around your work. And this does start to sound like impact. 

     

    How can a blog work to your advantage? 

    • A primary source for news.
      Blogs are ideal for sharing breaking news with a wide audience online; instant reporting on events and conferences. Event updates that get out to people are current and provide personal perspective.
    • Let the human voice be heard.
      Interviews, reviews and commentaries are written by real people, based on first-hand experience. A well-written blog post connects with readers on a personal level, it is the blogger’s personal voice that readers ‘hear’.
    • Project and personal information management.
      Blogs can double as your daily digest of activities and news. Yes, the versatility of blogs can no longer be denied – imagine a one-stop store for your photos, videos, documents and web links; your blog posts with valuable comments/ discussions. And imagine this, every entry has a permanent link and can be searched easily. 
    • Conversations.
      Blogs can be used as the sounding board to debate and voice opinions. Blogs are an avenue for people to step away from conventional communication modes that tend to conform to organizational red tape. Blogs give you a sense of how people think and what is of value to them. Comments to controversial blog posts can be used to gauge reactions and opinions in a less intimidating setting.
    • Knowledge sharing
      Blogging style dictates that authors provide abundant links to additional resources and information. This information is selected, distilled and organized to help elucidate and improve a reader’s understanding of a specific topic. When a reader comments with her own experiences, her own stories, what we have is a charming example of, dare I say…knowledge sharing.
    • Website management.
      Blogging software are content management systems to all effects. You can build a fully-fledged website on this technology. A regular, constant flow of information and exchange would, in this case, be the core of your institutional presence on the web, while still allowing you to manage information that remains stable over time.
    • More traffic = more visibility.
      Search engines crawl (i.e. discover and include results from) sites that are updated frequently and regularly. So in effect, every time you post to your blog, search engines will visit it, boosting your website’s search engine ranking, which is a good thing!
    Blogs have the power to help you foster relationships with colleagues, partners, stakeholders, donors, and the community you belong to. And relationships are the much-needed ingredient for effective impact, but only to the extent that they are managed effectively as much as in real life.
     
    Which brings us to a discussion thread at the online Social Media Workshop held last month. Simone Staiger-Rivas, ICT-KM, set out to list key elements for effective management of blogs. Here’s her list:
    • Blogs should be updated regularly
    • The tone should not be too formal
    • Ownership: give blogs a personal voice with perspective
    • Link to what other people say or do
    • Answer each comment

    I’m not sure if I agree with the last point completely, I’d say answer only if a response is needed for clarification. Your comments on this are welcome.

     

    How do we tackle ‘institutional’ blogs?

     

    Are you ready to blog?

    Are you ready to blog?

    If it is all about the human voice and relationships (as well as good, fresh and relevant content), how do we introduce blogging into websites that tend to have a formal, uptight feel? 

     

    Readers can immediately sense the distance and lack of personal commitment that come from ‘ghost writers’ and politically-correct writers/ bloggers who use blogs as a channel to give out information that can already be found in websites and newsletters. Interaction not required! 

     

    Then, why use blogs?  Blogs have great potential not only to inform but also to challenge perceptions. They can be used to draw out different points of view, commentaries, personal experiences and even, support for your blog post. The blog as a tool empowers people and helps create change. 

     

    Nancy White, noted online communication expert and facilitator at the online workshop, stated in the context of institutional blogs:

    If leadership wants transparency, in social media, they are going to have to take some personal risks because….people pick up on the ghost writing, the lack of an authentic voice.

     

    She questions if they are realistically willing to blog, to be vulnerable and yet confident in their position and voice. 

     

    Personally, I started my first blog post in 2005. It was a harrowing experience filled with fear – that my words would represent my stand on a topic or on life itself, that all and sundry would read it and hold me accountable. In short, I was not ready to share my thoughts so I quit with just that one post sitting anonymously in the blogosphere. Until early this year, that is, when I realised that blogging was a great way to share new perspectives and gather feedback. I could post a blog about a particular topic and share it with a wide group of friends and colleagues – mass outreach in a fraction of the time it would normally take if I were to talk to different groups separately. 

     
    So, assuming you’ve gotten past the hurdle of not wanting to blog, and you’re now ready and willing, I have paraphrased some of Nancy’s thoughts on creating a zone of blogging comfort for new ‘institutional’ bloggers:
    • Blogs allow several means for communicating your ideas. People who aren’t comfortable with writing may find it easier to record a podcast or a video and post that in their blog with a short summary.
    • When leaders in an organization are asked to blog, a good way to get the juices flowing would be to ask them to ‘tell a story’. It sets a more conversational tone to the blog, cutting out the formal-speak, making it more appealing.
    • Encourage frequent, short updates that aim to keep in touch. This ties in with Simone’s list for effective management of blogs.  
    Who’s blogging on agricultural research and development  

    And –  of  course – the ICT-KM blog

    The list grows daily (if you know of any other interesting blogs, tell us here in the comments). So, check them out. I’m going to subscribe to them via RSS feeds… but that’s another blog post! 

