Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reading is Fundamental to Liberty


I have been thinking a lot lately about how difficult is becoming to keep track of all of the threats to our Constitution and personal liberty here in the U.S.

It seems like every time I turn around I find someone else warning me about another law or proposed bill that threatens what have previously been thought of as unassailable constitutional guarantees.

All the noise can be good in the sense that if no one speaks up then few will know there is a problem. However it is a common reaction of the general populace to become more immune, skeptical and apathetic as the amount/volume of noise increases.

This is why I feel it is important for everyone to learn to read and understand proposed legislation (or for that matter laws that have been passed and signed as well). It is dangerous to rely on the noise-makers to interpret the laws for us. This is especially true of laws that are a potentially controversial because it has been my experience (especially lately) that the people writing these bills, and supporting them, are encouraging a culture of misinformation and confusion in order to try and “fly them in under the radar”.

This article is going to be fairly long. However I think an examination of a couple of examples is necessary and warranted and I hope at least some of you will hang around through it all.

H.R. 347

The first bill I want to examine is H.R. 347. You may have heard some folks raising alarms about this bill recently. It did not seem to pop-up on most people’s radars until it had been passed and sent to the President for his signature. It passed overwhelmingly in the House with only 3 members of congress voting against it. The President signed it into law last week.

Let’s begin our examination with the Official Press Release about the signing of the bill:

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
March 08, 2012

Statement by the Press Secretary on H.R. 347

On Thursday, March 8, 2012, the President signed into law:
H.R. 347, the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” which makes it a Federal crime to enter or remain knowingly in any restricted area of the White House, the Vice President’s official residence, or their respective grounds without lawful authority. 
On the face of it, based on that press release, it seems simple and straightforward enough. It seems perfectly reasonable that it should be a Federal crime to enter a restricted area of the White House or Vice President's house without lawful authority. I do not see anything here that should have raised alarms with most anyone.
So, let’s look at some political blog coverage of the bill prior to it being signed:

House approves White House 'trespass' bill, sends to Obama

By Pete Kasperowicz - 02/27/12 07:53 PM ET
The House on Monday evening easily approved a bill that would clarify in U.S. law that it is illegal to trespass on White House grounds or the permanent residence of the Vice President.
Members approved the bill, H.R. 347, under a suspension of House rules, by a 388-3 vote. The non-controversial bill was subject to just a brief debate in the afternoon, seeing the easy vote.
The only "no" votes were from Reps. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.).
Under current law, people can be fined for knowingly intruding in a building where the president or vice president is staying temporarily, but no penalties are prescribed for those who trespass in their permanent residences. To impose fines in the latter case, the Secret Service now uses a provision of D.C. code dealing with misdemeanor infractions.
The bill was slightly amended and voice-voted by the Senate earlier this month, so House passage of the Senate version sends it to the White House for President Obama's signature into law.
Again, no real red flags here. If this was all you read about the bill upon passage and then followed that with the Press Release upon signature, then you would have no idea why some people are now calling it an “anti-protest bill”.

This kind of coverage is why I think it is essential to read the text of the bill itself. So, without further ado, here is the actual text of H.R. 347:

One Hundred Twelfth Congress
of the
United States of America
AT THE SECOND SESSION
Begun and held at the City of Washington on Tuesday,
the third day of January, two thousand and twelve
An Act
To correct and simplify the drafting of section 1752 (relating to restricted buildings or grounds) of title 18, United States Code.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
SECTION 1. SHORT TITLE.
This Act may be cited as the `Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011'.
SEC. 2. RESTRICTED BUILDING OR GROUNDS.
Section 1752 of title 18, United States Code, is amended to read as follows:
-`Sec. 1752. Restricted building or grounds
`(a) Whoever--
`(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so;
`(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
`(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds; or
`(4) knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds;
or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).
`(b) The punishment for a violation of subsection (a) is--
`(1) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than 10 years, or both, if--
`(A) the person, during and in relation to the offense, uses or carries a deadly or dangerous weapon or firearm; or
`(B) the offense results in significant bodily injury as defined by section 2118(e)(3); and
`(2) a fine under this title or imprisonment for not more than one year, or both, in any other case.
`(c) In this section--
`(1) the term `restricted buildings or grounds' means any posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area--
`(A) of the White House or its grounds, or the Vice President's official residence or its grounds;
`(B) of a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting; or
`(C) of a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance; and
`(2) the term `other person protected by the Secret Service' means any person whom the United States Secret Service is authorized to protect under section 3056 of this title or by Presidential memorandum, when such person has not declined such protection.'.
Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Vice President of the United States and
President of the Senate.
END

