Climbing family trees: Research lessons from my personal experience

Some years ago, I read the book ‘The Lost’ by Daniel Mendelssohn, and I finally thought that it might not be impossible to learn about my family history.  When you’ve descended from eastern European Jews, this is not uncommon to hear.   
 
After a lifetime of hearing that we did not know origins of my maternal family prior to my great grandfather, I was intrigued to know that it might actually be possible to track them down. I started researching names of villages and found a few clues.
 
Fast forward several years later, and a DNA test that my wife purchased for us awoke my curiosity again and got me into pulling in resources from both sides of my family.  Luckily on my father’s side, there had been a tremendous amount of research done by two of my cousins and on my mother’s side, a distant cousin had already started pulling together quite a bit of detail about her wing.
 
After several weeks of obsessive researching, I can say that I haven’t necessarily gone that much further back, however, the richness of the information I’ve found is incredible.
 
I’m still untying a few interesting things that I’ve found, but in the meantime, I thought that I would share a few interesting lessons from the journey so far.
 
A neighborhood of Eastern Europe likely not much different from where my family lived.
 
What’s in a name?
 
We take so much pride in our names and what they mean. I’m beginning to think we shouldn’t take so much stake in them.
 
Unless you were extremely wealthy, it’s likely that you may not have even had a “last name” until the mid 1800’s.  Even then, traditions vary by country.  In the case of of the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the leadership there forced them to start taking surnames in the mid-19th century.  In Italy, where my father’s family hails from, names were very complex as some regions saw children carrying both a maternal and paternal element in their name whereas others included a descriptor of their village.    And those are just surnames.
 
Given names (or first names) can be even worse.  If your great-grandparents were native Yiddish speakers, I can tell you their names were probably not originally spelled anything like what you remembered them to be.  It’s likely that they either made up something so that it was easier to relay to customs, or it was written down wrong.  I just learned a great-aunt Carrie was originally named “Kreince”.
 
Skeletons in the closet
 
Do you have skeleton’s in your closet? Probably. It might not even be that anyone tried to hide it from you. It’s more likely that you just don’t remember clues they dropped when you were younger. It’s been pretty exciting to be digging through old records and finding out that certain relatives were married multiple times or had kids incredibly early.  It was a bit more shocking to me when I learned my great grandfather after becoming a widower, remarried only to have his new wife try and kill him!  My favorite yet was a great uncle who was apprehended as a stow-away on a freighter in one of multiple attempts to emigrate to America.  
 
Nationality is a pretty ephemeral concept
 
Most of my mother’s family comes from a region that was tossed between oligarchs and landlords during medieval times, later possessed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then passed back and forth between Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Many of my relatives lived through some of those very transitions.
 
In my father’s family, they came from Italy in a time when it was barely a single country. In fact, my Grandmother’s family was so far north in Italy that it was practically Switzerland.  A bit of my most recent research suggests that the generation prior was actually from the Zurich region of Switzerland.  This doesn’t shock me given my complexion, but I never would have known without some deep sleuthing of shipping manifests.
 
Technology made quite a bit possible, but networks have truly enabled genealogy for the average person
 
I am completely in shock at how good the automated character recognition software has become to allow so many historic documents to be read, cataloged and indexed. That said, you still can’t rely on it entirely as software makes large numbers of mistakes. Especially when trying to decipher handwriting of people writing down spoken word answers from immigrants speaking a different language. 
 
It’s the power of the network that allowed me to identify a strange notation appearing on a great-great-uncle’s ship manifest that indicated his hometown was in a specific region of Switzerland. That annotation was so commonly used that I was able to find websites dedicated to these shorthand markings used by immigration officials.  
 
Similarly, it’s the power of the network that has allowed grassroots organizations like JewishGen to fundraise to secure, preserve, translate and index massive collections of records from the historic regions of Poland and Austria from which my family came.
 
Kolomiya - Turn of the 20th Century
 
I think I’ll end up with more questions than answers
 
I’ve certainly found that I know so little about the people who decided to upend their lives to travel to America. Presumably it was to escape what history suggests were some terrible times in their home countries. 
 
That said, when I look at their arrival documents, I see they came with frequently zero dollars in their pocket (sometimes as high as twenty).  Many times they were coming ahead of a spouse. Sometimes they were completely alone, maybe meeting a friend or a cousin. Often they were detained for multiple days at Ellis Island only to then head out into the world to have to make sense of this country.
 
