Cash Cow

As I’ve mentioned in my last couple posts, there’s been a lot of talk about bootstrapping, VC investments, and lifestyle businesses in the Seattle entrepreneur scene lately. I was recently sent a link to an interview with James Hong of HOTorNOT.com. He has an interesting, I’ll say fresh, perspective how they chose to build and manage their business.

What I found particularly interesting about this interview is that James is pretty direct about the fact that he and his co-founder will milking this business for the cash. They made business choices that would never have been accepted by their investors had they taking outside funding.

Sure, there was a lot of luck involved in their success, and they were very much there at the right time and the right place. And today, HOTorNOT has faded, and is far from the cash generating juggernaut it once was. But their business was generating as much as $5 million a year in PROFIT, split between two owners. Not a bad way to create “FU Money” as James calls it.

The interview is a little long, but it actually covers a lot of different topics, and is certainly worth a view. Thanks to Ram for sending this to me.

Use Short URLs Without Losing the SEO Juice!

Ok, this post is going to get a little technical. It’s even going to include some open source code, which if you’re so inclined, you can use under the Creative Commons Public License. But before I bore you with the techical details, let’s talk a little about some interesting product trends that have really taken off lately, and why, if you’re not careful, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot.

Short URLs worth $46 Million?

You already know I’m a big fan of Twitter. Well, one of the interesting side effects of the rise of twitter is there has been a comparable rise in the use of URL shortening services like TinyURL. In fact the recent news that bit.ly raised a $2million A round suggests that venture money is even taking notice of these services. TechCrunch recently speculated that TinyURL, the dominant player in this space, could be worth as much as $46million dollars.

Why are services like TinyURL getting so much attention? Well, since Twitter limits posts to 140 characters, most users try to save as much space for content as they can, by using URL shortening services for any embedded links. Twitter will even automatically use TinyURL if your tweet includes long URLs.

Worth more, BUT Worthless for SEO

The problem with using these services is that your domain loses the SEO juice normally associated with inbound links. While it’s true that most links on Twitter pages are tagged as “nofollow” which limits their SEO power somewhat, one thing is certain, an link to tinyurl.com or bit.ly or any other url shortening service will never give you SEO juice. However, if you could include shortened url links to your own domain you have an opportunity to have that link copied and pasted around the internet giving you direct traffic and SEO link power to your domain.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that you don’t want to continue to give away links to generic URL shortening services, and you’re ready to tackle making your own URL shortener. Here’s where we’ll get a little more technical. If you’re not a developer, then have no fear, just take notes and send your dev team to come read the article and add url shortening to your product road map.

How to Build a URL Shortening Service

Developers, let’s talk design for a second. Assuming your building out your own web property and you’ve done some integration with Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking platforms, then you’re probably already familiar with the APIs available from services like TinyURL to post URLs and get back shortened forms.

These services have a much more challenging problem then you do. They need to shorten URLs from an infinite number of domains, and more importantly they need to support arbitrary resources from those domains. Granted, its not too hard to implement a solution for this, you can basically hash the URL into a sufficiently sparce id space and get a unique idenitfier for each URL. A truncated MD5 hash is probably a good solution. Then store the hash in a database, and whenever someone requests the shortened URL you can do a lookup and return the correct long URL from the database.

There are some great services out there that have taken this idea to the next level, and even include analytics, click through tracking, toolbars that frame the content and allow comments, bells and whistles galore. But what they make up from is splash they sacrafice in SEO juice and direct references to your domain. And so you’ll want a solution you can host off your domain.

TinyDIY

In all likelihood, you’re content is probably database driven already, and so each potential URL is probably already associated with some unique asset ID. So instead of implementing a one-way database based solution that maps arbitrary URLs into short URLs, you could implement a solution that maps your asset IDs into short URLs.

For example, let’s say you wanted to do this for a WordPress blog, or even a WordPressMU blog network. Since Sweat365.com is based on the WordPressMU core, we developed a solution that allows us to map any blog post in our network onto a shortened URL in our domain.

Our goal was to implement a solution that wouldn’t require a new database table mapping between short and long URLs.  We wanted a two way programatic solution, so that we could map to and from shortened andlong URLs with only the characters of the URL. Since we already had asset IDs to work with (in this case a blog_id and a post_id) we could map those IDs into a compressed form like a base46 encoding.

base46, You mean base64? No, actually base35!