     
    Till next time…

     

    Resources

    Microblogging is a form of blogging based on short posts. A real-time communication platform, microblogs are short, tight snippets of information that tell others what you’re doing, where you’re going or even how you’re feeling at any given moment.

    In a social context, you could essentially be keeping tabs on your friends’ activities and vice versa, within a private group or publicly on the Web. Several microblogging services are available: we’re featuring two popular ones in this post.

    twitter Twitter is a networked web and mobile phone based shared short messaging system. It allows users to write brief text updates (max 140 characters) and publish them, either to be viewed by anyone or by a restricted group which can be chosen by the user. These messages can be submitted by a variety of means, including text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, MP3 or the Web (source).

    You can open a free account at twitter.com.

    yammer_logo_smallYammer is a similar tool for organizations, that allows quick networking and information sharing, with the added benefit of connecting easily within the common organization email domain (i.e. cgiar.org). Note: if you have a valid @cgiar.org email address, sign up to join the growing cgiar network on Yammer.

    How can you use microblogging to your advantage?

    Having started out as a “What are you doing now?” social communication tool, microblogging holds great potential at work. Whether you see it as an annoying distraction or powerful communication tool, it is in the hands of the user, you. 

    Here’s why you should consider using microblogging at work:

    • Brevity. First, the 140 character limit on your microblog forces you to scale down your update to just the facts. Post an idea, a useful link*, ask for quick feedback all in less than a minute. This works in your favor because the responses are just as brief and to the point. (*Last week I mentioned learning about tinyurl.com. TinyURL is an excellent tool that helps you shrink a long url into a tiny one which you can then share with others via Twitter, Yammer or other instant messengers).
       
    • As an informal communication tool
      • Announcements to promote events/ activities
      • Asking for quick feedback and posting short updates create an informal structure that gets your point across without getting bogged down by more formal means of communications.
         
    • Updates from colleagues you ‘follow’. This feature is really the crux of microblogging. Whom you follow determines the type of updates you gain access to. By intelligently selecting the right people, you are now privy to their experiences, ideas and insights. You have the potential to ‘mine’ their resources as your followers ‘mine’ yours. What are the benefits?
      • You get breaking news. Real time conversations can be very revealing.
      • Networking is easier. The informal setting allows quick introductions and gets you straight onto their microblogs.
      • Connect within a community at work, increase visibility and engage with partners and colleagues.
         
    • Less email. Microblogging on Twitter or Yammer reduces the need for email exchanges, which help de-clutter your inbox. The versatility in sharing your messages through a variety of ways reduces the dependency on email access.
       
    • Real-time sharing during events (e.g. conferences, training events, meetings). It is one of the key tools for social reporting, i.e. “is where a group of participants at an event interactively and jointly contribute to some form of reporting, in text, photos, images or video. The resulting “social report” is made accessible, usually online, as soon as possible, sometimes as a half-product. This allows others to join in, to extend, to adjust or remix.” (explore the  ‘social reporting’ tag on this blog). Microblogging during events increases visibility and outreach of the knowledge that is generated at a rapid pace during face-to-face meetings, and it helps build a level of engagement and participation that goes beyond physical presence.
    Why some people love Twitter

    Why some people love Twitter

     

    How to be a ‘savvy’ microblogger

    • Post updates that add value. This could be an idea, interesting links and shortcuts that have appeal but do not warrant a blog post.
    • Respond to microblogs when you have a contribution to make. You don’t have to interact on all posts that are shared.
    • Exercise caution when posting updates. In a more public group, you may want to hold back on personal details.
    • Choose whom you ‘follow’ wisely

    Who’s been microblogging

    • Conference share and “back channel.” In the recent ShareFair in Rome, several participants twittered live and during the sessions to share insights and highlights with their twitter networks. Current example? Colleagues are now twitting live from the African Geospatial Week in Nairobi (with special postings on the Yammer cgiar network).
    • Incorporation of Twitter in CIMMYT’s blog. The ICT-KM blog (where you are now) incorporates the Twitter updates on the sidebar.
    • Media giants like BBC and The New York Times use Twitter to post headlines and story links (NYT and BBC)

    Have you had any experience you’d like to share about microblogging? Perhaps you’ve identified other uses for microblogging at work. We would love to hear from you.

    Till next week!

    Resources 

    Get these links and more from the microblogging tag at CGXchange on Del.icio.us