Influencers Who Inspire: Interview with Jon Swartz of USA TODAY

Photo courtesy of USA Today

Photo courtesy of USA Today

In a special edition of our “Influencers Who Inspire” series, we’re chatting with award-winning technology journalist, author and avid San Francisco Giants fan, Jon Swartz. Jon shares his thoughts on smart phones and peer pressure, guerrilla marketing tactics that actually work and how reporting compares to baseball.

We read your article on BlackBerry’s Z10 launch and their plans for a comeback; so tell us, what is your ‘go to’ mobile device?

I used a BlackBerry up until two years ago when the trackball wasn’t working as well as it should. At the time, I faced some peer pressure from my colleagues in the Valley to get an iPhone. There used to be a lot of iPhone bias in Silicon Valley, but it has gone away now for the most part. More people are using Androids, and I would certainly consider a move to a BlackBerry or Android from the iPhone. I can live without the iPhone. I find the battery life is awful, and I have to have a charger with me at all times. As a result, more restaurants and bars have charging stations (at SXSW we saw this all over the place).

You know, BlackBerry CEO (Thorsten Heins) is right; he calls the iPhone passé and says they (BlackBerry) have the same problem that Apple did. “We need to earn our laurels back.” It’s true because in tech things become old fast; the shelf life of these things aren’t very long now. Apple has traditionally done a great job of that, making the old version obsolete as they quickly move on to the next thing. So it’s no surprise others are following suit here.

We know you are huge San Francisco Giants fan. How did your obsession with baseball begin?

When I was six I went to my first game. I also got to see Willie Mays play when I was a kid, so that got me hooked for life. I also loved playing the sport. You become infatuated with it, and it never loses you. Baseball also has a long season, and it takes a lot of patience. It’s a lot like reading a novel. It’s not like other sports where the season is more like a quick sprint. The upside is that you can go to a game and actually explain what’s happening. You can also count on always seeing something different. I have probably been to more than 1000 games, and there is always something new to explain or something you haven’t seen happen before.

Baseball is a half-year long, and it changes with the seasons. In spring there is so much optimism, and then comes the summer when things really heat up. In the fall when things wither away, it gets dark and cold and with it comes a sense of desperation when the season ends. That is the beauty of the game. It’s very logical to me and different to other sports in that you can’t run out the clock. You HAVE to finish the game. No matter how well you played and how many runs you are up by, you have to FINISH.

Are there any lessons from baseball that can be applied to business?

Yes, I would never assume anything about anything. Baseball teaches you that you can’t assume something is over until it’s over. Like in 2002 (World Series game) when the Giants had a five-run lead over the Angels with only eight outs left. They had to keep playing until the end and ended up losing the game.

It sounds a little corny but in baseball it’s a different sport. It’s hard to excel if you have to prove it every day. That’s the same as being a reporter; you have to prove yourself daily, but when it’s over it’s over. With so much content and so many articles, today the shelf life for stories is too short. You finish a great story and you are proud of it for about 20 minutes before you have to do something else. You have to move on.

We are all constantly inundated and bombarded with news from all different sources. So every day you have to reinvent yourself to always do more. It’s like Freddy Lynn (MVP and Rookie of the Year) – he came out of nowhere like a comet. But then pitchers found his weaknesses. Unless you can adapt and reinvent yourself every day, you will hit a rut. BlackBerry went through it, and Apple went through it, too. In tech it happens all the time.

Speaking of re-inventing, with the most powerful images getting clicks in social media today, do you find yourself framing your stories differently with visuals or video in mind now?

I do think more about storytelling and how to interest the reader, but rather than visuals, it’s more about the people and the stories. It is necessary to think that way, though, and I am trying to do more of it.

How has your job changed in the last six months?

It’s crazy. In addition to reporting, I oversee all tech coverage in the paper. So I edit and manage people, too. While I’m talking to you I’m editing a story. It’s actually a story on baseball, and it’s coming out next week. There is no shortage of data in baseball, but trying to figure out which data to use and how to use it is the challenge. Just like in reporting, in baseball they too are struggling with deciding how much time to give to data. I have ton of notes but the bigger problem is what parts to use in the story. People ask all the time, “Why you didn’t include us or mention us?” There is only so much you can do given bandwidth and the amount of content to sift through. I write for people who are on the go and always busy, and you have to find a way to keep your story succinct.

Would you tell a student today to go into journalism?

I would say if you are a good writer you can work anywhere, as everyone wants content today. It is so important to have good writers. Smart companies like Salesforce and Mark Benioff understand you need to tell stories to get your customers to want to buy your products.

Has working with PR people changed?

Not really; I have been working with the same people for the last 10 years or so, and pretty much the same good ones. I always work with a core group of 50 of them that I seem to always interact with. It is like cultivating any relationship you built it over time.