The bill seems a little longer, and about a little more than just keeping people from unlawfully entering restricted areas or grounds of the White House and Vice President’s residence. So, let’s look at some of this language and see if we can suss out what is really going on here.

First off, I have noticed a “quirk” about several of the bills I have been reading lately. It has been my long experience that bills usually have a discreet and clearly named glossary or section of definitions. Not to go on too great a tangent here, definition of terms is extremely important in law making. Without clearly defined terms it is difficult to determine the scope and potential enforcement of laws. Interpretation of the law and how it applies in individual circumstances is what the courts and judges are all about. If Congress does not clearly, narrowly and specifically define terms then the judicial branch is free to define them broadly and as they see fit. Therefore, bills usually have a section of definitions, and traditionally in all of the bills I have previously encountered (prior to the last year or so), those definitions appeared at the beginning, before the main text of the bill. This makes good sense; we want the reader to understand what we mean by specific terms, so we define them before they encounter them in context in the bill. I do not want to sound overly conspiracy-minded here, but I am always suspicious of why lawmakers would bury definitions at the end of a bill. At least there are some here, even though they are not in a separate demarked section and follow the bills main text.

So, in order to try and think clearly about what the bill says, let’s walk through the text and grab the definitions as we go so we can be clear:

`(a) Whoever--
`(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so;
`(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
`(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds; or
`(4) knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds;
or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b).

Ok, here we have the first main section. The first definition we need is of “restricted building or grounds” :

`(1) the term `restricted buildings or grounds' means any posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area--
`(A) of the White House or its grounds, or the Vice President's official residence or its grounds;
`(B) of a building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting; or
`(C) of a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance; and

There we see the reference to the White House and the Vice President’s residence. But wait, what about B and C? B says that any “posted, cordoned off, or otherwise restricted area…” of any “building or grounds where the President or other person protected by the Secret Service is or will be temporarily visiting…” [emphasis added] qualifies as covered by this law.  So the question then becomes who could these other people be? Helpfully the bill gives us a definition:

`(2) the term `other person protected by the Secret Service' means any person whom the United States Secret Service is authorized to protect under section 3056 of this title or by Presidential memorandum, when such person has not declined such protection.'

Now that seems a little more clear. Title 18 of the US Code outlines in section 3052 who the Secret Service can be authorized to protect so we can look there for the list:

Sec. 3056. Powers, authorities, and duties of United States Secret
      Service

-STATUTE-
      (a) Under the direction of the Secretary of Homeland Security,
    the United States Secret Service is authorized to protect the
    following persons:
        (1) The President, the Vice President (or other officer next in
      the order of succession to the Office of President), the
      President-elect, and the Vice President-elect.
        (2) The immediate families of those individuals listed in
      paragraph (1).
        (3) Former Presidents and their spouses for their lifetimes,
      except that protection of a spouse shall terminate in the event
      of remarriage unless the former President did not serve as
      President prior to January 1, 1997, in which case, former
      Presidents and their spouses for a period of not more than ten
      years from the date a former President leaves office, except that
      -
          (A) protection of a spouse shall terminate in the event of
        remarriage or the divorce from, or death of a former President;
        and
          (B) should the death of a President occur while in office or
        within one year after leaving office, the spouse shall receive
        protection for one year from the time of such death:

