Monthly Archives: March 2013

Google+, well it is all a bit anti-social really isn’t it?

Back in June 2011 Google launched their social platform Google+, to great fanfare. Typically there was immediately the usual jumping of ships and people posting hilariously scalding messages about Facebook on their profile,  proclaiming that they would be leaving for the greener pastures of Google and never coming back.

At the time, like many, I was quite dismissive about Google+ going into social media. Whether it was accurate or not, the apparent aspiration to take on Facebook at their own game seemed both foolish and unobtainable to me and I when I took a look at Google’s platform I couldn’t actually see any benefits over and above Facebook. The problem is that I couldn’t see any real attraction for most users and Google’s offering was a regression from the established Facebook functionality.

The most telling thing for these sites though is whether commercial entities try and adopt them or not. Facebook is a nut that many big companies have been trying to crack for years. And they still try, because there is undoubtedly opportunities there for those who approach it in the right way. But what of Google+, how is it fairing nearly 2 years on?

Most significantly it would appear that many of the big corporate names on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest have fallen at the first hurdle with Google+. As eConsultancy write, there seems to be a lot less effort poured into Google+ pages by these big companies. In fact some, McDonald’s being the biggest example, haven’t done anything on their Google page since they created it! So why is this significant? Well my view would be that watching the behaviour of the corporates on these platforms tends to offer a window into the platform itself. No one has really cracked commercial return on investment on social media yet, but the fact that the big names poor effort into some but not offers does indicate which ones they see as being significant players. In the case of Google+ it would seem the consensus is that it is not.

The reality is that we, as users, only have so much time to spend on social sites. The idea that Google+ and Facebook would end up sharing the market was, to be frank, rather rediculous. Facebook’s massive hold on the social market was always going to be a telling factor and most people are simply not interested in the upheaval of moving themselves across to another site when all their friends and content are already on Facebook. The irony for Google is that if there had been a mass agreement in the user base to move then it would likely have shut the doors at Facebook, but as users we like consistency and ease of use – even if we like to moan about Facebook and their adhoc changes. This view would seem to be supported by the fact that all those people who grandly marched off to Google+ never to be seen again have all slowly slunk back, tails between their legs.

Google+ claims to have 500 million users currently, but I wonder how many of those are active on the platform. In the end, my view is that Google’s core business is about data. I don’t believe they were ever stupid enough to think they were going to takeover Facebook’s place in the market, so there must have been another behind moving into the social space. I have nothing to back up this assertion, but imagine how powerful they could be if they had the ability to use personas as yet another way of personalizing search? If they had a way of identifying the type of person you are based on in depth research, through a social media site, then they would be able to sell advertising space that targeted not just search terms and locations, but the type of person as well. Is this why Google+ was created, as a persona research method? Only Google will know the answer to that one.

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Video – it is all in the formatting!

In recent years video has emerged as one of the key types of sticky content that we can use to engage users online. Recent stats have shown that video is incredibly powerful in increasing the time someone spends on a website, but it does rely on the video being well produced and it also relies on making sure that the video is delivered in the correct formats.

I have been on both sides of the fence when it comes to video; I have been the supplier / creator as a freelance producer / director and as the manager of a video proposition for a large digital agency. But I have also been on the implementation side for years working for digital agencies to implement video on websites. One of the things that has become evident is that often video producers do not understand the technical requirements of implementing video online and conversely technical people often do not understand the creative process of producing an engaging video. The former is the matter that I am going to address today.

When you produce a website you build it so that it is accessible to the most people possible within the constraints of the scope and budget you have. This means making it work for a variety of different browsers and devices. The major problem is that these different browsers and devices were all built by different organisations and thus have slightly different code languages and idiosyncrasies. This is a pain at the best of times, especially when it comes to making things work in Internet Explorer, but it is especially relevant when thinking about video. The introduction of HTML5 has meant this is especially important as it means that Flash is no longer the default way to deliver video.

One approach that many people favour is to simply rely on YouTube or Vimeo (other video suppliers are available) and embed the players. But the problem with this is that you have a branded player and your videos are managed on a different platform. There are SEO considerations with this approach as well, not to mention that YouTube doesn’t work on all devices, specifically some SmartTVs. You might not be concerned by this yet but it may be an issue in the future as browsing diversifies. For many, however, the major issue is having the videos in a branded player.

The HTML5 video tag has made it incredibly easy to add video to websites and has meant that you no longer need to have a custom video player built for the job. The tag is simple, even a non-techy could implement it:

<video width=”600″ height=”360″ src=”/video/video1.mp4″ controls></video>

This utilises the browser or device players and follows the same approach that Apple have taken, where the iPhone and iPad play a video in the native player rather than in the one provided. But this tag does present a problem, and this comes back to my point about different browsers and different code approaches.

If you simply implement an .mp4 video file then you have immediately ruled out all users in Firefox and Internet Explorer, as they do not use this video type. Mozilla, the producers of Firefox, favour the use of the OGG/Theora video encode and Apple will only support MPEG4/H264 video. Google’s WebM format is likely to unite most of the browsers, but currently Apple will not support this so the divide is likely to exist for sometime.

So the real issue is making sure your video is available to as many people as possible, irrelevant of device or browser. Due to the divide that currently exists, you need to use both .mp4 and a .ogg formats (ogg covers all the codecs, rather than ogv which is focussed on video and therefore excludes some). But there are still browsers, particularly legacy ones, that do not support HTML5. In order for your video to work in these browsers you will also need to include a .flv Flash file so that those browsers can use the Flash plugin to play video.

To cover all the bases and to future proof your website I would recommend also including Google’s WebM video format. If there is one thing history has taught us it is that Google tends to get traction so WebM is likely to become the format of choice for most non-Apple browsers in the next few years.

