Becoming an Optimizer

There’s always room to improve. Sometimes it’s a matter of finding your stride as an individual or as a team, and sometimes it’s a matter of allowing the idea/process/system to evolve. Cases in point:

  • Posterous began as an online photo sharing service. By leaving room for their core idea to change over time, the company, which was acquired by Twitter in March, eventually evolved into a micro-blogging and life streaming platform with a committed user base.
  • The first time I heard the Arcade Fire live, in June 2004, I wasn’t wowed. But by the time I heard them again in November 2004, their team (and therefore their music) had coalesced in a new way. It was amazing. (Or, maybe they had an off night in June!)

Neither Posterous nor the Arcade Fire struck gold on their first try. So why do I continue to think that I’ll strike gold on my first try? And why do you continue to think that you will? Isn’t it more important to be open to the changes that come along and actually put in the hard work necessary to grow a B+ idea/system/product into an A one?

Whether you’re interested in optimizing your personal life, your professional life, a product, idea or system, it’s most important to get out there and get started. Here’s what I recommend:

  1. Do something.
  2. Evaluate what you’ve done.
  3. If you liked it and/or it was a good idea, then build on it and keep going.
  4. If you didn’t like it and/or it was a bad idea, then try something else.
  5. Repeat.

Crowdsourced Funding for Organizations

Kickstarter has really taken off over the last year or so. Since its inception in 2009, the self-described “funding platform for creative projects” has helped coordinate funding for more than 10,000 ideas. Proposals span from indie films to art projects to tech innovations to music projects. In 2011 alone, backers donated nearly $100 million and nearly 50% of the projects proposed on the platform successfully attained full funding.

Other platforms for crowdsourced funding, including DonorsChoose, have also gained some traction. DonorsChoose targets donors with a different interest — helping classrooms in need of supplies. In Madison alone, 21 teachers have proposed projects that would help fund everything from beanbag chairs for an independent reading area to new musical instruments.

What does this mean for organizations? Crowsourced funding platforms can unite two key groups — donors who know and love you and your organization and donors who are passionate about a particular topic or idea. For those who are already familiar with your organization, a public platform for funding a specific project could provide these donors a home base that would allow them to share their passion for your organization with friends and family members. By tapping into an existing platform, you can also reach out to those who are not yet familiar with your organization, but who are passionate about your project’s topic.

Consider the following ideas:

Create a crowdsourced funding platform for your organization.
Lots of organizations and nonprofits have been looking for ways to use their social media communities to drive fundraising. Adapting or building a Kickstarter-esque platform for your organization could provide the structure and home base needed for this type of social fundraising. But, you’ll have to be judicious about determining which projects would work best with this approach. Small, innovative projects with short time frames for funding and implementation would probably be the best fits.

Look for opportunities to use existing crowdsourced funding platforms.
Does your company have an awesome idea for a new technology? Is a group at your school ready to produce a documentary or EP? Send them to Kickstarter and make sure they include information about and links to your organizational website.

Have you considered using Kickstarter, DonorsChoose or another platform for your organization? Have you already implemented this idea? What’s working? What’s not working?

Engaging Students on Their Own Terms

To engage students, you’re going to have to think like a student. Simple, right? Many of the most shared videos in recent years have obviously resulted from meeting students on their own turf. For example, most of the lip dub videos that were all the rage in 2009 and 2010 featured students front and center:

This year, Facebook pages for university-specific memes have been making the rounds. Much like the lip dub videos, these memes are usually a bit crazy and occasionally inappropriate or offensive. Even so, they’re popular with students and easy to share.


When these types of quirky, student-generated content gain traction, it’s time to pay attention. Universities and organizations often end up sounding stodgy. Students sound, well, like students. Consider adapting ideas that are already popular with students. Better yet, coach actual students through the process of making a piece that’s professional enough to represent the organization. It’s win-win: the organization gains a student perspective that will help to engage other students, and the students learn and gain experience.

Read and Learn: Where Good Ideas Come From

I recently finished Where Good Ideas Come From by Stephen Johnson, which focuses on the history of innovation. One of his interesting points is that despite the language we use to discuss inventions and innovations (the “aha” moment, the light bulb coming on, the lone scientist toiling away in his lab), most significant innovations actually result from groups of people thinking over long periods of time. One innovation or realization opens up a whole new world of possibilities. Johnson calls these new possibilities the “adjacent possible.”

This book encourages innovators to read extensively and take notes or journal ideas. In several of the scenarios Johnson shares, innovators mulled over an idea for years before finally hearing or reading something that filled in the gaps in the idea. Innovators in any industry would do well to form habits that encourage these types of long-term thinking and reflection.

Pinterest and Organizations

In 2009, a new social platform entered the scene: Pinterest, a visual pinboard and social bookmarking site. I had used the Notes feature in Google Reader to collect links of personal interest (read: recipes and knitting projects) for quite some time. So when Google Reader discontinued support for Notes in 2011, I joined Pinterest and began pinning. So far, Pinterest gets high scores for a clean, simple and attractive user interface, for rising adoption rates, and for the ease of sharing. The main dings at this point are the platform’s lack of integration with other social sites (although they did recently enable Facebook integration capabilities) and the lack of tools for businesses and organizations. Because the site is still relatively new, this also means that they haven’t begun to offer advertising yet.

