From The Art Of Community by O'Reilly (http://www.artofcommunityonline.org) by Jono Bacon
The Buzz Cycle
So far in this chapter we have explored many of the wider considerations for building buzz. Before we move on to look at some specific examples, we need to learn the final piece of buzz-theory: the buzz cycle. Whenever you build buzz, you execute on a set of procedures. When combined, this set of procedures ensures that you plan effectively, get as much anticipation for your announcement, and learn from the experience. These steps help frame the best practice involved in buzz making, and they will help you to better plan and structure how you get people excited about your community.
The four stages are:
Sitting down and building a recipe for what you want to achieve, how you can achieve it, and what is involved.
Instead of going straight to the main course, why not start with an appetizer? Build up some excitement and mystery before the main event kicks in.
The core of our buzz, this is where we kick it out there.
A postmortem of what we did, and an assessment of what worked, what didn’t, and how we can improve next time. Many newcomers to the buzz-building business jump straight to the announcement, with a marginal level of planning. I would strongly recommend against this. Buzz is an art form that can net incredible results for your community when executed correctly, but it can also cause lasting damage if you get it wrong. Planning and feedback will keep you with the former. To explain how each of these stages are important, I am going to use the 5-A-Day example that we talked about back in Chapter 4 that illustrates the buzz cycle well.
5-A-Day was a project that I conceived while watching a program about healthy eating. In many countries it is recommended that you should eat five portions of fruit or vegetables as part of a healthy diet. It makes healthy eating an easy-to-remember metric that people can factor into their routine, which is a compelling concept. Around that time, we were very conscious of how we handled our bug list. As Ubuntu grew as a project, the number of users grew; as such, so did the number of reported bugs. Inspired by five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, we formed the 5-A-Day initiative to encourage our community to triage or comment on five bugs a day. The project started and made some incredible progress. Now let’s look at the different buzz stages with this example as an illustration.
The reason buzz requires planning is that, to excite people, you need to know your goals, what tools and resources you need, and how to roll out your plan. You want to squeeze as much juice out of your efforts as possible and get as much focus and attention on your community as possible. You want maximum return for your investment in time. First, it is time to sit down and consider the different attributes and elements in your buzz initiative. Here are some questions that you should have answers for:
- What outcome do you want to achieve?
- What medium(s) are you going to use to achieve it?
- What preparation work needs to occur before you can begin the buildup phase?
- What other people are involved in the buzz and what are their tasks?
- What is the timeline for the entire buzz cycle?
The answers to these questions will give you a firm idea of your goals and how you can achieve them. For plans that involve only you, an awareness of the answers to these questions is enough. If you are going to be working with other people, however, you should document the answers. This will ensure everyone is on the same page. In the case of 5-A-Day, I was working with my team, Daniel Holbach and Jorge Castro. The preparation work involved the development of some technical facilities and tools, some documentation, and a timeline. We had a number of conference calls to build the plan, ensure the requirements were in place, and to specify deadlines for each of the buzz cycle phases.
DEADLINES KEEP YOU ALIVE
Many people hate deadlines. They commit us to specifics. For many, and particularly those who enjoy the free-form nature of community, deadlines are unwelcome. Stick with them, though. Deadlines are critical to achieve goals. In this chapter our goal is effective buzz. When you have multiple people involved in a buzz-building exercise, you need to ensure everyone delivers their contribution to the project on time.
When you apply deadlines, ensure they are documented somewhere. For my team, we plan the deadlines up front and put them on our shared calendar. This is a useful means of reminding you when deadlines are near. The key is ensuring deadlines are in a place where you will look. If they are buried away in a file or notebook, they are of no use to anyone.
