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Sociable 2.0 Plugin Release Interview: Peter Harkins

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I first met Peter Harkins in person at Barcamp Chicago in the Summer of 2006. As I’ve gotten to know him, he knows far more than just coding, as he appreciates and participates constructively in conversations about business strategy and monetization. It’s a winning combination.

The response has been incredible to the Sociable plugin, so you’ve been slammed with inquiries…

Peter: I’ve gotten dozens of mails about Sociable in the last week, from sites wanting to be included, users testing it out in unusual situations and last-minute feature requests. I’ve promised to get 2.0 out by Midnight February 1, so it’s been a race to the wire to get in new features.

Peter: I’ve added 26 sites at last count in this version. Just this morning a Hungarian programmer sent me at least a few more, so I may have as many as 60 sites in the next version.

You’ve add new language translations with this version, that is exciting…

Peter: Yes. It looks like this version will have support for Spanish, Czech, Italian, German and French with more to come. Before 2.0, interested users were just picking it up, translating it, and offering it for download on their blogs. It was a bit frustrating to track bug fixes between different branches of Sociable. Now we’ll have a unified project to share resources and drive development faster, I want to have releases at least every other month in 2007.

You keep the installation and interface pretty simple…

Peter: Deliberately, so, yes. As a programmer, it’s really easy to think of the UI as “that last bit I have to add so people can use my beautiful code” instead of what it truly is: the most important part of the application. So I spent a lot of time making sure that you can install Sociable just by unzipping and uploading it, rather than try to provide complicated install instructions. I spent time on a feature most people never see: when you install Sociable, it checks a manifest of files to make sure it was uploaded right, and it tells you what files go where if it’s not perfect. It provides help right when you need it most, and plainly enough that you understand it.

Peter: The drag-and-drop in the admin interface is just a delight to use, and deliberately so. I want blog owners to feel safe playing around with the different options to see what works on their site. So I’ve spent most of my time on making the UI really nice as well as fixing up the insides.

So you also reprogrammed the internals of the Sociable application for future development and expansion beyond WordPress?

Peter: I want to start porting Sociable over to work on other blog engines like TypePad, Movable Type, Mephisto, and more. So I’ve cleaned up the internals of 2.0, laying the groundwork for 2.1 or 2.2 to support more engines. It’s also going to start doing a little stat reporting when it checks for updates. I know there are roughly 10,000 blogs out there using it, but I’d like to know more exactly and maybe cross-reference to traffic rating services to find out what kind of positive effect it has.

You have an alert system for updating?

Peter: Yes, Sociable checks for new versions when folks view the admin console and notifies the blog owner to go download it. Without it there’d still be people using Sociable 1.2 in five years, hopefully with it everyone will be upgraded in a month or two.

In the past you mentioned that there are three different types of users of Sociable…

Peter: First up, there’s beginning bloggers. They’ve just started a blog, and they’ve got stars in their eyes of being the next BoingBoing or something. Sociable is a tool they’ll use to get the word out about their new blogs, and I’m really glad to help out. As much trouble as some have had spelling “Sociable”, it’s been most rewarding to talk to them because they’re new to blogging and are so happy to be able to easily drop in Sociable.

Peter: Then there are the established bloggers. They’ve got an audience and they want to start leveraging it. Sociable makes it easy for their audience to start getting the word out and growing the blog. I get most of my feature requests from this group, and they’re the people who send me the code to add their favorite bookmarking site.

Peter: I get a lot of links from the SEO crowd, who really put the word out about Sociable. They’ve found Sociable to be a useful tool, so they turn around and install it for their clients. Oddly they’re group I hear the least from, they almost never mail me. But they’ll be the most unusual mails sometimes.

So how are the SEO emails unusual?

Peter: I’ve gotten a really bizarre feature requests like – “You should make Sociable automatically submit each blog post to every bookmarking site! And then vote it up!” – or other crazy schemes! It’s frustrating, Sociable is a tool to help blog owners by reminding readers to bookmark good content. “Sociable should make other blogs using Sociable link to mine with the link text I fill in!” Ugh! I should mention that this is a tiny minority of the SEO folks, I’ve only gotten a half-dozen “Help me spam!” mails.

Sounds like we could monetize a Sociable SEO Pro version together?

Peter: There are definitely a few customers waiting, but I’ve got plenty of other projects ahead of it.

Like what?

Peter: I just recently launched NearbyGamers, a social site for tabletop gamers to find other folks to play card, board, and role-playing games with. It’s been a real blast, but my to do list is as long as my arm so it’s eating up my free time. And I’ve been trying to keep updating my own blog with web coding tips but it’s easy to slip out of the habit.