What kind of (PR) people do you like to work with?

They should know their company well. Most people I work with have been there a long time. I like working with internal people who can get you what you need faster. They are usually more responsive. I work with a lot of good people. People at Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple; they are all on top of things and respond. Apple is much more responsive, and Yahoo is getting that way, too. They don’t have a choice anymore. Everyone used to have to wait to go to Apple, but now they have to cooperate with us and be responsive.

What was the nicest/most memorable thing someone has done for you?

I have so many stories of people doing something for me in my personal life. But in work life, I would say the most memorable “nice” things people do for me and/or others are services like the airport limos at SXSW and the SXSW survival bag. There was a company called Tagged that provided airport limos to drive us from the airport to town at SXSW. That was nice, convenient and smart.

If you had to cook one meal what would it be?

Pasta. Everyone likes and agrees on it in our family. Jackie is Italian, and pasta is the one thing that I would get no argument on.

What do you do when you’re not working, or at a baseball game?

We have four kids ages 12-25, so it’s a full house, and we are always going from one event to another with them so that means not a lot of free time. We do like to travel a lot to different places and really enjoy our time away.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

Writing cover stories and features I can spend time on. It’s rewarding to do something that no one else is doing. Feature writing is a little different than what everyone else is doing. You always remember your great feature stories. They include more original thinking and have a long-term impact on things to come. They give you something to be proud of.

Blackberry Blackout—A PR Crisis

I have a Blackberry. And while most of my colleagues, friends, and family have abandoned their “CrackBerries” for the Apple’s iPhone or Motorola’s Droid, I have remained loyal. Maybe because I am in a contract with Verizon until October 2012 or maybe because I am simply attached– addicted to the tiny keys, BBM, and square pad; however after the recent infamous data black out, I am weighing my options. And I am not alone. According to a survey by shopping comparison website Kelkoo, one in five Blackberry users is considering switching to a different smart phone.

 

Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company who introduced the Blackberry ten years ago, is facing one of the biggest PR woes.  After the worst Blackberry outage ever– which lasted for four consecutive days, leaving tens of millions of frustrated Blackberry users on five continents without email, instant messaging and browsing— RIM is now trying to make amends by offering $100 worth of free apps, but is this a case of too little, too late?

The PR mishaps and failure to properly communicate along the way have aided in additional frustration and brand damage. During the outage, RIM offered only a few updates on what was happening while a growing number of Blackberry users turned to their social networks to express their increasing anger, using the tag #DearBlackberry. And while it took three days for a public statement to be made from co-CEO Mike Lazaridis– who publically apologized for the outage through a YouTube video— the PR damage was already done.

So what should have RIM done differently to manage this PR and social crisis?

  1. RIM’s CEO’s should have faced the issue from the beginning, issuing a statement right away. And the delayed YouTube video should have provided a clearer timeline for next steps and updates.
  2. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter should have been used to provide fast and helpful responses. RIM only posted 15 updates on Twitter over three days. If they set up their own hash tag, they could have better contributed to the conversation and engaged with their users.
  3. Be honest and clear. Technical terms like “switch failures” isn’t explaining the situation in simple language. Being more concise and truthful would have better resonated with consumers and gone much further in repairing any relationship damage.

It’s going to be a long road to rebuild Blackberry customer loyalty and the brands’ reputation, especially with the fierce competition of other, better-maneuvered and slicker smart phones. Technology isn’t perfect. There’s always the potential for an outage or breakdown, but it’s about how a brand chooses to deal with the crisis that is crucial to limiting long term reputational damage and lost customers. This PR disaster is a great reminder of how important communication truly is. Acting fast, telling the truth, and controlling the negative conversation are vital.

 

This a great lesson in bad PR crisis management, but I’d like to hear another recent (we know the Jet Blue story) about a company/brand who took all the right steps in managing a PR crisis. When facing adversity, what did the brand do right? Why was it effective? Please share your thoughts and top tweets of the year with us in the comments below.

 

 

Scan Me! QR codes–the Connection between Offline and Online Worlds

Quick Response codes (QR codes) are going mainstream and creating quite the buzz.  Similar to a barcode—QR codes are used by businesses to track inventory and price products at the point of sale; however, unlike one-dimensional barcodes, QR codes are two-dimensional and have the ability to hold more information, making them increasingly popular for retailers.

Home Depot and QR CodesA few weeks ago, I received a direct mail piece from Home Depot featuring a QR code. I immediately noticed it, whipped out my Blackberry and scanned away. I was directed to Home Depot’s mobile site, giving me access to product ratings, reviews, how-to guides and product-specific videos. The entire process was convenient, quick, and simply cool.  According to Tom Sweeney, Senior Director of Online Strategy at HomeDepot.com, “The main objective…is to further enhance the customer shopping experience by offering additional product and project know-how and increase customer conversion.”