What do I mean by base 46? Well imagine a numerical set that is made up of all the digits 0-9, all of the alpha characters a-z, and the 10 URL safe characters: “$-_.!*’(),” allowed by RFC 1738 (the URL spec). If you used those characters as digits for your encoding, then you’d have 46 characters to work with, and you’d be able to encode your asset IDs in base 46. It’s a pretty good system as, the asset ID 9,999,999,999 would be shortened to “f’*ip21″ and so most platforms could save a lot of space on URLs.

There are a couple of gotchas though. First of all, you might want to think about what happens when an asset ID like 1973507, 60546, or 2861642 randomly pops up and your encoded url ends up with words that might be considered offensive. I’ll go ahead and let you figure out what those IDs would encode into, but suffice to say, we wanted to protect against that. One solution, which we ended up choosing, is to simply remove the vowels from the allowed character set. It’s pretty hard to come up with randomly generated dirty words if you have no vowels to work with.

The second problem you might notice is that even though $-_.!*’() and , are allowed in URLs, they are rarely used and as such both Twitter and Facebook get confused when they see these characters in a web url, and they will truncate the link at the character that confuses them. Through testing we determined that ‘-’ ‘_’ and ‘.’ are really the only special characters that Twitter and Facebook allow in URLs.

So, if you just use the digits, the consonants, and the characters ‘-’ ‘_’ and ‘.’, you end up with 35 characters to work with. And as a result, you can encode your asset IDs in base 35. Now, 9,999,999,999 becomes “sb5.fh5″, which is still pretty short, and certainly moves you toward your URL shortening goal!

Quit Your Jibber Jabber, Give Me Some Code, Fool!

Ok, ok, so here’s a link to a WordPressMu plugin that will do URL shortening in base35. There are a couple important caveats. First of all, it’s only designed to work in WordPressMU, not WordPress. Second, it’s only designed to work in WPmu running in VHOST mode. And finally, this code is licensed under the Create Commons, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, license, and so what that means is that you are free to use this for non-commercial purposes under the following restrictions: you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the licensor, you may not use this work for commercial purposes, if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute  the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one,  and for any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work.

The code is pretty self explanatory, but it’s also got tons of comments. Out of the box it will trap and redirect any shortened URLs that reach your server. In order to encode long URLs into shorter ones, you should can call either kmxt_url_to_shorturl($url) or kmxt_shorturl_from_ids($blog_id,$post_id) from somewhere else in your WordPress code. For example, if you’ve implemented a twitter auto-tweeting plugin, you could replace your calls to TinyURL with a call to this shortener.

Good luck and Happy URL Shortening!

Twitter and Facebook - Very Different Vehicles

I often hear people ask “What’s the deal with Twitter? Isn’t that just like the Status feed feature of Facebook? Isn’t it just a feature?” On the surface this may seem to be the case. Twitter’s main purpose and functionality is indeed a micro-blogging feed, much like Facebook’s status feature.

But comparing Twitter to Facebook status because the are both micro-blogging platforms is a little like comparing UPS Trucks to Taxis because they are both automobiles.

Facebook and Twitter are different not because of their features, but because of how people use them. Specifically, they are different because of the differences in how people manage their social networks on Twitter and Facebook. Understanding this difference is critical to your effective use of both as a marketing or professional networking tool. I’ve also talked about how important it is for technology startups to think about how they can leverage these platforms to help virally spread awareness of their product. In order to successfully develop a viral strategy around these platforms, you have to understand how people use them.

The vast majority of Facebook users treat their friends list as a narrowly scoped list of people they know in the “real world”. They are their school friends, their work colleagues, their family members. They have a prior connection with the person in the off-line world, and they’ve extended that connection into the online world. There’s nothing wrong with this use of a social network, in fact many people would argue this is the point behind social networks. But this is very different from how most people use Twitter.

Users of Twitter tend to be much more generous in making connections with people they’ve never met in the “off-line” world. This isn’t to say that the connections made on Twitter aren’t as substantive as those from prior off-line relationships. It’s not lesser or greater, just different. I suspect this difference is primarily due to two distinctions. First of all the “creation myth” of these platforms are very different.