Sociable has created great networking for you. What are some of the better stories?

Peter: I ended up doing CrunchBoard for TechCrunch because I met a guy via a guy via a guy who used Sociable, and that was a real fun project.

What are some of the underused or misunderstood features of the tool?

Peter: One minor frustration has been writing CSS for Sociable that can deal with all the odd things different blog themes do. I’ve had dozens of people mail me asking (sometimes quite forcefully) why Sociable doesn’t look right on their blog, and so far none have thought it’s their own site doing it.

What else should the people know about Peter Harkins?

Peter: You should never ask him to sing anything…

Good luck with the release Peter!

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Making It Easier for Blogs to Link to Blogs Instead of News Sites

So Robert Scoble got upset the other day about people linking to major media sites instead of other blogs.

It seemed interesting to me. I started to think about the issues involved, mostly because it didn’t seem like natural behavior. But then it hits you like a brick, all of the major search engines have news and search search from their main pages, while only has blog search on it’s home page (they should move it above news). Yahoo!, Google and Live Search do not. In fact Yahoo! and Live Search would have to acquire or develop such technology.

As you may recall, I have a history of suggesting search engine home page changes that become reality.

So, I’d like to please ask all of the major search engines to add blogs as a major top line category (to the left of or above news) and potentially think about creating options to merge blogs and news into one category if a user desires (I would find this helpful). If the Internet is all about user generated content, shouldn’t the major search engines reward and make that the easier default view?

It will look like this (though a little neater, I’m no graphic artist!).

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The following is a first ever guest post by mother, Gloria Dalka, who recently had Comcast waste her time, miss numerous appointments and experienced other inconveniences. The largest of these involved a contract tech that visited the house to install a cable modem, said “he’d return later” (yet never did), then reported the job and cable modem installed (apparently to get paid). Comcast stated via phone that they wanted cable modem back (which she does not have due to the apparent fraudulent work order the tech input) and after numerous calls there is considerable concern the refund will not be properly processed and that the US Mail was used to send unauthorized bills which constitutes mail fraud.

Start guest blog post
At this time, we had Comcast for cable TV, 2 lines of phone service and we had a 56K Internet service provider (much to our son’s dismay when he visited).

An uninvited Comcast sales rep, Mike, personally visits us late in the day, telling us that Comcast will not be able to support the technology that we are using for telephone services for much longer. He offers us unlimited phone @ $30 per month, high speed broadband internet @ $20 per month and leaving the existing Cable TV package unchanged. We signed a conditional contract accepting those services pending completed installation. Mike calls his office and sets up an installation for Dec 20th between noon and 4pm.

Service tech arrives in an unmarked vehicle at 3:15pm. He comes into our home with his clipboard and walks through the house looking at what we have both upstairs in the room where we keep the computer and in our basement to see what kind of box we have there. He checks our backyard and comes in saying that we have all old technology and that he doesn’t have what he needs to do the installation with him. He states that he will return first thing the following morning. My husband asked what time he’d arrive. Tech states that he leaves Palatine @ 7:00; my husband says we’ll expect you 7:30 to 7:40; the tech nods affirmatively and leaves. No equipment was brought into or installed in our home. No document was signed accepting any services or equipment.

No tech arrives. We are nervous and start calling Comcast.
8:45AM – Call 866-594-1234 to find out what’s going on since no tech has arrived and was told that we’re on the schedule for 8am to noon.
12:15PM – Call the above # again and Scott told us that someone will check and get back to us within 2 hours. Given reference # 899206. And no one calls back.
2:35PM – Spoke to Christine at X6321 at the Schaumburg center who said that someone would check and get back to us within an hour. Given reference # 427066. And no one calls back.
3:40PM – Called again, spoke to someone named OJ who said that he’d write it up and have someone get back to us. No ticket # given. OJ was anxious to leave since his shift ended @ 4:00. And no one calls back.
3:50PM – Called Mike, the sales rep from 12/13/06, who was at home with his kids. He said he’d check and get back to us.
3:55PM – Mike calls back and says he has seen how many times we called and that he couldn’t do anything, but that he’d have his supervisor call us. We did not get a call back from Mike’s supervisor or anyone else at Comcast.

We took the innocent viewpoint that everyone had the holidays on their minds and decided to wait until after the holidays to pursue the issue again.