What this shows is that it is necessary to have at least 3, but ideally 4, separate video files for your website if you want to make sure the video is accessible to all users. This is a consideration that often is overlooked by video producers who do not specifically work in web. And it is understandable that many video producers wouldn’t know about this, unless they also have a background in coding websites. This was demonstrated recently when one of the video agencies working with one of our clients said:

“.flv and .mp4 not a problem (.mp4 is what you have now). .ogg and .webm, these are new and not the normal files we use (or anyone in the industry for that matter).”

This comment probably stemmed from a lack of understanding of web technology. The OGG Theora has been around since its initial development and subsequent release by Xiph (in 2001 and 2004 respectively), and was originally recommended by W3C and WHATWG as the preferred format for native browser playback of video when embedded by the HTML5 <video> element. Similarly, WebM has been around since 2010 and is the preferred alternative format for native playback of video in all browsers not IE or Netscape/Safari. (Source: HTML5 specification, revisions 1142-1143, and Larry Brangwyn who has a decade of video encoding experience for web.) Saying that no one else in the industry uses those formats is an indication of the widespread lack of understanding of coding technology amongst video producers in general.

Implementing video successfully for the web is very important, especially as we move into the new world of responsive website and people interacting with online content on all sorts of devices…not just mobile and tablets but TVs, on planes and trains, even through your fridge or your ski goggles! These new devices will require native video playing rather than embedded video players and the only way to make sure they work is to have the correct video formats. Hopefully the future will hold a unified video format, but for the time-being get your video supplier to encode these 4 formats and you will be pretty safe. Then you only need to worry about the content in the video…and that is a whole different can of worms!

It’s Brand new!

We recently completed our re-brand of Siteset to Siteset Digital, a slightly practical update but with good reason, with the launch of our shiny new and completely responsive website. It is the culmination of 9 months of planning and then a frantic last month to get the actual website complete and live. As with all projects, there are remaining things to complete and further work to be done on the site…the proverbial and often fictional “phase 2” we all know and love. In this case I am determined that it will actually happen though. Did I enjoy the experience? By and large I did, it has been rewarding to refocus a company and create something that will be long lasting. Has it been challenging? Oh yes, and here is why…

Re-branding a company, or even just updating the brand, is a big change both culturally and aesthetically. In a relatively small agency like ours that also means that there are probably a lot of emotions and personalities tied up in the process as well. That is a good thing because it means that people care and want to be involved. The MD and I spent months planning the new propositions for the company, how we would pitch these in the market place and crafting the tone of voice and copy for the marketing we will be doing. We made sure to involve all the key people in the agency whilst going through this process, something that I think was key because it ensured not only that our messaging made sense but also that the rest of the company bought in to the vision. There is nothing worse than being dictated to, so getting them involved an interested from the earliest possible moment was really important. That is not to say, however, that getting everyone involved in the detailed planning is a good idea, too many cooks do cock up the broth!

With the content planning completed the website planning was the next part of the process. The website has to portray the company in the right light and so the design was key. We have a big focus on mobile servicing so having a site that works for mobile was a key requirement. I decided on a responsive approach and wireframed the key user journeys and possible layouts for the site. We then engaged a designer who has worked with us before to do the graphics.

The focus for the designer was to keep things simple. “Apple” seems to be the buzz word in design circles, and has been for a while, which is fine if your company and products sell themselves but if you need a little more substance in a site then you need to make sure the message comes across. The design work, as usual, was very good and fitted with the vision we have for the company. the tricky bit was then balancing the copy.

As a small agency I am very aware that the website needs to showcase our creativity, instill a sense of confidence through clear understanding of digital technologies and not be gimmicky. The balance point here is very slight. Designers will often drive down a route of image heavy, pun filled, content light pages that fulfill an advertising role. On the flip side a content focused information architect will want to fill the pages with confidence filling jargon and practical messaging that shows how well we know the subject matter. Finding the balance in between is very difficult. Whilst the ‘designy’ approach will look great, if the company name is not big then it will not be enough and people looking for the substance will see through the thin layer of ‘wow’ and see nothing beyond it. The latter will be potentially boring and not grab the attention enough in the first place and so people will not be drawn in to the key content.

This is often the area of a project where different department clash and in the end it is the job of the client to make the decision. There are no right and wrong answers except to know who the audience is and what the message you want to tell them is. Everything else is about having the confidence in your convictions and the knowledge that you don’t have to get it 100% right from the outset. In fact, accepting that you won’t get it 100% right straight away is the key to almost all successful projects.

The other main balance point for launching the brand is the deadline. If you don’t have a deadline then the project could just drag on and on whilst you procrastinate about whether the idea is good enough. But at the same time making sure you have allowed enough time to get the idea fully formed and well formatted is also key. An expression that is often used is “do you want it right or do you want it Friday?”. Often when dealing with clients the answer is “both”, but in the practical world it is that we want it right and we want to allow the time for that to happen, but we also need to make sure we work towards something, otherwise people start to take the piss and not deliver or else lose focus on the original goals.

For us the main thing was dealing with the emotions involved. Everyone has a deeper invested interest than they might for any other project, because we all want it to be at its best. Remembering who makes the final decisions and not losing your head if you don’t get your own way is key, because in the end the product is more than likely going to be good, even if it isn’t 100% what your vision was. We are all skilled capable practitioners here with valid ideas. I think our re-brand has gone well and our website is a good start. There is still work to do, as there always is in making sure a brand and site continue to be there best. But when did any project ever go smoothly?

Take a look at the site here: www.sitesetdigital.com