They worked hard. They had hard jobs, lived in small apartments, often with extended family. Their existence is so far from the comfort I have come to know.  
 
I wonder if they felt they achieved a better life. I suppose above all else, I’m thankful that they let me have one.
 
Stay tuned as I’ll be sharing more specific stories as I solidify some of my research. 
 
 

Front Stage to Backstage

Photo credit, Seabass Creatives https:[email protected]?photo=U3m4_cKbUfc
During the last several years of my career, I have played a series of internal operations roles. This was a nice change after so many years being a client-facing consultant. 
 
You have a different view of constraints when you come out of a client-delivery context.
 
Client constraints help you focus.  In the backstage world, there are less boundaries to keep you corralled: as a result, you can spend too much on supplies or take too long planning.  It’s important to remember to deliver.
 
Then there’s ego. You don’t get the glory.  Sales get glory. New deals in the pipeline get glory.  You don’t get glory for streamlining messaging, no matter how it goes. 
 
Many internal employees like things to stay the same.   I am spoiled. Being a traveling consultant for so many years, I learned to get bored if I’m not looking to improve my work.   
 
I always loved working with customers. Still do. The only downside of consulting was not being around long enough to understand how your work would survive without you. Now I can get the best of both worlds.
 
I’m finding it refreshing to bring a client delivery mentality to an in-house role these days. I’m also lucky to have a team that is sinking their teeth into a more agile style of working. 
 
Love what you do. Find something you can improve tomorrow. Make it better. Keep going.

Book Review: Sapiens by Yuval Harari

This week, I managed to finish Sapiens by Yuval Harari.  Not long ago, I listened to Harari’s interview on the James Altucher show that introduced some of the concepts in his next book, Homo Deus.  That book picks up on some of the threads presented at the end of Sapiens; I look forward to reading it next.

Sapiens was for me personally, very engaging. While it was long, it wove a narrative that bridged a number of my personal passions:  ancient history, anthropology, language and technology. 

The book is long, rich and complex and I am not going to attempt to summarize it all, but I did want to capture a few of the key themes I took away.

Happy Accidents

Something about homo sapiens allowed us to outlive several other human species that walked the planet at the same time. Harari doesn’t pick a side, although you are left to determine for yourself whether you think this was due to evolution, luck or some intelligent design. The important thing is realizing that mankind did not have to turn out the way it did. In fact, even the word “mankind” is misleading as we are but one branch of mankind.

Slaves to the Grain

Our discovery of farming, specifically of wheat, put mankind on a path away from its hunter-gatherer roots. We began to become stationary people.  We grew in numbers and required greater numbers to farm more wheat, to feed more people, and so on.  This concept was incredibly powerful for a number of reasons.  Not only did we set ourselves on a path away from our original skills, but we became highly dependent upon a food source which was initially more rare to come by, due to its fussy growing behaviors.  By nurturing wheat, we effectively became a slave to it.

Hierarchies: Our Favorite Growth Hack

From kingdoms, to religions to politics, homo sapiens have managed to scale the growth of society through the creation of hierarchical tribes. We first learned as a people that we could stay safe in numbers. Then we realized we could amass more food.  Ultimately, we realized we could accomplish greater feats of building and conquest as we developed larger tribes. Ultimately we created the concepts of nation and religion to justify our new roles.  

From Middle to Top

It’s easy to forget that our ancestors were once in the middle of the food chain: larger than some animals, but ultimately easily killed by larger beasts that roamed the earth.  Over time, we would develop the tools and organization to drive those beasts to extinction and ultimately sit where we are today: in command of the global food chain.

Technology Has Accelerated Our Development Like Never Before

Since the industrial revolution, homo sapiens have been accelerating in their understanding and mastery of the world at a speed which had never been known.  We now have the ability to create life, organically and inorganically. This suggests that we are likely very close to breakthroughs that will change the future development of humans.

Oiriginal photo by Nathan Anderson, Frisco https:[email protected]

Read for Yourself

I love controversial titles, and this was no exception. As you can probably infer, there are a number of arguments contained in the book that can rankle those of different political or religious persuasions. Overall, I felt that it was a mind-opening book that provided an updated history of civilization while dipping into futurism to suggest where we might as a species be going.

Note:  There are some glowing and some harsh reviews of this book out there. I’m not saying its perfect, but I think it’s worth spending some time with.

I look forward to hearing your opinion. Get in touch or leave a comment to let me know your thoughts.