      Provided, That the Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the
      authority to direct the Secret Service to provide temporary
      protection for any of these individuals at any time if the
      Secretary of Homeland Security or designee determines that
      information or conditions warrant such protection.
        (4) Children of a former President who are under 16 years of
      age for a period not to exceed ten years or upon the child
      becoming 16 years of age, whichever comes first.
        (5) Visiting heads of foreign states or foreign governments.
        (6) Other distinguished foreign visitors to the United States
      and official representatives of the United States performing
      special missions abroad when the President directs that such
      protection be provided.
        (7) Major Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates and,
      within 120 days of the general Presidential election, the spouses
      of such candidates. As used in this paragraph, the term "major
      Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates" means those
      individuals identified as such by the Secretary of Homeland
      Security after consultation with an advisory committee consisting
      of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the minority
      leader of the House of Representatives, the majority and minority
      leaders of the Senate, and one additional member selected by the
      other members of the committee. The Committee shall not be
      subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act (5 U.S.C. App. 2).
        (8) Former Vice Presidents, their spouses, and their children
      who are under 16 years of age, for a period of not more than six
      months after the date the former Vice President leaves office.
      The Secretary of Homeland Security shall have the authority to
      direct the Secret Service to provide temporary protection for any
      of these individuals at any time thereafter if the Secretary of
      Homeland Security or designee determines that information or
      conditions warrant such protection.

Ok so that list is pretty long, but notice a couple of key additions to President and Vice President (both current and former and respective family members):

   (5) Visiting heads of foreign states or foreign governments.
   (6) Other distinguished foreign visitors to the United States
and official representatives of the United States performing
special missions abroad when the President directs that such
protection be provided.
   (7) Major Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates and,
within 120 days of the general Presidential election, the spouses
of such candidates.
       
While it seems reasonable that we would want the Secret Service protecting these people, this law creates a situation where anywhere any of these people may be temporarily visiting now falls under the definition of “restricted building or grounds”.
The next term we come across that needs some explanation is:

or
`(C) of a building or grounds so restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance; and

What in the heck is a “special event of national significance”? It is not defined in this bill. As far as I can discover it traces its origins back to the Presidential Protection Act of 2000 which amended this same Title 18 to allow the Secret Service to participate "in the planning, coordination and implementation of security operations at special events of national significance”. This Act does not however define the term. However, it does require a report be made to Congress as to what events may have been so designated in the previous year. So, with a little digging I have discovered a list of example events:

Summary
Major events that are considered to be nationally significant may be designated by the President—or his representative, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)— as National Special Security Events (NSSE). Beginning in September 1998 through February 2008, there have been 28 events designated as NSSEs. Some of these events have included presidential inaugurations, presidential nominating conventions, major sports events, and major international meetings. The U.S. Secret Service (USSS) is the lead federal agency responsible for coordinating, planning, exercising, and implementing security for NSSEs, and was designated as the lead agency in P.L. 106-544. This report provides information on USSS legislative authority for NSSEs, NSSE designation funding and training, and NSSE funding. This report will be updated when congressional or executive branch actions warrant.

A little further down in the document we find more criteria for the designation:

NSSE Designation
Prior to the establishment of DHS in January 2003, the President determined what events of national significance were designated as NSSEs. Since the establishment of the department, the DHS Secretary—as the President’s representative—has had the responsibility to designate NSSEs.
NSSE designation factors include:
• anticipated attendance by U.S. officials and foreign dignitaries;
• size of the event; and
• significance of the event.
Recent NSSEs include the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, the Republican and Democratic Presidential Candidate Nominating Conventions in 2008, and the state funeral of former President Gerald Ford on January 3, 2007.

Now, in light of a better understanding of what types of events or locations can be covered under this law, let’s look more closely at what it prohibits:

`(a) Whoever--
`(1) knowingly enters or remains in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so;
`(2) knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;
`(3) knowingly, and with the intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, obstructs or impedes ingress or egress to or from any restricted building or grounds; or
`(4) knowingly engages in any act of physical violence against any person or property in any restricted building or grounds;
or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be punished as provided in subsection (b)

Ok so I think we can all agree that section 4 is no problem, but what about sections 1-3? The problem I have with these sections is the use of terms like “impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions” and especially “engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions”.

