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Thursday, January 28, 2010

What is Social Networking?

"Social Networking" has become one of THE big buzzwords in the last couple of years. Ever since Facebook, Bebo and Twitter became mass phenomena. Suddenly the business world is taking huge notice of what used to be a fairly geeky way to spend one's time. Internet habits one would most definitely not have admitted to in a job interview or business negotiation a few years ago, suddenly have turned into marketable knowledge.

So what exactly IS Social Networking then? I made my first forays into it back early in 2002. At the time, it wasn't called Social Networking, and the launch of Facebook was still a couple of years away. Even Myspace, the earliest of the Social Networking giants, would only launch in another year. But the social phenomenon that would drive these sites and make them the massive overnight successes they have been, was already in full flow.

The first "social networking" site I ever used - extensively, over a period of a couple of years - was the Lord of the Rings movie fan forum on IMDb - International Movie Database - was, of course, not really set up for that purpose. As the name implies, the site collects, cross-references and makes accessible information about movies - anything from basic information like release date, run time, cast and crew, and plot overviews, to quotes, trivia and bloopers. It is probably one of the earliest "Web 2.0" sites, in that it allows registered users to enter information, post reviews, rate movies - and to discuss their favourite movie with other users.

To this end, each movie or TV series is provided with its own message board, or forum - nothing as fancy as Facebook's technology, but it does serve the purpose of getting in touch with other people who share a passion for the same movies. For the most part, discussions are fairly sluggish, with a few threads to each board at most, and very infrequent postings. Once in a while, when a movie is eagerly anticipated, or a smash overnight hit, or has an established geek following (Star Wars and Star Trek each have their own dedicated forums) - the interest is reflected by a flurry of activity on the respective forum.

What happened with the Lord of the Rings discussion group, was unprecedented in scale though. Part of it was that the books already had such a large and devoted fan following, and in the time leading up to the release of the first movie, these were the people who posted and shared their concern over whether the films would do the novel justice.

IMDb was only one of several sites where such discussions happened - the most famous is probably, a site that was set up by fans and for fans of Tolkien's books, specifically to find out news about the filming, and to share their concerns, not only with each other, but as it turned out eventually, with the film makers themselves. Which makes Lord of the Rings the first multimillion blockbuster movie that had direct input from its fan base.

Once the first film was released, naturally the discussion groups got even bigger and more active, as all those people who had been impressed by the movie joined in. But there were another two movies to go, to be released over the next two years, so there was a real incentive to continue the discussions and conversations over a sustained period of time.

It was not just the sheer scale of participation, and the length of time it was sustained for, that was unusual. The established fan base of Tolkien's novels was different from the people who had so far embraced the internet. Many of us were of a generation that could still remember well the days before Google, even before personal computers, and I was probably not the only one who discovered communication via the internet that way. The age range on the forum I frequented ranged from 13 (the minimum age to sign up on IMDb) to people in their 50's. While the majority of participants were based in the US, there were a number of regular posters from European countries, Australia, and of course New Zealand. People came from a huge variety of backgrounds, but many had a university education and worked in fairly high profile jobs.

It is probably not very surprising that there ended up being a lot of conversations on those message boards that didn't have a whole lot to do with the Lord of the Rings movies at all. There is only so much you can discuss about one movie, and many conversations that started out by discussing one or other aspect of it, quickly branched out in all sorts of different directions. The personalities involved made sure that a lot of these conversations were actually really interesting, and could go on for substantial lengths of time. Therefore people would return to the forum again and again and again, and spend goodly amounts of time typing up posts, or using the private messaging system to contact each other.

Eventually, a group of regular posters emerged which remained fairly stable over a substantial period of time. People began to discuss their daily lives. Friendships formed. Opportunities to work together emerged. Hostilities erupted. Loyalties were declared. Real-live meetings were organized. The group followed the same social dynamics you'd expect in any group of people, even though most of its members had never met each other face to face.

I left the group eventually, but last time I looked, several of the people I made virtual friends with then, were still busy posting. IMDB has now alloted them their very own forum, separate from the general discussion boards attached to the three individual movies.