Facebook (as the name implies) was created to emulate the social network of a college yearbook, it was designed around personal connections at school. Twitter was created around the idea of highly wired/connection people who needed to communicate in real time with larger groups of people.

Beyond just the creation myth, these products have slightly different features that make social network growth and expansion operate very differently. One encourages public dialogs and broad reaching nets of friends, while the other makes it easy to find real people you know from the real world.

Twitter for example allows you to have unidirectional follow/following relationships, follow/following lists are public, and by default tweets are either broadcasts or narrowly scoped to an individual recipient, but still presented in the public forum. Facebook on the other hand has tools for quickly finding people by name, location, and association that you’ve already indicated your affiliation with. Facebook has a plethora of features to dial in the scope of a dialog to one, several, or all of your friends.

So what? How does this effect me? It’s important to understand these differences in order to understand how to utilize these platforms. How should this awareness effect product integration? How would it effect using these platforms as broadcast mediums for things like product launches? In upcoming posts I will talk about how these differences can and should inform your strategies for using these platforms. Stay tuned.

Sex & Controversy - Getting Your Brand to Go Viral

Is there really no such thing as bad press?

Well, leave it to the crew at PETA, they know how to stir up controversy. They’ve grown out of throwing red paint on rich folks wearing fur… and set their sites on a bigger target: the meat loving, BBQ roasting, and bacon loving (lusting), cowboy culture of America. And honestly, what better way to get cowboys riled up then with hot chicks?

By now, you must have seen the sexy new ad that PETA attempted to run in this weeks Super Bowl. I’ve included it here for your critical analysis. The question I have is, was this a smart move for PETA’s brand?

Ignoring for a second wether or not you actually agree with PETA, or whether or not you find the ad offensive, or for that matter whether or not NBC is acting on good faith by rejecting this ad, but gladly airing the sexy ads from GoDaddy.com, Budweiser, or other mega brands, there is an interesting analysis to be had of the online marketing strategy employed by PETA in this increasingly online world.

I suspect that PETA’s strategy was actually simply link baiting executed perfectly.

What’s link baiting? If  you’re a brand marketer that’s paying any attention to the online world you had better already know what link baiting is. In all likelihood you’ve paid or considered paying an SEO expert tens of thousands to develop and execute a viral campaign. But if you weren’t rigorous and thoughtful about the goal of the campaign, and you didn’t have a clear grasp of your brand values, then you probably won’t pull off a stunt like PETA has.

The whole point of a link baiting campaign like this is to get people linking to your site… Whether or not people are talking about your brand (good or bad)… may not matter to you. Of course, if you execute your campaign “well” and it does take off, then people will talk about your brand, and you’ll get detractors as well as fans.

It doesn’t hurt if your brand is already considered edgy… Frankly you can’t get much edgier than a brand that literally assaults people by throwing paint on them… So being racy, and objectifying women: it’s hard to make a case that this will tarnish the PETA brand.

What was PETA’s goal? My hunch: Turn some heads (check), get some inbound links (check), and increase their page rank on terms related to vegetarianism and health benefits (check?). PETA already runs GoVeg.com which ranks 2 on google behind Wikipedia for “vegetarian”; 5 for “health benefits of vegetarian diet”; 5 for “health risks of eating meat”. That’s pretty good rank to begin with, but this link baiting campaign certainly isn’t going to hurt.

Don’t Let Twitter Pass Your Startup By!

Hitwise, recently released details about Twitters amazing growth, and it appears as if twitter has now surpassed Digg to rank #84 in Hitwise’s list.

If you’re a media start up which has been executing a “social networking” strategy around Digg, StumbleUpon, and other user meta filters, but you haven’t yet embraced Twitter, you’re about to start falling behind.

It’s time to start paying attention!

Some interesting details in the report include:

  • Twitters traffic from users aged 25-34, went from 12% a year ago to 45% today.

  • Digg gets nearly 38.8% of it’s traffic from organic search on Google. Twitter however gets only 9.23% of its traffic from search, and instead gets most of it’s traffic from social networks and other web applications that integrate Twitters APIs. Traffic from Facebook and MySpace combined are almost double the traffic Twitter gets from Google.

  • Also worth noting is that Hitwise’s report only tracks web traffic, and therefore misses all of the twitter traffic which comes from mobile applications.