You see, nowhere in the document are terms like “disrupt”, “disturb”, “disorderly conduct”, “Government business” or “official functions” defined. It is left up to law enforcement to define these terms on the spot and then to the courts to finally decide if law enforcement acted correctly.

Taken in context with the definitions of “restricted buildings or grounds”  we have already discovered, this means that a group of people protesting, marching, shouting slogans outside a political convention could be in violation of this law. People protesting the state visitation of a foreign dignitary could be subject to arrest, fine and imprisonment. Even people shouting uncomfortable questions at an appearance by a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate on the campaign trail could be subject to arrest, fine and imprisonment.

This is a far cry from:

On Thursday, March 8, 2012, the President signed into law:
H.R. 347, the “Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011,” which makes it a Federal crime to enter or remain knowingly in any restricted area of the White House, the Vice President’s official residence, or their respective grounds without lawful authority.

Unfortunately this bill has already been signed into law by President Obama. In the next installment (this first one has gotten long enough for now) of this series we will examine a bill that has recently been introduced. The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 3523).

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mobile First: An Example of Why It's a Good Idea


I have recently run across a situation where I have experienced what can happen when the site design and functionality of the "main site" is not informed by the thinking that was put in on the mobile site. What follows is the examination of a user experience for someone trying to figure out when the next green line train will leave from the DART rail station at St Paul in downtown Dallas and when it will arrive at the Lake June station.

Desktop Experience:


Here is the DART Home Page:

















If the images make it hard to follow, I encourage you to follow along in a separate browser window, you should start HERE.

You will notice that there are two obvious paths to find out what we need to know. The first is the global navigation element called SCHEDULES & Maps, the second is the DART TRIP PLANNER widget on the right side of the page.

Since the widget has a start and end point and a time it seems like the best choice to start our search so let's fill it out like we think it should be.



















You can see we have put in the names of the stations we want to ride between and selected the time we think the next train could depart. There is really not a way to ask for the next train, but picking a time reasonably close to now, that gives us time to get to the station, should get us close, right? So here is what happens when we click PLAN IT:
















It seems that there is a need to be exactly specific in our station names for the search. So now we are presented with handy drop downs that guess at what we meant. Note that there has not been a way for me to declare I am looking to ride the green line DART rail. So, let's correct the search parameters:
















Ok all looks well now we can Get Trip Plan:






















Ok, so I guess that is helpful. I now know that there is a green line train leaving at 1:51pm that arrives at 2:17pm. I also am presented with two trains it appears, red and green that leave at 2:01 and arrive at 2:37 and some numbers (I assume are buses) and a green train that leave at 1:51 and arrive at 2:37. Feel free to click the Details button if you are following along at home, but I think technically we have accomplished our task. I just hope after all this time it isn't too late to catch that 1:51 train....

So what if we took the Schedules & Maps route?






















Above is the center column of the Schedules page. This looks promising, there is a green rail schedule listed.






















Clicking on it gives me what look like two options. I can get a weekday schedule going south or I can look at travel times between stations. Let's try the schedule first:

































Oh boy, looks like a train schedule alright. Once I find the St Paul column and scroll down to around 2:00pm I can see the trains that leave around that time and when they arrive at Lake June. While annoyingly hard to read, it is usable and provides me a clearer picture of the green line trains than the trip planner did.

What about the travel times chart:






















A handy PDF file that takes an additional click I have not pictured to get to for choosing your station. What is shown is the red line but scrolling down shows you the green one. For our purposes though you can see how it works.It basically shows me when a train leaves for the last station going each direction. Somewhat helpful, but more confusing that the more content dense train schedule and not as much information (no idea when it reaches MY stop).

So, there you have the web experience for the desktop user. Happily, DART has provided a link to the mobile site on the main site so we can all see how it works without worrying about phones and data plans.