Incidentally, it was through one of the people I met on those boards, that I got in touch with Victoria University Wellington, organized a tour to New Zealand, was offered a job, and stayed here.

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design ::

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Devious Fun with Online Promotion :: part 2

In my last blog, I wrote about my DeviantArt account and how I have been promoting my illustration work there. DeviantArt works, in a lot of ways, like a mirror image of the internet as a whole, on a more contained scale. Incidentally, one of the consequences of this is that it can serve as an excellent learning and testing ground for your online promotion strategies - what works, and what does not work.

At the end of last year, my gallery was sitting at about 5700 gallery views (counted over the whole of its four year existence) - with a noticeable increase in views over the second half of 2008, which I attributed to a combination of posting more and better works, more regular journal entries, and a natural gathering of momentum as my gallery acquired more "Watchers".

At the beginning of this year, I set myself a deliberate goal of bringing my gallery up to 10 000 views. At the time, I thought that would be a tough goal to reach. I achieved that goal by mid October, and at the end of the year, I was just short of 12 000 pageviews - which means I have more than doubled my page view count this year.

How did I achieve this?

These are the things that I found have been consistently driving traffic to my page:

1. Submitting works of better quality. When all is said and done, this is the single most important factor in making your DeviantArt gallery a success. The people who post there are all artists, and they won't be fooled by work of dubitable quality, no matter how cleverly it is promoted. But conversely, a lot of very fine work is sitting in the corners getting hardly any notice, just because the artist is to shy or does not know how to put her or his work out there.

At the beginning of last year, I posted an illustration for Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" series. Up to then, I would have described my skill level as "competent amateur". This was the first time that I felt I would be completely confident to submit this image in a professional context. It was also the first time I realized the difference between posting an image that a few people like enough to comment on or award a "favourite", and an image that truly resonates with people. The image picked up views and favourites at a rate that was completely out of proportion with any of the other works I had submitted up to then. And it quite quickly floated up to the first page in searches for "Earthsea" or "Le Guin". In fact, for a while it even made the first page in Google, for the search term "Earthsea illustration"! Of course, this would also have contributed to driving traffic to my DeviantArt page. After all, the gallery is not only visible to fellow Deviants.

2. Submitting work frequently and regularly, while at the same time avoiding to flood your watcher's message centres. This can be a tricky balance to find. Most people will come to your gallery repeatedly - especially once you have built up a following of "Watchers" and friends in the DeviantArt community - and they will watch out for your new work - so supplying them on a fairly regular basis is important, otherwise they will lose interest. But viewing Deviations does take time, so submitting works too often, or too many images at the same time, is also counterproductive. Don't we all know that if we get bombarded with too much stuff, we'll eventually just switch off.

There's no recipe for finding the right balance, really - it's all a matter of experience, and perhaps a bit of gut feeling. One of those things one can only learn by doing it.

3. Tagging your images appropriately. Tags can appear in a Deviation title, description, and list of keywords. They are what is fed to the site search engine. If you don't tag an image, it won't come up in a search. Besides: Through my severe obsession with search and ranking functions, I have discovered an astonishing thing: The Deviation title is by far the most important place to tag an image.

For instance, my Deviation: "Robin Hobb: Jhaampe" currently comes up as no 5 in searches for "Robin Hobb" - even though there are a number of illustrations of Robin Hobb's work that have considerably more fave's, including at least one Daily Deviation. Experimentally, I have tried to call the image just "Jhaampe": even though the tag "Robin Hobb" still appears in the description and keywords, the image suddenly goes down to somewhere way down the page for this search. So: Tagging matters!

4. Commenting and fav'ing other Deviant's work. This is the fun part. Of course, it can also become a major eater of hours! But there is absolutely no substitute for getting involved and genuinely participating in the community. I always check out the galleries of each person who comments on or fave's my artwork - sometimes briefly, but if I like what I see, I do it more thoroughly, fave some works or even add them to my Watchlist. Chances are that if they like your work, you might like their's! There also is an unspoken etiquette that views or comments should be returned, and many people will post a "thank you" for a fave on your gallery home page. Tick, one pageview.