A recent study called “The Naked Facts: Whiplash Edition” by Mobio Identity Systems, an international mobile payment and marketing company, shows an unbelievable 4549% increase in QR barcode scanning across the continent for the first 3 months of 2011. In terms of the type of media scanned, social media accounts for 70% of scans, TV 22%, offline four percent, online three percent, and print one percent. The report also highlights that Generation X and females continue to dominate the scanning world. And while some skeptics may think that consumers are just trying the QR code technology—the report points out that repeat scanners account for 62% of the market.

QR Code - Image from DaylifeQR codes also have the ability to become a powerful new method to reach target audiences with your public relations messaging and enhance communication strategies by offering more benefits. When executed correctly, consumers can see a QR code, scan it, and become instantly engaged in a brand’s message. Not only are QR codes a great way to understand the mobile audience, but they can be used in print media to connect a customer or prospect to additional content while offering a more interactive experience. It is apparent that this technology can be extremely powerful and an effective way to integrate media (print, web, multimedia) inside and outside a store for both consumers and businesses alike.

eBayOne company I came across that is taking QR scanning to the next level is the world’s leading e-commerce company, eBay.  In December 2010, eBay announced the integration of Milo— a localized shopping search engine that catalogs and categorizes real-time inventory at more than 50,000 stores– into its free barcode scanning app RedLaser. According to Steve Yankovich, Vice President of Mobile at eBay, Milo - Local Shopping“By including Milo shopping results in the RedLaser iPhone and Android apps, we are providing access to real-time, accurate local inventory and the power of offline and online comparison-pricing. This provides our RedLaser users even more choice and flexibility when they come to us first to comparison shop.”

This integration proves eBay’s e-commerce prowess is unshakeable—as it has resulted in new opportunities for eBay to connect with buyers and sellers globally while creating a bridge between traditional and online retail.  With over 9 million downloads, RedLaser has about 4,000 QR code scans per day. And this past month, RedLaser updated its app so that users can now create their own QR codes generated from contacts, URLs, or text.

Like most customers looking to save money and time, I am excited about the integration of Milo into RedLaser, and QR scanning. I like being in control of my shopping experience. It’s as if eBay, Milo, and RedLaser were all thinking about me when they integrated this app. While searching for a specific product, the results let me choose the best retailer for me based on price and location. I like that.

What do you think – are QR codes here to stay? Or are they overhyped marketing? When is the last time you scanned a QR code and what was was your experience like? If you haven’t tried them yet, why not? And if you’re a marketer, are you using them yet in your outreach strategies?

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

3 Great Tools for Managing Information Overload and the Forgetful Mind

You are not alone.

It’s no secret that the daily ins and outs of being a web-worker are filled with steady streams of inbound information. Tweets, emails, instant messages, RSS feeds and your Facebook news stream are just some of the sources of links to all sorts of great blog posts and news articles that beg for your attention.

Saving it for later.

How many times have you clicked on a link to find an article that you’d love to read, but just don’t have the time to get to it right then and there? Instead, you leave the browser tab open with the intention of getting to it during lunch or later in the day. Sure, it’s convenient to have all those open tabs at the ready for when you have a free moment – but the tax for that type of convenience is an increasingly sluggish desktop and a “fun” romp through your browser’s history to find all those pages again after it decides to crash.

I’m also shocked at the number of web-workers who still use their web browser’s built-in bookmarking tool to save links for future reference. This method certainly provides easy access to the information while at that specific machine, but requires extra steps or plugins to sync the bookmarks to other machines. There’s also the unexpected machine meltdown that could take years worth of non-backed up bookmarks away to the great beyond.

And the password is…

Along with all the information and great links we like to save for future reference comes the need to create new user accounts on the numerous web-based applications that launch each year (or month!). Unfortunately, the majority of web-workers out there still lean towards using the same password across all their user accounts. While easy to remember, using a single password out in the wild is a recipe for disaster if one of those sites happens to have a security breach.

Imagine the task of trying to remember all the websites you’ve registered with over the past few years and changing their passwords to protect your personal information and identity. Oh, and while we’re at it, writing your passwords on post-it notes and placing them under your keyboard or mouse pad is not a recommended method of remembering them either. Come on, you know you’ve done that before.

Relief at last..

Fortunately, there are a number of great options for saving information for both short term consumption and long term reference. Being able to access stored nuggets of information from multiple platforms and devices is always near the top of my list when looking for software solutions to make my information processing easier to manage. And of course, finding apps that are free doesn’t hurt either!

Here are three of my favorite applications for keeping up with my daily flow of information and helping me remember things when I’m in the thick of it:

Instapaper

Instapaper

Instapaper has become an essential tool in my daily information processing workflow. It’s the perfect application for those who are constantly finding new online articles to read but don’t have the time to read them right then and there. With a simple click of a bookmarklet button, the text of the page your browser is on is sent to your Instapaper account for later consumption.