Mobile Experience:
So here is the landing page for the mobile site:






















As you can see by the already visited link above, there is a specific link to Point to Point Schedules. That sounds promising:






















Clicking that loads the above page which gives me a clear drop down for Rail:






















Clicking Submit brings me to this page:


As you can see here I can select the direction I want to travel. the day of the week, and the general time period. This gives me:


Which allows me to choose the specific stations I am interested in. Once I submit them I get:


































Wow, how handy is that? A nicely formatted table that show me departure and arrival times from St Paul to Lake June.

Conclusions
I think the task I set was a pretty common type of task. I mean, I discovered it from trying to perform it myself out of necessity. The team that developed the mobile experience clearly had two things in mind:

  1. Quick Load times: This is an issue on mobile and you ought to go through both experiences on your desktop to see how truly optimize the experience is on the mobile side. A lot to be said for minimal text, form fields and no graphics to speed things up. 
  2. Focus on the Task At Hand: Cut through all of the craziness and give the user a clear path to what they need. Yes I had to select options on multiple pages to get to my final table, but see point 1. It all loaded quickly and was clear n what inputs were required and the results are by far the easiest to comprehend and most complete.
I use this feature all the time now on my phone. I do not even bother to try and check this on the web site. Although once I discovered the mobile site link, I would probably do it that way if I needed to. 

Clearly, the main/desktop experience could benefit from this functionality. If the site had been designed mobile first, I think the main site would be a lot more functional and user focused. 

So, when it comes time for a new web site, whether it be brand new or a redesign, think mobile first. Solve your users' problems and answer their needs there and let the focus that the platform requires guide you when you think about the desktop experience. Even if you are designing a "fluid" or "responsive" site, your thinking and your users will benefit from thinking small to big.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Thoughts on Mobile Apps

As part of my usual Monday routine I check Luke Wroblewski's site for his "Data Monday" post. This is often a source for little nuggets of information that spark thought for me. Today Luke considered Mobile App Usage and reading over the statistics gave me a bit of a pause, and made me look at how I use apps on my phone.

Some of the more telling stats:
  • 38% of adult mobile users have downloaded an app (as of August 2011) (Luke's original source)
  • The average iOS owner will download 83 apps in 2011 (Luke's original source)
  • Only 68% of adults with apps actually use them (as of May 2010) (Luke's original source)
  • 26% of all apps downloaded are only opened once and 48% are opened between 2 - 10 times and then abandoned (as of March 2011) (Luke's original source)
  • 38% of Android & iOS users stick with an app for 1 month, after 12 months only 4% are left (Luke's original source)
  • 51% of mobile owners use a handful of apps once a week. 31% use 6 or more and 17% use no apps regularly (Luke's original source)
  • The Top 10 Android apps account for 43% of all time spent by Android mobile users on apps, the next 40 account for 18%, which means the Top 50 account for 61%. (Luke's original source)
I looked at this in light of my own app downloading and usage behavior and realized that many of these numbers ring pretty true for me. I download a lot of apps. They are almost always free or offered as the free app of the day on Amazon. Some of them are admittedly "preemptive" downloads, that is, they fall into the "I better snag this while it is free because it might be useful someday" category. 

But, I only use a couple apps with any frequency. Most are left alone until I decide I am tired of getting update notices for them and or need space and uninstall them. 

So, what does this mean for all of those brands and companies out there that are certain they "need an app"?

Mostly I think it means, no, you probably don't. Now don't get me wrong, some of these numbers can be deceiving. After all the mobile market is pretty big and as we all know 38% of a really big market is a lot of people. However, every brand or company that is considering (or feeling compelled) to jump on the mobile app bandwagon needs to consider the fact that in all likelihood a small percentage of their target audience will download and use their app more than 10 times.

