Archive for April, 2009

Tossing my cap and blogging for fun

If you’re not affiliated with PRKent, you may not have known that my posts on this blog have been a part of a class requirement — until now!

Im a blogger school graduate!
I’m a blogger school graduate!

As I walk away from blogger-college, I’m venturing out on my own to see where Steele Headed will go in the future. I’ve tossed my blogger-tassel and head out into the unrestricted blogging world (my PR Online class put minor restrictions on length among other things).

So what can you expect from me moving forward? To be honest, not a whole lot in the next few weeks. As the semester  comes to a close, I’m struggling to keep my head above water in the sea of graduate studies and need some time away. (That and I’m going to see the ponies run at Churchill Downs this weekend.)

But once I get my ducks in a row, and the semester’s finished, I’ll continue to dicuss topics relating to Web design, information architecture (IA), user experience design (UXD), integrate marketing communications (IMC) and how they relate to my world of public relations (PR).

A special thanks to my professor, Stef Moore, for giving me faith that the letters above mean more together than just a bad draw in a game of Scrabble .

Look forward to seeing ya’ll around in the blogosphere. Turns out it’s not as dead as I thought…

April 27, 2009 at 8:33 PM 2 comments

What’s the point of online communication?

In 1968, a scholarly article said that in a few years we’d “be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.”

To put this in perspective, 1968 was also the year that introduced us to the Sci-Fi computer legend HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey — a machine that could communicate all by itself.

In 2009, neither prediction has come true, and communicating THROUGH a computer can be as much of a nightmare as dealing with HAL himself (not to spoil the ending, but  HAL turns out to be a ruthless killing machine — literally).

So where do we stand with communication technology?

global-connectionsCommunicating via the Web using chat, skype, e-mail, discussion boards, wikis and countless other mediums offers the convenience of an instantaneous connection across the globe. People can connect like never before for next to nothing. Companies can reach out to audiences that were never before in reach, and consumers have the ability to choose from a wide variety of sources never before available.

The downfall is the quality of this connection, and how effective the communication really is. You may have heard the old proverb that a service can be “Good, Cheap, Quick — choose any two.” Online communication is certainly the latter two, but generally lacks the first characteristic: quality.

So what’s the point of communicating online?

As mentioned above and highlighted in some prominent literature of the last decade (The World is Flat, The Cluetrain Manifesto, and others), the answer is convenience.

The Internet opens the playing field of a formerly restricted communication marketplace. From a PR perspective, this a goldmine for forming relationships with key publics. We can communicate in more ways, with more tools, and to more people than ever before.

In 2009, though, companies need to be aware of when to use the Web to communicate, and when not to. Let me share a couple of recent experiences, just to prove my point.

Experience #1

Two weeks ago, I was hunkered away in a library cubicle like a good-little-grad-student, when I remembered a question I had about my cable bill.

I navigated to the cable company’s Web site and found their “Chat Online” feature, figuring I could find my answer without disturbing others in the library with a phone call. The result was a 35-minute exercise in patience, futility and ultimately aggravation.

hunt-and-peck

My simple request for billing information could not be supplied,  and when I asked for a price quote, the representative (we’ll call her “Karen”) took nearly 15 minutes to produce the information. It took me another ten minutes to solicit all the necessary details and clarification from Karen, who was so slow to respond I can only assume she typed using the “hunt and peck” technique.

The next day, I settle the issue with a ten-minute phone call.

The difference here is fairly clear-cut. On the phone, the representative on the phone was able to react to my tone of voice and I was able to cut him short when he started pitching me services I wasn’t interested in — two things that are difficult in a chat-based interface.

Experience #2

Later that week, I had a slightly better experience using Kent State Library’s “IM a Librarian feature.” I was having difficulty using one of the reference tools offered by the library and was stuck at home without the assistance of a librarian. After exhausting all my efforts in the online help pages, I turned to the virtual librarian for help (a great feature that eased my frustration and saved my opinion of the organization as I mentioned in an earlier post).

Though it took me a bit longer to work with “IMaKSULibrarian” to find a solution than it would have if I was actually F2F with a person at the reference desk, the online help actually worked. The chat interface also offered capabilities that a phone call wouldn’t have, including hyperlinks to useful pages and the correct spellings of passwords. I chalked this one up as a win for communicating online.

blank-stareThe moral of the story:

It isn’t news that communicating with someone F2F is better than between screens. The Web has afforded us the opportunity to open infinite communication channels, but it’s important to control how we use them.

Though two-way communication online can be helpful, it can also breed aggravation.

Remember that frustration is the enemy of public relations, and alienating a target audience through an idle chat window is essentially the same as sitting across the table from them silently with a blank stare.

Global Connections image courtesy of ontmeetup.net

Homer Simpson image courtesy of photobucket.com

April 13, 2009 at 11:02 PM 2 comments

I’m serious about this: Usability affects PR

I ended my post last week tying web site usability to public relations. I’m not claiming this is an original thought, but I do think it’s one that deserves to be revisited. The bottom line is that PR professionals need to be aware of how information architecture and Web design affect the experience of their target publics in online communication.

Make your Web site easy to use
Make your Web site easy to use

I’m optimistic that this is a concept the PR world is willing to fully embrace. As I mentioned last week, it’s the strictly-marketing minded folks who tend to focus solely on “push” factors, ignoring the wants and needs of the user.

In my mind, a Web site with strong fundamentals of user experience design runs parallel with a PR campaign that uses solid research to attend to the needs of its target audience. In other words, designing a site that eliminates all the little frustrations users may encounter is the same as constructing a strategic PR plan that considers all the communication barriers of its target audience.

Usability is based on user expectations

In an online world, it all boils down to expectations. Less than a decade ago, the expectation was that a company/organization had some sort of online presence. At the minimum this meant a single Web page with some basic info and maybe a phone number.

But expectations are changing. Nowadays, a company must have a full-service Web site, and it better be a good one. The site must be easy to navigate and gives users all the information they desire without thinking. Oh, and while we’re at it, the site should appear in the top 5-10 results for a variety of Google search terms chosen by the users.

Am I the only one who ever feels like this?

For most PR practitioners, this may seem like a lot to think about. But if you’re Web site doesn’t do these things, be assured that a competitor’s site does. The Internet’s been around for a while now, and people have expectations for companies to represent themselves a certain way online. Don’t let them down — or worse, frustrate them.

Usability’s enemy is negative emotions

There’s nothing worse than getting frustrated on a web site. Sometimes the tiniest things can drive people crazy. Just ask my girlfriend about when I get frustrated — I know she’s seen me clench my fists at a computer screen more than once, but I think all of us get that anti-technology feeling every once in a while.

As PR professionals, we need to be responsible for making sure this feeling is avoided — making sure our target audience doesn’t get frustrated with our organization’s Web site. This means being aware of the things that commonly frustrate users and working with Web designers and usability experts to make sure they’re avoided at all costs.

To  get a few examples of things that frustrate users, I ran a Twitter search on the word “HATE.” Aside from a slue of tweets on “Mondays,” “dental appointments” and “ex-boyfriends,” I found a number of tweets referring to Web site use.

Here’s a few just to reinforce my point (notice that even the “big-wigs” of technology aren’t immune):

hate-tweets

For a PR professional, creating a Web site with bad usability is like shooting yourself in the foot. Just keep in mind that as the representative of your company’s reputation, this injury may hurt your organization worse than you think.

April 6, 2009 at 11:09 PM 2 comments


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