The next step is when things start to get exciting. This phase brings to mind the often-trumpeted statement “some things are better left to the imagination.” It’s true. In this phase we want to tease people with a taster of what is to come. We want to pique their curiosity, tempt their senses, and get people chattering about what we are up to. When done right, this phase can deliver some riveting and memorable buzz, before you even announce what you are doing. I also used this technique to announce that I was working on The Art of Community (http://www.jonobacon.org/2009/01 /13/announcement/ ). A few days before I announced the project and the website, I took a screenshot of the website and motion-blurred it. I deliberately blurred it so that you could not see what was on the site, but you could just make out the word “Community.” Underneath the screenshot I simply wrote “Wednesday 14th January 2009 @ jonobacon.org.” A flurry of over 35 comments then appeared, each musing on what the project could be. Many even tried to unblur the screenshot to see what was there. An hour before I posted the main announcement, a reader called Kyran managed to unblur and provided a link to the new website.
On the 5-A-Day campaign, too, we had an interesting idea. Over the week building up to the announcement, Daniel; Daniel’s girlfriend, Mimi; Jorge; and I each posted photos to our blogs that had us showing symbols with the number 5 in them. My first blog post included the photo in Figure 6-1.
(Although I was clearly trying to look cool in the photo, the world and his dog seemed to be mostly amused at the fact I was watching Along Came Polly on my TV in the background. Buzz can sometimes backfire.)
Underneath the photo, I also pulled some text from Wikipedia about the number 5 and put it underneath the photograph: 5 (five) is a number, numeral, and glyph. It is the natural number following 4 and preceding 6. Five is between 4 and 6 and is the third prime number, after 2 and 3, and before 7. Because it can be written as 2(21)+1, five is classified as a Fermat prime. 5 is the third Sophie Germain prime, the first safe prime, and the third Mersenne prime exponent. Five is the first Wilson prime and the third factorial prime, also an alternating factorial. It is an Eisenstein prime with no imaginary part and real part of the form 3n − 1. It is also the only number that is part of more than one pair of twin primes. Five is conjectured to be the only odd untouchable number.
When viewed together, particularly on Planet Ubuntu, the blog posts were clearly connected. This started a flurry of discussion about what we could be up to.
It should be noted that buildup should only be used on genuinely interesting initiatives. Don’t bother using buildup on things that will fail to excite people. As an example, buildup would be great for a new project or initiative, but awful for a change in policy in how your community is governed.
At this point in the cycle, there should be some rampant speculation regarding the hints you have been dropping in the buildup. You should be seeing suggestions from the sublime to the ridiculous. Don’t go too far with the buildup, though. Allow just a few weeks before you reveal your mystery with an announcement.
When announcing you need to ensure you answer all of the most immediate questions the speculators have. If after all the buildup you don’t come through with a smörgåsbord of answers, it will simply cause frustration. You want those riddled with curiosity to be delighted to have their curiosity quenched when they hear the news. The first step when announcing is to point someone somewhere to read, hear, or watch your announcement. You should have a single location to direct people to. For most communities, this is a website. Your goal now is to make the page easy to read.
Most announcements that communities tend to make are posted on their website, but there is an important consideration to bear in mind with web announcements: computer screens are hard to read. Jakob Nielsen, one of the world’s highest regarded usability gurus, wrote about the impact of screen text on readers (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/whyscanning.html ): Reading from computer screens is tiring for the eyes and about 25 percent slower than reading from paper. No wonder people attempt to minimize the number of words they read. To the extent this reason explains users’ behavior, they should read more when we get high-resolution, high-scanrate monitors in five years since lab studies have shown such screens to have the same readability as paper.
With reading on screens known to be more tiring, this behavior naturally translates to people wanting to read less and scan more. As such, we need to deliver our announcement quickly and effectively. It’s important that we get our announcement in perspective: it is going to be one of hundreds of things that the person will read on the Internet that day. We need to stand out. We need to grab the reader’s attention and deliver our content.
Nielsen’s solution to this problem is simple: write half as much. In his excellent “Writing for the Web” article (http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9703b.html ), Nielsen recommends three guidelines that can help:
- Be succinct : write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication.
- Write for scannability : don’t require users to read long, continuous blocks of text.
- Use hypertext to split up long information into multiple pages.
We are trying to avoid swathes of text. We need to architect our announcement so our readers can skip over parts and get straight to the meat.