 

 

 

Masters of Content Marketing

Content Strategy Lessons from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the golden age of toys.  Born just before the explosion of Star Wars into the world, I would experience some of the greatest content marketing projects of all time.  The toymakers of the 1980’s such as Hasbro and Mattel would create a generation of toy fanatics by building a content universe around their products, capturing our hearts and minds in the process.

Over the last few years, I’ve delved into the basements and closets of my parents home and emerged with great relics of my childhood. With two young boys that have overlapping interests to mine, these tattered findings are real treasures.  That said, something struck me while thumbing through a stack of Masters of the Universe comics a few weeks ago.  These miniature comic magazines that accompanied each action figure sold by Mattel in the 1980’s were a genius act of content marketing. 

Assortment of Covers from Masters of the Universe Comics
Assortment of Covers from Masters of the Universe Comics

For those unfamiliar with the legend of He-Man and the Masters of The Universe, I will provide a brief overview.  Mattel initially introduced the first few action figures in the early eighties accompanied by a set of great mini-comics.  He-Man was a warrior in the land of Eternia who is granted access to the magic of the mysterious Castle Greyskull and the Power Sword. He soon learns that both are coveted by an evil being known as Skeletor who sends his henchman after He-Man at every turn.  The stories were very much drawn from classic sword-and-sorcery material but peppered with modern sci-fi weaponry and strange beings. It suggested this might be past or future, but definitely somewhere very different.  For us kids, it was brilliant.  

Little did we know that Mattel was feeling sore over having missed the boat when it declined to take on the Star Wars toy line that Hasbro was now reaping the rewards of.  The concept of the He-Man toys was one designed to start with the outcome in mind: a set of action figures in every kid’s toy chest.  Targeted at kids already enthused with fantasy and science fiction, the content strategy painted a larger picture that a wider group of parents and kids, boys and girls included, could latch onto. This strategy would drive the franchise into a long running animated television series, a DC comic book series and a full length motion picture (which if I remember was not very good).  Along the way, I dare say they succeeded in driving quite a few toy sales; certainly enough to expand several years of expansions of the line and multiple reissues of the original characters.   

Here are some of the characteristics I’ve observed about the franchise in retrospect.

They started with the product

Unlike Star Wars, this was not a film that led the charge and followed by the toys. The initial figures were these musclebound, 5-inch hulks, permanently molded into a squat stance that indicated they were “ready for battle”.  They came with their weapons and a small comic that painted a slice of the mythology of the land of Eternia, its heroes and villains.  I believe that the toys were on the market in toy-stores, relying on those comics and the word of mouth of fans to make the rounds with kids for a couple of years before they ventured into the animated television series.

They allowed the story to emerge over time

Each comic also revealed a few other pieces of the universe on the back cover: other action figures, vehicles and play sets. Some of these were revealed in the comics, but others were mysteriously omitted. It let you know there was a bigger story but also allowed you to create some of that narrative in your own imagination.

There was also a degree of ambiguity surrounding who was good and who was evil.  In the first few issues, it was clear that many of the protagonists were themselves strangers, drawn together by some mystical forces.  Often they would also have certain characters depicted in the shadows; you could recognize them by their silhouette, but their role could be construed as observer or participant.

They revised the narrative to speak to their broader audience

When the animated series hit the air, there were a few new elements introduced in order to make the story more accessible to a wider range of fans.  He-Man now had an alter ego, Prince Adam, the royal ruler of the land of Eternia would be gifted his power sword by the feather clad Sorceress. 

Classic image from the original animated He-Man series
Classic image from the original animated He-Man series.

Signaling a desire to reach a broader audience than just the male fantasy geeks, the series introduced a number of new characters which would later be implemented as toys. These included several new female heroes and villains.  The series also brought comedy into the fold by including a goofy wizard named Orko and even a cowering version of He-Man’s trusted Battle Cat that shivered in fear until emboldened by a blast of energy from the power sword.

They grounded themselves with influencers

Knowing that parents were ultimately the gatekeepers to getting their products adopted in the homes, the series creators began to articulate a moral lesson in the epilogue to each story.  This was a helpful counterweight to justify watching a program that was filled with violence between battling factions. This would become a popular tactic in other series launched around this time, including the popular G.I. Joe.  