Using Twitter to Grow Your Startup Business

I admit it, I am a big fan of Twitter, I’ve talked in the past about why I think that more so than other Social Media tools, twitter has the potential to be a powerful tool for entrepreneurs and startups to build their brands and to manage and grow their influence (and ultimately relationships) with consumers.

One of the most powerful features of Twitter is the ability to explore the twitter network for potential audience members.

Last month, I decided to conduct a little experiment, to see if I could use this feature in a practical way to grow my twitter reach and influence in a meaningful way. As a startup entrepreneur, I’m always looking for effective ways to interact with potential customers. My goal was to find people that I thought might be interested in what I have to say. I was looking for people that I could interact with, that would reciprocate that interaction with me, that I would find interesting and more importantly (as the point of this experiment was to find people who would become part of my audience) would find what I have to say interesting.

If you consider Twitter to be a broadcast medium, and you are in the business of broadcasting your message, then a getting an audience of meaningful size is critical to your business success. Keeping them entertained and informed equally critical, but before you can keep them, you need to attract them.

As a media startup, imagine if you could start a conversation with every visitor of the most prestigious website in your industry?

I will start with the premise that you have to have something interesting to say. I won’t get into a debate about whether or not anything anyone says on any social network is interesting, my assumption is that you’re not an idiot, and you have a plan for informing and entertaining the audience once you find them (or they find you). But instead I am going to focus on the idea that the unique attributes of Twitter allow you as a “promoter” to find your audience, instead of waiting for them to find you.

From December 1st to December 15th, I used made a concerted effort to seek out potential audience members. When I found them, I reached out to them. I used the Twtter follow feature to follow those people, I sent them messages, and I commented on their tweets that were relevant to my topics of interest. For the most part, people on twitter tend to follow you back, especially if you interact with them on a personal level. The result is that your follow count will rise as you interact with more and more people.

The result of this is that my Twitter Reach (my second order network size) has now risen to approximately 2 million people, and I’m the 37th most “elite” Twitterer in Seattle.

Some people might argue that a twitter network of over 1,500 followers is fragile, and realistically these people are not actually interested in your twitter stream. However, since conducting my experiment, my twitter followers have continued to grow. Of course, I can’t know for sure why all these people follow my stream, but I can say that we’ve seen a direct effect on our business, from increased sign-ups, increased blog traffic, and viral spreading of our brand and message.

And as an added bonus, I’ve had a lot of fun meeting a lot of cool people in the process: whether it’s a late night IM about entrepenues working long hours with Guy Kawasaki or a conversation about punk rock music and vegetarianism with the former bassist of the great 80’s girl metal band Vixen.  Where else can you do that? Twitter Rocks!

Fixing Healthcare - Is it an IT issue?

As a member of the Seattle Tech Startup community I subscribe to a great email distribution of local entrepreneurs. Today there was a lively debate about the recent news that the Obama administration idea of computerizing our nations health records. More details from this CNNMoney article - “Obama’s big idea: Digital health records”.

Since most members of the list are technologist, there was a huge debate about XML/HTTP and which technology standards would best be used to solve this problem. Being a technologist myself I would love to have jumped into that debate, just for the gear head thrill of it… but alas it misses the big point. So here was my decided non-technical reply to the group.


First of all, if any of you are really interested in exploring this issue/business deeply, I strongly recommend participating in the Health2.0 conference series. You can learn more about it here: http://health2con.com/

Last fall there was a great conference (3rd so far) where the primary focus was “User Generated Healthcare”… the conference was loaded with tons of great panels and keynotes. There was a great deal of discussion of the potential of an Obama administration (this was before the election) and the implications it would have on the health care industry moving forward.

There were many many “web” and “technology” companies presenting their various solutions for how to lower health care costs and more importantly how to “democratize health care” (I use the phrase very loosely).

The debates between technologists at the conference were not unlike the thread we’re having hear… in fact all the ideas discussed here are already being worked on by at least a half dozen companies in this space.

Which is a nice segue into the primary concern raised at the conference…. Peter’s email is introduces the concept nicely.

Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2009 10:28:36 -0800
From: Peter Denton
Subject: Re: [SeattleTech] Web app required. Budget: $100 Billion

Totally not trying to be naive here, but is there really incentive for the
hospitals, insurance companies, private practitioners, dentists, cosmetic
dermatologists to do this?