- Let’s look at an example. Imagine we are writing an announcement to solicit papers for a conference on renewable energy. Let’s start with a high suck factor and write an announcement we can tear apart afterward:
Call for Papers Open
Cranfield Green Alliance is a renewable energy conference that takes place in Cranfield, Bedfordshire. The conference is located at Cranfield University and runs from 10–12 November 2009. The conference covers a range of topics including renewable energy, alternative lifestyles, green cooking, ecological trends, and more. We are now opening up our call for papers and encourage a variety of environmental professionals to submit presentations in their area of expertise. Papers on a range of subjects are welcome and we would encourage you all to submit something soon. The conference attracts a wide range of attendees and exhibitions, and we welcome your involvement in this important event. Your contributions as a visitor or a speaker will be valuable. To submit your paper you should email Call For Papers <papers AT cranfieldgreenalliance DOT co DOT uk> no later than 1st October 2009. We look forward to your submissions!
Friends, what we have just experienced is unremarkable, flat, and about as exciting as a paintdrying competition. I am sorry I subjected you to that paragraph: I realize you will never get those minutes back. Consider it a sacrifice for your community. OK, let’s apply some of the guidance we have discussed so far. Let’s make the language exciting and inspirational, break up the paragraph so it is easier to read and scan, and make it succinct and clear. Tighten your seat belts.
Here we go:
Cranfield Green Alliance Call For Papers Open!
10–12 November 2009: Cranfield University, Cranfield, Bedfordshire, England. Leading the way to define a new future fueled by renewable energy. Including exciting and industry-relevant topics such as renewable energy, alternative lifestyles, green cooking, ecological trends, and more. Leaders of the field bring a great opportunity to learn from the finest minds in the industry.
PLAY YOUR PART IN THE REVOLUTION
Do you want to get your voice heard? Do you want to help inspire and encourage a new generation of renewable energy? We thought so. It’s time to submit a paper... Submit a paper on any relevant green topic and deliver it to an audience of over 500 attendees. HOW TO SUBMIT: Send papers to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than October 1, 2009!!
In this example we performed a number of steps to brighten our announcement. This included:
- Separating out the key parts of the message into separate headings and paragraphs.
- Converting the language to be more rabble-rousing and inspiring.
- Engaging in a rhetorical dialog with the reader by asking questions and clearly showing that the answer was to submit a paper, which is the very aim of the announcement.
Your announcement page should pass the elevator test: it should get the reader up to speed with what you are announcing within a minute. Let’s get back to our 5-A-Day example. When we were constructing the 5-A-Day announcement, we produced a page that identified the primary concept of 5-A-Day, how people could get involved, and what they needed to do. Each of the different pieces of information had individual headings, and emphasis was used extensively. View the page at https://wiki.ubuntu.com/5-A-Day to see the principles in this section in action—and with a successful outcome.
Postmortems are hugely valuable in any kind of work, and if you don’t perform them, you never learn how to improve. Whether you are evaluating how well you handled a discussion, cooked a meal, taught your kids how to play football, or built community buzz, a review can uncover great opportunities for improvement:
When you review your work, it gives you an opportunity to identify areas that are inefficient and redundant. You can use these as a basis for improvement.
Gathering feedback from the people who consumed your buzz is a great way to see what they felt worked and what didn’t. This is a great opportunity to get feedback on your writing, structure, and the other concepts throughout this chapter.
When any kind of postmortem of an approach occurs, it almost always generates new ideas.
These will help future buzz cycles to be more effective. In the review phase, revisit the questions you asked in the planning phase and compare the plan with what happened:
- Did you stick to your aim and communicate it well to others?
- Did you identify the right outcomes to achieve?
- Were your chosen mediums the most suitable?
- Did you prepare effectively?
- Did you communicate well to others involved in the buzz about what needed to be done?
- Was your timeline for the buzz cycle accurate? Did you hit your deadlines?
To make this process effective, you should gather feedback from members of your community. Seek to gather responses from those who will provide you with constructive advice of what worked and what didn’t. Remember, much of the goal here is to identify flaws in your approach. Flaws are nothing to be embarrassed about: they are opportunities to do even better next time.