A good run while it lasted

By the time the full length feature movie and DC comic series came out, I had outgrown the franchise.  I remember seeing the film and hating it.  Of course my opinion might have been colored by the fact that I was no longer playing with the toys, but I suspect it really was horrible. Let’s face it: it starred Dolph Lundgren who had previously played Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, another famous franchise “jump the shark” moment. That said, the films did not discolor my love of the original concept and characters.

On a final note, I am excited to have learned of a book written on the rise and fall of the He-Man toy empire by its creator. I’m looking forward to reading, Mastering the Universe by Robert Sweet.  Apparently the toys sold more than 1 billion dollars worth in their time on the market!

I look forward to exploring the content marketing strategies behind some of my other favorite toy franchises in future posts as I unearth more of my childhood from the depths of my parents’ basement. 

Almost Paradise: Musings On Leaving California

I wrote this in October 2016 only to leave it unfinished.  During the last week, I received a notification of a post from Facebook a year ago when we were on a house hunt in Virginia. When I re-read the post, it still rang true for me, so I’ve decided to post it.

Those of us who have had the privilege of living in Northern California for a portion of our lives have at one time or another thought that they could not leave “paradise”. After all, we had sublime weather, the greatest sunsets, and the greenest hills. We were fifteen minutes from wine country and 20 minutes from downtown SF.  I can say with conviction that California has some great things, but while its almost paradise, it’s not the end-game for me.

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Now that I’ve moved away, it’s amazing to realize that its the one place I’ve actually spent the most substantial portion of my life outside of NY/NJ.  We had a great run there, learning the city without really knowing anyone. We ate at some of the country’s best restaurants, drank the best wines, saw the greatest landscapes.  Experienced sailing in SF Bay, learned to properly mountain bike in the hills of San Anselmo and discovered the practice of yoga.  We got married, got my first dog, and had two amazing kids. I put my first dog to sleep, lost co-workers to horrible accidents and experienced numerous earthquakes (luckily not the “big one”).

Ultimately, I was ready to go. You know there is something missing when you make a great salary but you’re always feeling like you are scraping by.  We were having annual (if not more frequent) conversations about how many things we missed back east.  Every trip home was a reminder of what we were missing. After all, what good is paradise when you can’t share it with everyone you love.  Paradise is relative.

For a while I thought that if I changed my job, I might be happier. As I started exploring companies, it was clear that there were lots of incredible opportunities abound.

So we moved back east.  It’s been an adventure to say the least.  We’ve had some curveballs thrown at us, but we’ve kept on truckin’.  We see family all of the time, the kids love school, and we’ve become part of a great community.  

Do I miss California? There are definitely some aspects of it that I think about often:

  • Wearing shorts practically year round.  
  • The gardens around my home that I created with my own sweat.  
  • The Plano, the friends we made there, our annual block parties and our large assortment of fruit trees.
  • It’s Its. In and Out. Fish in Sausalito. Central Market in Petaluma. 
  • Living near waterfall hikes.
  • Taking the ferry to work.

Are there things I don’t miss? Absolutely:

  • Horrible public transportation.
  • Bad startup ideas. (I was once approached by a company that failed making a television show recommendation app that they “pivoted” into an email marketing tool.)
  • Endless hoards of hipsters. Ironic beards.  Civilians in cycling gear.
  • The fact that I lived in an upper middle class neighborhood but still would have my car pillaged in the middle of the night.
  • Day care that was three times as expensive as it was in New Jersey where I grew up.
  • Not having seasons. Especially Fall.
  • Being away from family during times of crisis.
  • My kids not getting to grow up near cousins and old family friends.

Was California paradise? Almost, but not quite. 

The bottom line for me is that paradise is a myth.  There are beautiful places all over this country. What’s important is that you have a chance to live in them.  I feel like these days I am enjoying a better life. Next time I go back to the Bay, it will be nice to be a visitor again.

Content Trust – A New Search Ranking Signal?

 

How approaches to dealing with fake news could impact search

It seems to me that the way we handle filtering fake news has the potential to create a new factor used to help rank quality content on the web: content trust.
 
Content Trust Adam Monago
 
Consider that Facebook is partnering with sites like Snopes.com to effectively have them label what sites are considered to be hoaxes. Following this logic, you could imagine a potential classification for content as being parody; sites such as The Onion and The Oatmeal come to mind.  Of course this is not a simple problem to solve: some websites may indeed be found to be propaganda farms, and others may trade in parody stories for entertainment.  That said, how do you handle news stories that trade in some quality stories but also amplify some that are bogus?  How do you handle sites that are expressing individual opinions and that are not trying to mislead people. This is where the work gets hard and why it is going to need to be done by humans in the early days. Presumably, once they get good at it, Facebook is going to try and quantify these rankings into a content trust score.
 