These companies not only lack incentive for progress… they actually have disincentives to make change. In fact, the argument made by most of the people in the trenches of Health 2.0 is that it is exactly _NOT_ in the interest of these entrenched companies to support this progress, and many of them are proactively taking steps to prevent progress.

Given there are countless examples of the federal
government truly showing its inability to create large, performing data
systems, is it going to convince the healthcare industry to work together
and create more risk in a risk-infested industry?

If only that were the biggest problem. Most of the companies in this space explicitly make money off of the inefficiencies in the market. Cleaning up those inefficiencies will negatively impact their bottom line, and they are therefore motivated to work against this progress.

I know that healthcare is a great national investment, as it is 99% a domestic product, but is this a good approach?

I’ll admit to being a bit cynical about this, but I’d almost be willing to bet that the whole idea of “standardized medical records” is a red herring intentionally suggested by the lobbyists to create a giant bureaucratic failure, in order to prevent real progress and reform.

Normally I’d argue for the free market approach, but the problem with health care today is that it is not a free market, but instead a market which is easily manipulated by the power brokers (in this case the insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, etc). Although I’m not necessarily a fan of socializing these types of programs, I suspect that the only way to really reform this system is to create a single public system for health care… (universal health care, single payer, etc…)

The end result of such an effort would be a great deal of business carnage in some huge names, massive loss of wealth of investors in these companies, a huge short term burden on the tax payers, but at the end of the tunnel, potential for much more cost effective and higher quality health care for all of us.

Note to all of us on this list: Our own companies would greatly benefit from a reduction in health care costs… as it is one of the largest expenses we face in growing our companies.

Must Use Twitter Tools

If you read my last post, on using Twitter as a marketing and communications platform, you might have said to yourself, “Self, sounds good, but I’m not sure where to begin.” Well, first of all, there are some tools you’ll want to familiarize yourself with. Tools for twitter? Oh yeah, there’s a bunch of them. But here’s my list of the top tools I’ve started using to help manage my twitter presence.

Analytics Tools

As you build your twitter network you’re going to want to understand how it’s growing, whether your efforts to follow more people are making a difference, and most importantly how you rank relative to other influential tweeps. There are several tools out there for determining your rank. Here are a couple of my favorites.

  • Twinfluence - In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful tools for understanding your Twitter footprint. The basic principal of this tool is that it will do detailed analysis of your twitter follower/following network and determine several key metrics. The most obvious metric is your Reach - which is the size of your second order network. Several tools out there will measure this for you, but twinfluence takes the analysis one step further and also tells you things like the overall “stability” or “fragility” (depending on if your a half full or half empty kind of thinker) of your network. Is your network overly dependent on a few followers with large second order networks? If so, you could have a big hit to your network if they unfollow you. Note: Twinfluence asks you to provide your twitter credentials to use it. By entering this information into any third party site you leave yourself open to the risk that that site could hijack your twitter account. Use this tool and any tool that asks for your credentials with caution. Consider changing your password after use.
     
  • Twitter.Grader - Similar to Twinfluence, Twitter.Grader will analyze your twitter account and give you a grade on a scale of 1-100. Then show your relative ranking globally, and in your region. This is my favorite aspect of Grader. Of course I liked it better when I was in Seattle Elite. Now, enough people have discovered twitter.grader, that I’m no longer in the top 50 for Seattle. But I’ll get back there, just wait and see!
     
  • TweetStats -  Oh, I can’t make a list of Twitter Analytics tools without ginving a hat tip to local Seattle twitter maniac @dacort, and his super slick TweetStats. Unlike Twinfluence or Twitter.Grader, TweetStats doesn’t give you analytics about your network. Instead it focuses on giving you stats about your tweets. What are you tweeting about and when. It gets top prize for absolutely the coolest charts I’ve seen in an analytics package in a long time.

Tools For Managing Your Network

The basic approach to growing your network on twitter is to find people that you might be interested in following or that might be interested in following you and engaging with them. Twitter has a very limited number of tools to help you accomplish this goal, and so there are a couple of additional tools you’ll want to add to your arsenal to make a big impact. Here are a couple of important additions.