This is really the core of what DeviantArt is about - to enable artists in far flung corners of the world to get in touch with each other, and share inspiration, interests, tips, tutorials, and yes, even cooking recipes and dating advice! It is absolutely and entirely possible to form genuine friendships online. That, I can vouch for.

5. Using the journal. Not just to write up regular entries - one of the most popular DeviantArt customs is to do journal features. They can be about a particular topic, or just a bunch of works you like. They can be your own work, or that of other Deviants. But, and this is important to remember: Featuring other Deviants is by far the better promotion strategy of the two.

When I do a feature, I send a note to every artist I've included, to let them know about the feature. Not only are they very likely to pay a visit to my gallery to see themselves featured, they might also let their friends know about it. And, they might include me in a feature of their own, next time they are doing one. Gratitude can go a very long way.

6. Writing up news articles. News articles can be submitted by any Deviant and appear in a dedicated news area, not on an individual gallery page, though they can be linked from there. This is very similar to using the journal, except that news articles may not be used for exclusive self promotion, and should be on a topic of general interest. A number of the journal features I have done, I have posted as a news article as well.

7. Giving critiques. This feature is only available to subscribers. Critiques are a fairly recent feature - they are similar to comments, but they require a minimum word count, and should be somewhat in-depth, constructive comments on an artwork, not just "it's nice". Many Deviants use the site to get feedback and improve their skills, and this feature is designed to encourage the giving of detailed feedback.

Critiques do have their own channel on DeviantArt, they also get submitted to my Watcher's message centre, as well as to the page of the artist I'm critiquing. If that artist is someone who gets considerably more pageviews than I do, I win, all the way! Besides, there is less competition - critiquing doesn't seem to be a thing a lot of people are very comfortable with.

8. Joining clubs or groups. DeviantArt used to have an informal system of clubs. Very recently, Deviantart has finally decided to officially support clubs - now called groups - and set up some technical features which make the administering of a group a whole, WHOLE lot simpler. In essence, a club or group is like a DeviantArt gallery, except that is doesn't display an individual artist's work, but the works of all their members, who share a common interest of some sort. There are really big and broad groups. such as "Digital Artists" or "The Pencil Club", and there are small niche groups such as, well for instance, my own "Ursula Le Guin" group.

The whole idea behind submitting your work to a club or group is, of course, to get it seen by the other members of the group. Some clubs also run contests, post tutorials and technical advice, or offer support and advice to their members. The ultimate in self promotion is, of course, to run your own group! Though it probably pays to get a bit of a feel for the DeviantArt community before setting oneself up as an expert in something. :)

9. Using the Forum. I have to admit that the only part of the forum I use regularly is the Deviation Thumbshare - as the name implies, here you can submit thumbnail images of the Deviations you wish to promote. You can open your own thread - but beware, you'll have to reply to all the posts you'll get! - or you can submit to someone else's thread. There are always a million threads along the lines of "post your newest", but every once in a while, someone is looking for something specific - often for a feature - like "Dragons" or "Pencil Works" or "The colour red".

If you manage to get your post in while the thread is still short, you're lucky, and some other forum users might have a look at your gallery. Otherwise, you'll just attract the attention of whoever opened the thread. Not the most efficient promotion strategy, but it usually gets you a few views, and sometimes you get lucky and someone features you.

10. Getting a Daily Deviation. Daily Deviations are featured on the Deviantart main page for a day, and can be suggested by any Deviant to the responsible gallery director. From what I have seen, they tend to explode your pageviews and fave counts overnight. I haven't got there yet, but I will report on what happens when I do. This is the ultimate achievement in online promotion on DeviantArt, of course!

I've written up these strategies with a particular online community and its specific features and culture in mind, but it is easy to see how these strategies can be applied to online promotion in more general terms.

Several of them come down to what any good SEO expert would tell you:

  • - Quality of content - sometimes also called relevance

  • - Regular and reasonably frequent updates

  • - Keyword placement and tagging

  • - Using promotional tools - e.g. submitting your site to industry specific directories, or contributing to topic specific forums - and getting links to your site

But some of the most successful strategies have to do more with your soft skills:

  • - Networking, and genuinely engaging in your online community

  • - Added value content - such as journals or blogs - especially if they contribute to building an online community

  • - Promoting yourself through helping others promote themselves

It's not just about what you can get - it's just as much about what you can give!