In my professional capacity as a community manager, Pinterest hasn’t entered my radar yet, and isn’t likely to do so. My organization was a great candidate for Google+ because many of the early adopters were people in the tech sector, which is one of our key audiences. Pinterest, however, is dominated by women, and most pins relate to lifestyle topics. Thus, not on my radar.

If you’re considering using Pinterest in a university setting, think about whether it’s a good match for your target audiences. Two schools that have done this fairly well are Texas A&M and Miami University. Though not perfect, their boards are branded well and address topics that are visually engaging and appropriate for student, alumni and donor audiences. I was particularly impressed with Miami’s study abroad board. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to say that a school that focuses heavily on study abroad programs (Butler University, for example) could focus on using Pinterest to promote international study opportunities. You could do one board for each program location and pin general travel information as well as individual students’ blog posts.

Is Pinterest on your radar? Are you likely to use it?

Learn more:

Slideshare’s Unexpected Benefits

If you haven’t investigated Slideshare yet, now might be the time to do so.
When I was looking at options for posting presentations online, I looked into Google Apps, Slideshare, Scribd and a few other platforms. Thanks to a nice user interface, the Slideshare Pro option, and the social functionality, Slideshare won out. I upload presentations and reports to our channel and then embed the presentations on our website where appropriate.

What I didn’t foresee, however, was the added benefit that many see Slideshare as one of the industry standards. For example, when I posted a recent report on our Slideshare channel, several blogs and online media outlets picked it up. One of the outlets that shared the report seems only to share Slideshare presentations. Presentations and reports also get broader exposure than they otherwise might when posted on a platform like Slideshare. For example, the same report was featured on the Slideshare homepage the day after we posted it. I don’t know who all of the 6,000 viewers might be, but I’m sure our report has been skimmed or read by a different (and perhaps much larger) audience than it would have been if we had only posted it on our website.

Have you looked into Slideshare or other similar platforms? What other benefits or weaknesses have you identified?

Engaging Your Community Part One: Choosing Social Plaforms

I’ve been working in the social media space, building communities on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social platforms, since 2007. The tools and platforms have changed quite a bit during this time. When I first began wading into social media community management, I still had to consider whether Facebook or MySpace would be the better fit for our community of graduate students, faculty, alumni and friends of the institution. (Facebook was the obvious winner, by the way.)

Today, I’m thankful that the conversation has evolved from Facebook vs. MySpace to asking which platforms fit well with an organization’s audiences and strategic goals. For most organizations, the answer is an ever-evolving, carefully crafted network of social platforms. The obvious players today are Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and blogs. For some organizations, other platforms also fill specific needs — Foursquare, Quora, Ning (or other social forum platforms), Delicious (or other social bookmarking platforms) and Flickr (or other social photo platforms) are definitely worthy of consideration. And don’t forget to consider emerging social platforms like Google Plus. You never know which platform will take off and which ones will go the way of MySpace.

After you consider which platforms fit well with your target audience(s), don’t forget another important step: a reality check. Be honest with yourself. Can you really commit the time to manage each presence well? Have you planned to spend a portion of your time each day engaging with your community on each platform? If you’re not able to muster an enthusiastic “Yes!” in response to each of these questions, then consider building your social media efforts over time. Remaining absent from a social platform reflects better upon your organization than a forgotten social media account. Consider starting with one platform and waiting until you’re able to adjust to the time commitment involved before adding other platforms.

Related posts:

Teaching with Social Media

At our latest UWSocial meeting, we heard from two UW-Madison professors who use social tools within and outside of the classroom experience. Because they teach in journalism and life sciences communications, it would be easy to write them off as exceptions to the rule when it comes to creative learning approaches. However, some of the ideas and challenges they shared would benefit any professor or teacher who’s looking to innovate.


  • Explore social tools beyond just Facebook and Twitter.
    What works for one learning environment might not work well for another group. Rather than banking on one specific social platform, it’s appropriate to keep an eye out for the best new social tool for your class context. If Twitter isn’t cutting it for your group, maybe Ning or Tumblr will fit your specs.
  • Bringing social tools into the classroom can also look like using social tools outside the classroom.
    One of the professors heavily pioneered social media in the classroom — a Twitter backchannel, fake live tweeting assignments in which she talks to her class via Skype, polls that gauge comprehension during class, etc. The other deploys social tools outside of the classroom context — Google docs for team project collaboration, Twitter engagement for students who are quiet in class, Skype for virtual office hours, and Tumblr for sharing an up-to-date syllabus.
  • Bringing social media into the classroom can benefit students.
    It teaches them to communicate professionally across different platforms. It allows them to use the tools for good, rather than for evil (evil being random Facebook surfing during class).


  • Both professors acknowledged that they have personal “rules” for how they engage with students in the social realm.
    One doesn’t accept Facebook friend requests from current students. The other is a bit more flexible, but admits that she has this flexibility because all of her social accounts are intended for professional use rather than personal use.
  • How do you grade a successful tweet?
    Is participation enough, or should teachers grade qualitatively as well? If there’s any best practices for teaching with social media, I sure haven’t heard about them yet.

I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the interesting points from this conversation, but I was glad to hear actual professors engage in a discussion on this topic. I just wish more teachers were ready to eagerly dive into this conversation.