Called Mike, our sales rep and told him how things had gone and that we were extremely unhappy with the way we had been treated. He again deferred to his supervisor asking what day would be all right for installation. I suggested Jan 5th or Jan 9th as the install date and told him that I would not allow a third party installer into my home. He said we would get a call back and, again, no one calls back.

10:00AM – Decided that Comcast didn’t care about retaining a customer that they had for many years and called AT & T to set up installation of services for phone, internet and DISH network satellite television. Installation date was to be Jan 17th.
10:45AM – Patrick Ellisworth, Mike’s supervisor, called to say that installation would be on the next day. I told him that it would not, that his failure to call in a timelier manner resulted in my choosing a different provider.

I received a call from AT& T saying that they had contacted Comcast and that Comcast said that they couldn’t make the change until after the 23rd. It did not seem strange at the time, I now wonder if they did this to attempt to fraudulently get past the 30 day satisfaction refund warranty.

Received a bill in the mail from Comcast showing that I had digital voice and high speed internet. Since no high speed Internet had been installed this now becomes mail fraud.

Called 866-594-1234 to contest that I had the services shown on the billing.
Initially I spoke to Neesha in billing who said that she needed to verify that I didn’t have the services; transferred Pan in technical services who transferred me to Brad in retention, who transferred me to Drake in retention who put me on hold while he conferred with someone and then came back to tell me I needed to speak to someone in a different department. I believe that he put me back in the queue and then the call was disconnected. So, after spending almost one hour telling the truth I was till being told that, no, I had the installation and had the services as well as their modem.

Called 866-594-1234 asking for a supervisor and got Sonia X6077 of the
Schaumburg, IL office. She stated that there was no problem since there is a 30-day satisfaction guarantee. She claims that a credit would be issued in the amount of $75.38, I told her that they needed to get after the tech that marked our install order as completed since he had probably entered a serial # to “verify” the completion. He either had it or sold it.

Called Comcast to cancel the second phone line; the primary line was handled by AT&T on the 24th. Internet is up and running so we are no longer using the second line which we had used exclusively as our internet line. They still think we have their service and modem. I’m tired of being called a liar by them

So, Comcast still asserts that we owe for services not received and Comcast believes that they completed the install and that I have a modem that they supplied.

My requests of Comcast:
– Refund of all high speed internet charges for services not received.
– A letter verifying voidance of the contract (requested on 1/12/2007) and refund for all services (phone & cable) provided past the date AT&T requested transfer.
– Compensation for the numerous missed visits and a formal apology.
– Issuance of the refund check that my son David is owed when he changed to RCN earlier after hearing about our recent Comcast experience and other service problems.

End Guest Blog post
For me this is a frustrating example of a poor customer experience that is driven by management desire to cut costs by using contractors. This often does not take into cost of lack of execution, lack of process accountability and customer dissatisfaction.

Selling via a house visit to upsell due to a technology change is an aggressive tactic, was the fact this occurred so close to year end meaningful and an attempt to “cook books”?

It’s my second run in with the modem issue. When Comcast bought AT&T’s cable system, I owned my own modem. After moving to a non-Comcast area, it took over a year and calls from a collection agency to fix the error.

Why does Comcast outsource things with a poorly defined process that leads to a bad customer experience?

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Interview with Joe Beaulaurier of PR Web

One of the many people I’ve had a pleasure of meeting in person is Joe Beaulaurier, Interactive Marketing Manager at PRWeb, Inc. Joe maintains an interesting personal blog on press release issues (no longer in existence).

Question: So a lot is happening these days at PRWeb!

Joe: Yes! We have been extremely busy upgrading our systems to accommodate increasing demands both in release volumes and page views. We have also been busy implementing partnerships such as Billboard’s Billboard Publicity Wire and Business Wire’s EON.

Question: What will being owned by Vocus will mean to PRWeb customers?

Joe: PRWeb has tried hard to listen to the market and deliver the tools and services it wants. This has done very well for us and our parent company, Vocus, wants us to hold that course. Their greatest concern was to come in and do something which would muck up what they saw as a great company with great products and rabidly loyal customers.

Question: Could you inform people about the new Business Wire alliance?

Joe: PRWeb and Business Wire have partnered to create a uniquely enhanced newswire service, EON. EON stands for “Enhanced Online News.” Press releases submitted using the Business Wire’s EON platform receive the benefits provided by PRWeb online distribution and technologies which will make the press release more visible to consumers and more accessible via Web 2.0 sites and social media sites. This really demonstrates how PRWeb complements rather than directly competes with traditional newswires.

Question: Let’s start simple, what distinguishes PRWeb from other press release services?