I know, you are probably saying: “We already know that site reputation is a ranking signal. It’s on all of the popular lists of search ranking factors.”  That said, social signals have remained one of the correlated but not causal factors for winning sites. Page Rank has continued to be the driving factor of success.
 
It is also clear to me that Facebook is going to take some time to get a working system in play.  A recent interview about the fake news debacle had their spokesperson saying that they would consider shares as indicators of content quality.  This flies in the face of studies of social media activity showing that people share what they do not read.
 

Back to our roots: Directories

 
Most of our search engines started as directories, if we can remember back that far.  We asked sites to classify themselves. Entertainment, humor, news, opinion.  Of course, these classifications started to become too complex to manage and couldn’t always be trusted.  Google’s Page Rank stood out because it let action speak louder than words.  Once people actually linked to the sites that mattered to them, that spoke louder than any classification.
 
google-directory
 
Years later, we have watched Google become more sophisticated about how it ranks sites and crafts queries to meet the context of its users.  Yet as good as search has become, it’s still quite easy to inject fake content that looks real into the mix. Even Google News itself, has become easy to game for site owners that want to get their blogs into the Google News feed.  Presumably that will now be addressed, given the recent climate around news hoaxes.
 
I do think that part of the way to the right classification scheme for sites will include some sort of site classification. This could be self administered or graded by Google, Facebook and the other search overlords. Ultimately, I feel that these classifications may be useful for power searchers and advanced users, but they’re not a strong enough mechanism.
 

The Simplest Answer is Probably The Right One

 
Search for the general population has to be simple, fast and predictable.  When all things are equal, search engines need to assume that people are seeking true information first and foremost. Truth over satire. For this reason, I think a content trust score is something we could see in the not too distant future.
 
 
 
 
 

Alternate Worlds of Innovation

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When you work in software, you come to realize that you can pretty much create anything you set your mind to. Your biggest problems tend to be: coming up with a common vision for what you want to build and setting short term goals.  Software folk love new methodologies. Agile and design thinking help us visualize new products and processes.  Is it so easy for us to move fast because there is no legacy to deal with? 
 
Dubai by Roman Logov
Photo by Roman Logov http:[email protected]
 
I wonder how easily innovation comes to those with more rigid constraints. When your materials are expensive and products take physical labor to produce.  When your employees have labor unions or not well incentivized. When hard sciences or engineering ground your business, departure from traditional process is discouraged.  These are different worlds than that of pure software.
 
It’s not to say that new ideas are easier to come by in one world over another. But I think they might need more courage to bring to life.  
 
Constraints provide focus. They allow organizations to identify opportunities for innovation quicker. Even still they have less mobility to seize them.  Software based businesses have greater mobility, but the challenge of charting a course in an ocean of endless possibilities.
 
Both perspectives can inform each other. Modern innovation will benefit from the cross pollination of alternate worlds.
 

How to Avoid Becoming Hamsters On Wheels: 3 Questions That Will Simplify Your Content Marketing

3 Questions That Will Simplify Your Content Marketing

I can remember sitting in a digital marketing conference workshop just a couple of years ago. The topic was optimizing performance and we began a discussion about how to simplify your content marketing. The facilitator kicked us off by saying: “So you all are doing content marketing in your organization. How is that going for you?” The response was sort of a collective groan.

Hamster On A Wheel
Hamster On A Wheel – By Doenertier82 at the German language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=642841

The general sentiment was that content marketing can be a ton of work. More so, it’s hard to prove value to the business. Multiple people used the analogy of feeling like a hamster on a wheel. Leaving that workshop, I started to look at what content we were offering those feeling like content marketing had become a slog.

What I found was that there is quite a bit of material out there on:

These are all valuable topics, however, they can seem overwhelming to those that are struggling under the weight of too much to do.

When trying to simplify your content strategy, here are three simple questions to ask:

  1. What is one thing we can change tomorrow?
  2. Are there pieces of content we have already created that more of our audience should see?
  3. Could we be clearer in what we ask our audience to do after reading our content?

What is one thing we can change tomorrow?

Often we get paralyzed with inaction when staring down the face of a large project. Launching a new content project is no different. An essential truth of project management is that planning is an essential activity, but plans are obsolete as soon as they are finished. You will never be able to keep up with all of the changes in your business and the digital marketing industry while expecting your plans to remain unchanged. Your team needs to be prepared to adapt to change and look for incremental ways to measure value delivered to your business partners.