This all leads me to the following thoughts/questions for stakeholders:
  •  Is your proposed app essential enough to the day-to-day life of your audience to displace one of the handful of apps they use weekly? Remember 69% of people use fewer than 6 at least once a week.How many are going to be willing to add one more?
  • Are you committed to an iterative development/release cycle on your app that adds features and continues to excite/surprise your clients/audience? This is how you maintain long engagement with your app.
  • Could the level of engagement, brand awareness and exposure you are seeking be accomplished better in other ways? A web site redesign/refresh using modern techniques like responsive design that accommodates all devices (desktop, laptop, mobile, tablets, etc.) could be a much better investment for most people, right?
  • Is your business directly transactional in nature? Business like banking and retail (especially where customers have accounts they need to manage) can benefit from a native app, however, again, much of what they will want to do could be handled on your web site if it was well designed and worked on multiple platforms.
So to sum up, yes mobile is growing and will continue to. There will continue to be app success stories. But it is also a fact that app marketplaces will continue to be flooded and overcrowded with apps no one downloads, and most of the rest are only used a handful of times. 

You have already spent a significant amount of time and marketing budget to convince your customers/audience to visit your web site on a regular bases. Hopefully you have also given them significant value for doing so. My advice then is, leverage all of that effort and investment by creating a functional, high-value web presence than can be used easily on multiple platforms.


Friday, October 1, 2010

Monologue, Dialog or Conversation

I have seen a lot of discussion and debate lately around the idea of conversation in the online social world, particularly in the context of brands and their consumers. Conversation is a word I have been using with clients for a long time to express what I feel they need to be part of in the social realm. My take on this discussion is that we need to look at the types of communication brands and consumers have online in the context of the relationships that those communications reveal. So the question is not merely “are you engaged in a monologue, dialog or conversation”, but it goes deeper into “is your consumer an audience member, a professional acquaintance or a friend”.

Most people enjoy a good monologue. It is something we experience for the most part passively with limited engagement. We might laugh, applaud or express other momentary responses, but primarily the speaker speaks and the audience listens. The relationship established between the speaker and the listener is primarily one-way. Any familiarity or feeling of closeness between the speaker and the listener is incidental and non-essential. By that I mean, while it is possible the speaker has some type of personal relationship with one or more listeners, the method of discourse does not necessarily require, develop or encourage it.

Dialog on the other hand, involves give and take. It is a two-way form of communication in which the parties both speak and listen. There is often either a pre-existing relationship between the two parties, or one is desired, however there is also often an underlying element of commerce or exchange involved. We dialog with purpose, we have an intention or motives. There is something to be gained. We have dialogs with bosses, employees, teachers, students, sales clerks and taxi drivers. There is a sharing of information and often a building of consensus. A good dialog makes everyone involved feel as if their voice was heard and they had the opportunity to make their point and effect the outcomes.

A conversation takes a dialog and adds an element of intimacy or familiarity to the discourse. We have conversations with friends and loved ones. We can use vernacular and turns of phrase that are uniquely understood by the participants. A conversation requires and reveals a true relationship between the speakers. Often a conversation exists in a much looser framework of sharing with each other and caring about each other. Conversations often happen for their own sake, with little or no quid pro quo involved.

In my experience working with brands and evaluating their efforts online (and those of their competitors) it has become clear to me that most brands that have ventured into the social arenas of Facebook and Twitter are still at the monologue stage with their consumers. They want their consumers to “like them”; to become “friends” or “followers”; yet their style of discourse betrays the fact that they are not ready to commit to friendship. There are some brands that have ventured beyond the audience relationship with their consumers and are attempting to engage in a dialog. You will recognize them because they sometimes actually respond to questions or comments on their Facebook wall, discussions tab or in tweets. There is still a formality to the discourse but at least it is more often a two-way street. Where I believe most brands desire to go, is to the point where they are engaging more in conversations with their consumers than in dialogs. There are brands out there that do this and are doing it well. You can recognize them because they do not just respond to questions or comments, but solicit, start and engage in conversations.  They will make wall posts that are conversation starters and then stay engaged throughout the comment thread. They even occasionally make posts or tweet about things not directly related to or concerning their brand, just because they know their friends will find them interesting or helpful. When you see a Facebook wall or Twitter stream or message board that belongs to this kind of brand you want to become part of the conversation; part of the circle of friends because it really does feel like a community.

So, the question to ask yourself as a brand is: where are you on the path from monologue to conversation? Do you treat your consumers like an audience or like friends?