Joe: Traditionally, newswires were expected to either fulfill disclosure requirements for public companies (distributing news of material interest to stockholders out to financial analysts and into the financial news arenas) and/or to get the media’s attention in the hope they would reproduce the message to their audience. But PRWeb isn’t a disclosure newswire and we don’t stop at delivering your message to the media.

For example, when a traditional newswire says they are inserting your release into Yahoo! News, they are actually inserting it into Yahoo! Financial’s news index. This is where people interested in finance are spending their time, this is not necessarily your best audience (consumers, trade partners, etc.). When PRWeb inserts your release into Yahoo!, it is being placed in Yahoo! News. This is the consumer-oriented property as opposed to the financial-oriented property.

In addition to locating the best distribution channels for your release, PRWeb has also led the industry with, and in some cases is the only newswire to offer, many technologies built into our platform which makes your release more visible online and gives visitors more information and resources when they arrive at your release page.

Question: You recently added several new features. Could you outline what these mean in detail?

Joe: PRWeb customers are always discovering many new features and tools while using PRWeb. Some of these are rolled out with very little fanfare, such as the new eBook Electronic Media Kit Wizard.

The eBook Electronic Media Kit Wizard provides PRWeb customers with the ability to create a professionally produced collection of their press releases in PDF format. This tool provides for a customized cover and company profile page. The full release body including Internet links is provided for every release included. This means PRWeb customers can now easily produce a professional company information packet for the media, potential partners or prospective clients.

There are many other changes such as additions to our PRWeb Podcasting service offerings and Trackbacks are now available on PRWeb Photowire pages.

We are always pursuing new ideas and methods to improve our offerings which, quite frankly, is a very fun part of our business!

Question: Also announced was the elimination of the free release service. Yet many have commented positively on this, can you please explain this apparent contradiction?

Joe: Let me first explain why we did this. PRWeb has grown and changed many times over the past decade. One goal that has always been present has been to give the most people access to our services. To do this meant keeping our prices as low as possible and even providing a free release product in our offerings. This has served us and the market well as our speedy growth has shown. I will go so far as to guess that we have actually created a new group of press release users who otherwise would not have been able to afford them.

But as time passed, we discovered two critical challenges to the free distribution offering. First, we had to defend ourselves and others from the prospect of spoofing (a third-party releasing information about someone or some company that just wasn’t true). To do this, we had to greatly restrict the distribution of free releases to the point where there just wasn’t any value in them any more. Second, the editing resources used to maintain quality content on our site was largely from the free content. The time spent dealing with free content versus time spent on paying customers became too tilted towards free content. So given the risk, the lack of ultimate value provided and the burden on our resources, it was decided to discontinue providing a free release product.

To answer your question, yes there is a positive side to this for our customers and for visitors to our site. As mentioned, we were dedicating a lot of resources to free content which can now be dedicated to our paying customers. This means an increase in customer service response time, freedom for our staff to spend more time with our customers as needed and higher quality content on our site.
I’d like to thank Joe for spending time with us talking about the press and social media release services that PRWeb offers. It’s an evolutionary journey that is taking place in this space. What other questions might you have for Joe? What do you think of these new offerings and how do you compare them to PR Web’s competition? Inquiring minds want to know!

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School Policies Adversely Affecting Mobile

Joe McNally wrote a nice article questioning the reasoning of a recent rule banning cell phones in schools in Milwaukee, Wisconson. It raises the question whether the mobile industry has a role to play in educating people about the downsides of such rules? It’s a good read – these are the highlights:

  • It’s amazing how often grown-ups try to blame their own failure to effectively engage children on some inanimate cultural artifact such as a cell phone, a clothing fashion or, back in our day, a hair style.
  • We are now told that one of the overriding reasons to ban cell phones from schools is that cell phones cause school violence.
  • I’ve never believed that absurd NRA slogan about how lethal weapons don’t kill people, but I’m pretty sure cell phones don’t get into fights at school. Kids do. School authorities claim that when fights break out in school these days, the problem quickly escalates because students instantly use their cell phones to call large crowds of students and even outsiders to join in.
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Illinois Sues SMS Text Message Spammers

A surprisingly very lightly reported news story talked about the dark side of SMS, text spammers. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan recently filed a federal lawsuit against a pair of Florida SMS spammers who sent 5 million unsolicited text messages!!!

Increasingly I’m seeing a consumer backlash against untargeted SMS messages. We’ve trained people to search for the past ten years. The quicker we migrate to a search oriented mobile society from a mainly SMS based one, the better the customer experience will be!