All your saved articles are then easily accessible from the Instapaper website or the official Instapaper iPhone or iPad app. Android users can currently access their accounts via a compatible web browser as well.

There are several additional options for saving information to your account, depending on where you are discovering the content you’d like to save. Each Instapaper account comes with a unique email address that can be used to forward links and email newsletters for future reading. Instapaper’s popularity has also caught the attention of many iPhone and iPad application developers and has resulted in over 130 apps that support sending pages directly to your account.

Instapaper accounts are free (ad-supported) to create and try and will support up to 10 saved articles. The Pro upgrade is just $4.99, allows up to 500 articles and offers a wide variety of other features, including iPad support.

This app definitely excels at “deferred reading” but is not a solution for long-term information storage. My next pick will fit your needs If you’re looking for something geared towards building a library of information to continually reference.

Evernote

Evernote

I was a huge fan of Microsoft’s Onenote prior to switching to the Mac. Its ability to act as a “digital notebook” to store text, images and webclips into definable sections made it an essential tool for creating a growing knowledge base. Since Onenote is not available on the Mac, I explored comparable solutions like Yojimbo to fill my needs.

Then came Evernote. Just as Instapaper became essential for my short-term information saving, Evernote has become the key to my long-term saving needs. Evernote allows you to store text, a web page, a photo, audio and other media. Everything you store is indexed and made searchable. You can also place your notes into different notebooks for further organization. This introductory video shows a few examples of how it can be used.

 

As shown in the video, Evernote is accessible everywhere via syncing. It supports a huge number of platforms including Windows, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and the Web. Best of all its free. They do have Premium and Sponsored accounts for increased storage, but the average user will probably not come close to outgrowing the limits of the free version for quite some time.

1Password

!Password

1Password from Agile Web Solutions is the perfect application for anyone who has ever forgotten a password. My guess is that includes you. It permanently eliminates the need to use the same easily-guessable, weak passwords that you have become accustomed to using, by creating string unique passwords for you that can be easily recalled from your web browser by using a single rememberable password that you define.

1Password also allows you to store other vital information such as credit card numbers that can also be recalled with your “one password” and filled into the appropriate field during checkout time when shopping online. Other items like software license and custom secure notes can be stored in 1Password as well. All information placed in its database is encrypted using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) and 128-bit keys which would take “millions of years” to be decrypted using a brute force attack.

The following video will give you a good idea of how it works:

 

1Password was initially developed for the Mac however, versions are now available for the iPhone, iPad and Windows. Free 30 day trials for Mac and Windows are available, and there are a variety of licensing options to choose from to unlock it beyond that.

All three of these applications have become an essential part of my daily workflow. Do you currently use any of them? How have they changed the way you manage your daily influx of information? If any of these are new to you, then I hope you’ll give them a try. Please let us know about your experiences or recomendations via the comments!

Persuasive Picks for the Week of 6/21/2010

Lacking a game plan when it comes to social marketing? You’re not alone. Social Marketing continues to perplex many marketers, according to eMarketer. In its article, “What Makes Up a Social Marketing Strategy,” the critical components of an effective strategy are reviewed, with some startling facts of how many marketers are still operating this element of their campaigns “without a game plan.”

Social media with a business twist. Tony Bradley of Network World writes about Salesforce.com’s unveiling of Chatter this week at Cloudforce 2010. “Chatter brings social networking to the enterprise in much the same way salesforce.com brought Web 2.0 to the enterprise–enabling the benefits of social networking to be utilized for new strategic advantages.”

Top 10 Most Tweeted Brands – if you’ve never checked out the weekly “10 Most Tweeted Brands of the Week Chart” by AdAge you might find it an interesting – or at least entertaining – bookmark. This week, Simon Dumenco outlines how the Twitterverse tells the media to “shut up” and why being a trending brand on Twitter is not necessarily a good thing, among other things.

Can you hear me now? Apple addresses iPhone 4 reception issues… or not. CBSNews Tech Talk discusses Apple’s lack of PR advice for Steve Jobs in dealing with the iPhone 4 antenna issue. “Allow me to make the official introductions: Steve Jobs, meet Apple’s PR department. Apple’s PR department, meet your boss.”

Twitter, PR and BP. TechCrunch takes a look at the lessons. TechCrunch”s post, “When Social Media Becomes The Message: The Gulf Oil Spill And @BPGlobalPR” takes a look at how BP is floundering from a PR perspective, and how social media can take over and shape your company’s message – whether you like it or not. “Someone on Twitter or elsewhere on the Web  will find ways to challenge the message, as @BPGlobalPR is doing.” The PR lesson here – credibility counts more than ever.