A question I often like to ask teams that know they need to make a change to their strategy is: “what is one thing we can change tomorrow?” This forces them to prioritize and make a choice. Once they make one small change, be it a copy change on a key web page, or the call to action in a customer email nurture, they will realize that they have the power to make bigger changes over time.

Are there pieces of content we have already created that more of our audience should see?

When someone joins your audience today, there is a strong possibility that everything you produced up until now will be new to them. To that end, your team can extract value from existing blog posts that explain a core issue for your business or on boarding emails that explained how to make the most of your product. You do not need a fancy marketing automation platform to obtain these gains, either (although they can sometimes help); having a simple report of your web pages and emails with the most consistent performance over time can help here.

Note that this phenomenon also plays out in the social media space. Those who have mastered communicating on Twitter will tell you that it’s a game of repetition. Because people tend to check their feeds consistently at the same time each day, you may miss them if you are not broadcasting your posts at numerous intervals. Tools such as the wonderful MeetEdgar help take the work out of posting your content at a schedule custom to your audience.

Could we be clearer in what we ask our audience to do after reading our content?

Do your blog posts get quite a few views but fail to keep people engaged on your website? How about your emails? Do you drop in a boatload of sections chocked full of links and then wonder why your emails with high open rates just don’t convert?

It is possible you are either, not clearly presenting your audience with a call to action (CTA), or doing it in a very ineffective way. You should always have a CTA in your content, even if you just want to drive the reader to another important article that you think they will find relevant.

Keep your CTA’s short and to the point. Use simple and clear language, present them boldly and let your reader see the benefit.

There are lots of great resources on the web for optimizing your calls-to-action. Here is one of my favorites about Designing Great CTA Buttons by Andy Crestodina at Orbit Media Studios.

Prioritize to optimize

For years I was coaching software teams on how to adopt agile software development practices. We used to tell our clients: you need to slow down before you can speed up. Similarly, I think that if we want to avoid becoming hamsters on wheels of our own design, we need to think about doing less content, better.

I hope that these suggestions can help you find some small wins to harvest right away. Our teams can often use that little bit of confidence before they move on to bigger goals. 

Keep on doing great work.

I’ve Been Busy Doing The Work

I am a digital marketer that likes to help others be better marketers.  In order to do that well, it means that I’ve got to sometimes just skip that blog post or presentation idea and “do the work“.  That’s where I’ve been.

journeyman-been-doing-the-work-adammonago
It’s been a journey.

 

About two months ago, I joined ICF, an organization with amazing talent, ambition and some very unique client opportunities. My charter is to develop and lead our brand’s digital marketing strategy. Its an exciting mission because of the complex domains that the company engages in. Renewable energy, digital government, healthcare modernization. We’ve got awesome challenges ahead of us. Content strategy challenges, marketing and communications challenges, and the mission to build out our team to take us into the future.

That said, I needed to keep my expectations tempered because there was a big project already waiting for me:  as I joined, our new brand identity and website were nearing deadline for launch.  The company wouldn’t need a strategist on day one: it needed to make sure we delivered.  

Fast forward two months.  We shipped the new site.

everything-illuminated-been-doing-the-work-adammonago
Everything is illuminated

It’s far from done (news flash: websites never are).  That said, it’s been a good reminder of the positives about actually finishing things.

  • Finishing is good for a team. It reinforces their belief in their own capabilities.
  • Finishing lets stakeholders know you’ll deliver in the future.
  • Finishing gives you time to think about building the next great thing.

I’m thrilled to be part of a team building something great again.  Now and again, I’ll be taking a break to tell the stories here. 

 

Cutting Through the Noise of Social Media: A Guide to Smart Content Curation Tools

Cutting Through the Noise of Social Media- A Guide to Smart Content Curation Tools

Being a digital marketing professional, I know how hard it is to find the best content on social media when there is so much noise. A question I am frequently asked is: what content curation tools can help me find and share the best content? What I’ve done in this article is provide a guide to the smartest content curation tools available.

So Many Tools, So Little Time

The content marketing revolution has resulted in so much content being generated and promoted that it hard to find the best material.  This problem doesn’t only plague professional marketers; it has spread to almost every field and topic, making it even more confusing if you are not a social media expert.