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Devious fun with online promotion :: part 1

Those who know me well will know that I am a *little* bit obsessed with web statistics. And that's not meaning just my Google or Alexa stats or my page hits and visitor count - ranking systems of all sorts of shapes hold a weird fascination for me. I want to understand them. And yes, occasionally I would quite like to be able to trick them, mostly when I see what kind of dross sometimes washes up to the top of the rankings, evidently just because someone is doing a particularly good job at promoting their stuff.

Tricking, let me say it, does not work, in the long run. But there are few things that do work if paid proper attention to, and these tend to be the same, regardless if it's a major search engine you are dealing with, or if you just want to have your holiday photos on some social networking site seen by more people.

This past year, I have been quite active on, where I've had my own online gallery for the past five years. As I got more involved with the wider community there, it occurred to me that in a lot of ways, Deviantart mirrors the workings of the whole of the internet, on a more contained scale.

The site gives everyone the opportunity to post their artwork, photos, designs, craft objects, or literary works online in their own customizable online gallery. With every gallery also comes a blog or "journal", and a message centre for communicating with other Deviants. Basic service is free, more features can be accessed by paying a moderate annual fee. There is no selection process as to who can open a gallery - but there is what I would like to call a democratic selection process in how much attention your gallery attracts.

"Attention", in DeviantArt terms, can be of several kinds: Gallery views, "Deviation" views, gallery "Watches", Comments and "Favourites" are the main flavours, and as a paid subscriber, I have access to a set of fairly detailed statistics regarding how well my own "Deviations" are doing. (I do, btw, love the choice of word. A "Deviation is any submission to a DeviantArt gallery -- and those of us who practise art in any form know all too well how the rest of the race regards these activities - unless we manage to attain "genius" status, but that is usually only obtainable by dying. But I digress. --)

Like any good Web 2.0 site, DeviantArt is not just about putting your work out there and getting it seen, it is very much also about interacting with other fellow artists. When I joined DeviantArt I was fortunate to have a head start because I already knew a small group of fellow illustrators from another online community, so I started out with a few people watching my gallery.

For the first few years, I mostly limited myself to uploading artwork, and posting the occasional journal entry. Every work submitted floats up in a "channel" of most recent works, which can be drilled down by medium and genre (e.g. "Traditional Art" - "Painting" - "Fantasy"), or limited by topic through a search function (e.g. "dragon", or "eiffel tower"). People do browse those channels, and work that stands out will thus immediately attract more views than work which is a bit humdrum.

Each new Deviation is also posted to your Watcher's message centre, where they can decide to view it or not.

At this leisurely pace, my gallery was slow to gain momentum, and there was a very clear relation between the frequency of posting new work, and the number of pageviews I achieved. A couple of years ago I decided to upgrade to a paid subscription, and one of the tendencies that became immediately evident was that certain images - not, in my own opinion, necessarily my best or most interesting, or even most recent ones - were attracting a disproportionate amount of views.

This, I deduced, must have to do with the option to search images by topic - my single most viewed Deviation, to date, is an illustration for Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre", which, appart from being compulsory school reading, also seems to enjoy undiminished popularity among teenagers in English speaking countries. Another popular image was a decidedly shoddy early attempt at Photomanipulation, depicting a scene from the Narnia books.

At the end of last year, my gallery was sitting at about 5700 gallery views (counted over the whole of its four year existence) - with a noticeable increase in views over the second half of 2008, which I attributed to a combination of posting more and better works, more regular journal entries, and a natural gathering of momentum as my gallery acquired more "Watchers".

At the beginning of this year, I set myself a deliberate goal of bringing my gallery up to 10 000 views. At the time, I thought that would be a tough goal to reach. I achieved that goal by mid October, and at the end of the year, I was just short of 12 000 pageviews - which means I have more than doubled my page view count this year.

How did I achieve this? I'll tell you about that in my next blog! :)

Asni: Multimedia Art & Design:: ::