  • Qwitter - Twitter will notify you when someone starts to follow you. But it doesn’t notify you when someone stops following you. To fill that information gap you’ll need Qwitter. Generally speaking qwitter does a good job of noticing when someone drops off your follower list, and it sends you an email to notify you of the person who left and the tweet that drove them away. Sometimes it misses a dropped follow. Some people think that tracking Qwitters is unproductive. Certainly you shouldn’t obsess on losing a follower, so use this tool with caution.
     
  • Tweet Later - Tweet Later has so many features it’s hard to know which category it belongs to. I’ll put it in this category because one of the features I like the best is the auto-refollow, and auto-follow-reply. A little background: if you’re going to use the Guy Kawasaki approach to twitter, then it’s customary to re-follow anyone who follows you. If you’re getting 100s of follows a day (which if you get serious about Twitter, you may likely hit that range) then manually re-following can become quite a task. TweetLater will handle this for you. Another twitter custom is to send a message thanking people for following you. Usually you do this with a Direct Message, but you can also do it with an @reply. TweetLater lets you automate this process, with your own custom message. TweetLater can also be used to manage automated tweets, but I’ll discuss that more later.
     
  • Friend Or Follow - This tool will tell you who you are following, that is not following you back; who is following you, that you are not following; and which tweeps you are mutually following and being followed by.

Tools For Automated Publishing

Depending on how integrated your online life is, you may or may not want to blend your other social publishing platforms with your twitter stream. But no matter which direction you’re looking to cross-publish, there’s a good chance you’ll find an add-on or widget that does the trick. Here are a couple of tools I’ve found and use regularly.

  • Blog Integration - One useful tool is a plugin to your bloggin platform to publish a “new blog post” tweet to my twitter stream whenever you post a new blog post. There are plugins for all major blogging platforms to handle this. Here’s one I prefer for the WordPress platform. This is really useful for spreading the word about your blog. I’ve seen tweets which generated “best day ever” traffic to blogs. I’ve seen tweets that resulted in StumbleUpon spikes. And probably most importantly I’ve seen tweets about blog posts that caused spikes in my twitter followers lists. The point is, if your in the business of spreading your “media brand” then make sure you cross populate your twitter stream.You can also integrate your twitter feed onto your blog using RSS or other twitter widgets. This can be another great way to grow your twitter follower list.
     
  • Twitterfone - There are hundreds of twitter clients out there. But twitterfone is one of the coolest. It’s a pretty simple concept. You call a number, speak your tweet, and twitterfone records your tweet, transcodes it to text and posts it to your twitter stream. It also archives your message as an MP3 for later playback. This is a great way to update your twitter stream when you just can’t type in a message. Like, say when you’re in the middle of an Ironman Race and there are lightning strikes coming down around you, or you’ve almost been hit by a car while walking across the street.
     

Other Types of Tools

Ok, the truth is, there are just too many tools to document in one blog post. Other tools to look for include: alternate readers (that can help you manage large following lists) one that comes highly recommended is TweetDeck. I’ve used it a little, but haven’t quite got it configured to my liking. You can also set up RSS feeds of your fried feed, and use your favorite RSS reader.

There are several tools for searching, monitoring, and watching various keywords and hash tag (#) topics. So far, I’m really excited about what TweetLater offers in this department.

If you know of other useful tools, please share them with me.

Note: In my next post I promise to give some details about how I went from 500 followers to over 1,200 (high quality) followers in 1 week, while maintaining my “resilient” rating for Centralization/Network Stability on Twinfluence.

Twitter Confessional

I have a confession to make… when I first signed up for twitter, I thought it was a waste of effort… but lately, I think I’m starting to “get Twitter”. Its finally becoming clear to me why Evan Williams has been so confident that Twitter is really “the next big thing”. 

I first signed up to twitter earlier this year. I suspect my introduction is pretty similar to most peoples introduction to twitter…

I followed a couple friends, posted some “is this thing on” tweets, and tested the SMS features. Ok, the technology worked, but so what?

After a couple months, my follower list had grown a little, mostly from friends or colleagues of mine who were also signing up to twitter, and like me, had searched for people they knew who “might be on twitter”… I’d get emails telling me that so and so was following me, but when I checked it out, I didn’t see much to their streams other than the same “hello, anyone here?” type tweets I had posted.  I still hadn’t figured out what to do with this gadget.