In the last few years, there have been a number of solutions that have popped up to help readers find the best content being published within their networks. Not everyone has the time to keep up with all of these.  I have organized them into a few groups to better offer perspective on which are best for you.

Different Models for Social Content Curation

These four types of curation are what I feel broadly represent the offerings on the market today. I define these as Tribal, Algorithmic, Outsourced and Self Service/Team Based.

curation-methods

For each of the types, I’ll give a brief overview of its characteristics and call out a few sample tools in that category.  I’ll also describe what I feel are the key characteristics suited for this category along with pros and cons of this approach.

 

Tribal Curation

 

Tribal curation typically happens through affinity groups. These are collections of people that share something in common: profession, industry, location, etc.  The barriers to enter these groups can vary, but they typically are self-organized and enforced by members peer review. The format is most often that of a souped-up discussion forum where people can post new topics and discussion happens in threads around that topic.

Sample Tools: 

Reddit and it’s more specialized cousins, Inbound.org, Hacker News and Growthhackers.com

 

content-curation-tools-reddit

 

Quibb, the members only sharing network for professionals.  Content here focuses on the intersection of technology and business culture.  There is an application process for membership, and an editorial team that helps promote content worth reading.

 

BeBee –  Professional networking through personal interests. BeBee plays on the idea of social communities as places where knowledge workers “swarm”. It allows experts to organize small hubs called hives, centered around content sharing.

 

LinkedIn Groups –  Focused forums  created around areas of career skill, academic or professional membership. Web-based and backed by email notification, LinkedIn Groups are powerful and credible resources.  Trust is high because providing identity is the cost of participation.

 

NextDoor – A personal favorite of mine, NextDoor has become a way to communicate with your neighbors in your immediate residential area and also surrounding neighborhoods.  Because members have to verify residence through mail, you again have an exclusivity element.  Content types include some you would suspect like local businesses and home services, but are not limited to anything.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-nextdoor

 

Who it’s good for:  People who trust in group identity and preferences. Happy to digest what the community surfaces. Confident that the community will weed out bad content. These can be great solutions for folks comfortable in their role/career but looking to be kept up to speed on new developments.

 

Pros: 

  1. Mechanisms to let you see content by freshness and popularity. 

  2. Allow you to see many different formats of content.

  3. Once you find a group that matches your sensibility, you are likely to hang around for a while.

 

Cons:

  1. There tends to be a fair amount of posturing in groups like this, and you can see certain archetypes play out such as oversharing, dominating discussions and see promotion.

  2. Finding the right group for you can take time, as it involves staying a while with each and trying them on before you know if you like the experience.

  3. Reading through group posts and deciphering opinion just to find out what content to read can be exhausting.  

 

Algorithmic Curation 

 

With a little help from your friends (and artificial intelligence), you too can find some of the best things out there. Algorithmic solutions are powering many of the services you are using today.

 

Sample Tools:

 

Facebook Newsfeed, Instagram – The service that needs no introduction. Consider that Facebook is trying to be the be-all, end-all destination for your entertainment and information needs. Similar to how Google owned search (It just works), Facebook wants to make your newsfeed be intelligent enough to fold in recommendations and smart-sorting, so that it satisfies your curiosities. While algorithms can be  effective in making the system easier to use, the criticism that many experts have is that the content tends to get too homogenous over time and you miss out on a great deal of important content. Ditto Instagram.

 

Flipboard – The original magazine reader for tablets, this software curates the links shared by your contacts on Facebook and Twitter into topical news “sections” that you can flip through.

 

Prismatic (RIP) – Shuttered in the last year, Prismatic was one of my personal favorite solutions for some time as it combined elements of a the Flipboard style solution with machine learning so that it got smarter over time.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-prismatic

 

Nuzzel.com – Another personal favorite that was quite unique for a while, Nuzzel became  smart about understanding your reading preferences based upon your Facebook and Twitter connections and what you engaged with in their application. They also built in some nice newsletter features so that you could use their platform to build your own audience that enjoyed the stories you share.  I would love to see this one keep going, but I suspect that other products like Facebook are incorporating more of their ideas.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-nuzzel

 

Who it’s good for:  People who follow large numbers of content creators and sharers. Individuals in fast moving industries. Those who do not have a great deal of time to focus on what to read. 

 
Pros: 
 
  1. Smart filtering based on topics.

  2. Automatic curation based on popularity.

  3. Some solutions learn your preferences over time.

 

Cons:

  1. Algorithms are a black box – You don’t know exactly how they work and are subject to their decisions.

  2. Algorithms are based upon things shared by people in your network already. Since networks tend to foster group-think, these can reinforce you seeing items popular within the group but not necessarily new. 

 

Outsourced Curation

 

This category is where I consider that you as reader are deferring all control to a particular publication, host or expert to offer you their choice content picks. I find this to be one of the best ways to get introduced to new and interesting content, but its  the one that puts you least in control.

 

Tools

 

I consider the main tools in this space to be email newsletters. The email  newsletter has been a long staple of web culture, but it has seen a huge resurgence in recent years.  I subscribe to several, including, Nextdraft (one of my favorites). Of course, I also have created my own newsletter, which you should subscribe to.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-matrix-meme

 

Who it’s good for:  People that enjoy being taken on a journey through a new topic by an expert focused on that field. Those who relish in discovery of  new content. Lazy people who want a predictable number of new items dropped in their inbox every week. Individuals looking to get slowly introduced to a new field of interest/study.

 

Pros: 

  1. Delivered directly to your inbox.

  2. Curation is done for you.

  3. New content almost guaranteed.

 

Cons:

  1. You are subject to the perspectives and passions of your host.

  2. Depending upon the outlet, there is not always a way to offer meaningful feedback on what content you like or not.

 

Self-Service and Team Curation

This category represents the needs of individuals with an ongoing need for content to fuel their work and creativity.  Often they demand a level of control over their tools that drives a more “self-service” working model. In other cases, they team with similar power-users that quickly digest, curate and repackage what they read for others in the group.  Tools in this category offer a different level of functionality for a more demanding user, but with some tradeoffs.

Tools:

 

Feedly.com – Feedly came to fame as the product that picked up where the late Google Reader left off. A place to curate RSS feeds from websites you love, Feedly has become a very popular service for curating collections of sites and feeds for your audience.  In the past, one of my teams used Feedly Shared Collections to curate a large collection of our employee blogs; you can see the video describing our use case at their website. 

 

 

Pocket and Instapaper are two insanely popular “read later” services that also allow curators to share their wares with an audience.  I’ve actually enjoyed both services over the years and use a service called IFTTT (If This Then That) to keep them in sync.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-pocket-instapaper

 

Paper.li – An amazing service that allows you to create a web-based newspaper with a publishing staff of one, Paper.li has built a steady following.  By allowing editors to create papers based upon the sources they follow already, Paper.li automates much of the acquisition of new content.  Editors can also set their distribution preferences up once and the paper will automatically publish and promote itself at intervals.  For power users, it can be integrated into your website with ease.  Another great aspect of Paper.li is that it can scale to teams as well. 

For an example of Paper.li in action, check out my daily Digital Marketer’s Toolbox.

 

guide-content-curation-tools-paperli

 

Anders Pink – A very new product on the scene, Anders Pink (AP) is brought to you by the team that created Buzzsumo, only it provides more utility for any sort of team of knowledge workers.  Organized around the concept of “briefings”, AP allows curators to build automated content feeds around extremely focused areas using keywords, influencers, websites and RSS feeds; it also allows them to filter out what they don’t want in the result set.  You can subscribe to existing public briefings or create your own, for free!   

 

guide-content-curation-tools-anders-pink

 

Feel free to check out AP briefings I created for myself that I’ve since made public:

 

Who it’s good for

 

Individuals and teams who have very deep areas of focus and an ongoing need to monitor areas of content publication. Consider product marketing teams, investment groups or research teams as prime examples here.

 

Pros

 

  1. Customization of criteria for what is collected

  2. A range of capabilities from automated to manual collection and curation

  3. Ability to add value to existing content for an audience around your specific focus area.

 

Cons

 

  1. Time intensive – requires ongoing investment in monitoring, curation

  2. Hands-on – Although there is quite a bit of automation capability, the curator needs to have an intimate understanding of how these tools work.

 

 

The Best Tool for Your Job

 

Choosing the solution that is right for you requires that you spend a bit of time considering how specific your needs are and what kind of effort you want to put in.

 

Deciding what toolset will fit your needs will mean considering what is the balance of process automation, editor attention, content freshness and editorial control.

 

I have attempted to provide a few suggestions for different roles, but don’t just take my word alone. I encourage you to experiment with a few of these tools in order to find the best solution for you and your team.

 

Is there another tool that you like for your curation needs that I haven’t mentioned?  Share it in the comments!