Then, a couple months ago, as I prepared to race my third Ironman race, I had an idea for integrating my fitness blog, with a “live stream” of my race. Now stick with me here, fitness is not just my passion, it’s also my business. Konamoxt’s primary product is Sweat365.com, a fitness portal. A big part of the emphasis of our product focuses on how ordinary people can reach amazing fitness goals when they have the right tools, information and support. And so the idea of me live blogging my Ironman race seemed like a natural use for my until now relatively nascent twitter account.

As I turned back to my twitter account, I discovered that in fact I’d picked up a handful of fitness followers… people I have never met, but they found me through the social graph that is twitter. What’s particularly interesting about this seed “fitness group” within my growing twitter follower list, is that they found me. I hadn’t exactly been a very interesting person to follow… until now… But now, I had a reason to to share. And so I began to actually tweet.

The original design for twitter.

The original design for twitter.

There are plenty of things I could tweet about… Business (many of my early followers are fellow entrepreneurs); technology (many twitter early adopters are technologists); politics and current events (what with a Presidential election and economic collapse on our hands); and I could also unapologetically talk about fitness. I don’t think I put much thought into, I just started tweeting. Tweeting whatever came to mind. But from day one, I have been very deliberate that this stream I am creating is Content.

Unlike facebook, where the social network is person centric, twitter’s open follower/following paradigm lends it’s social networks to be more content focused.

As someone in the “Media Business”, this content derived social network is a significant advantage.

This content orientation isn’t new of course, blogs are all about content, and only loosely related to people. And blogs, which largely pre-date the “social network” boom do have some early beginnings of network connectors in the form of blog rolls. And as any good blogger knows, Blog rolls are great resources for discovering other like minded bloggers.

You know the drill,  you have a blog you love, then one day you check out a couple blogs from the blog roll, they turn out to be good to, you engage, you comment, and if the author engages back, you extend your network.

Twitter, has it’s equivalent of the blog roll, in the Following list. The list of other tweeps that this this twitterer is following. But twitter also shows you, all the other people who are following the original twitterer, and this is where the real power of twitter is revealed.

Imagine if you could start a conversation with every reader of the most prestigious periodical in your industry? What it if you had the email address of every reader Wall Street Journal? What if you had the phone number for every viewer of “Lost” or “Heroes”?

If you’re in the business of delivering content, and building your brand by marketing your content in the social internet, this is a gold mine. You now have a completely transparent list of all the people who find any particular topic interesting. And, you can immediately and directly engage with them.

And this is where the controversy over how to use Twitter really comes out. Guy Kawasaki is a huge Twitter fanatic, and although there are several other internet illuminati with strong Twitter footprints, Guy recently stepped out on a limb and declared his bold philosophy about how to use twitter as a marketing tool. He’s not alone in his belief (I agree with most of what he’s saying, and clearly by how people like Jason CalacanisChris Brogan, Gary Vaynerchuk, and others, we’re not alone in seeing the value in these relationshops).

Guy’s twitter strategy can basically be summed up as: follow everyone, tweet about anything and everything, don’t be bashful about promoting yourself or others as you go along.

Guy’s caught a fair amount of flak for this. And there are many folks who disagree with his approach. One of my earliest followers, local Seattle startup guru, Marcelo Calbucci, recently posted on his blog about the “Wrong Way” to use twitter. Marcelo’s a great guy, and I’m sure he won’t mind me disagreeing with him on this. But Marcelo’s post basically argues the exact opposite position that Guy makes. My sense is that Marcelo hasn’t yet “got it” when it comes to Twitter. (I hope I don’t lose him as a follower now that I’ve posted this.)

The detractors of Guys approach usually use the “but it’s spammy” argument for why you shouldn’t use this technique. But here’s where I think they have it wrong.

The number one rule of publishing is always to make sure your content is compelling. If your content really is just spam, you won’t last long.

If you’re a spammer, real people won’t follow you. And unlike blogs, you can’t really comment spam, twitter’s paradigm actually allows the publisher to manage the contribution of external comments to her conversation in a much more direct manner. James Governor had a really great post that details not only the technical but social implications of this style of conversation. If you’re a developer thinking about scaling its a great read on its technical merits, but its an even more compelling read for doubters of the twitter tide.

Finally, let’s not forget, Twitter is just like any other media source, as a viewer you can always just change the channel. If you don’t like how Guy’s using twitter, then just unfollow him!