One of the defining characteristics of Web 2.0 (and man, do I ever hate that phrase) is the new way in which conversations are taking place across the world wide webbleness. It’s not just a case of giving people the chance to make simple comments on a blog now - these days a blog might end up on Digg or Slashdot or shared on Facebook, and entirely new conversations can take place based on your content, but not in your venue. Universities across the country are finding new ways to inspire these conversations lately: Facebook pages, YouTube accounts, student blogs, etc. The only real way to track their impact though is to find a way to quantify their existence. This might be easy with some tools (tracking Facebook fans), but harder with others (who’s Stumbling a press release). The goal is that we should strive to give visitors the tools to facilitate their conversations wherever they want them to take place. Part of successful web development and marketing is understanding that you need to cede a certain amount of control, and instead just watch the viral aspect take affect. A tool perfect in this regard is ShareThis.
Many of you are probably familiar with ShareThis from its widespread use as a tool for blogs. We are even using it right here on .eduGuru, you can see the button at the bottom of this blog post (and if you’re just discovering it, feel free to test out its usefulness. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge). But, what many people aren’t taking advantage of is its ability to work in so many different areas. Using our school’s site as an example, ShareThis has been implemented through three distinct areas so far, none of which are blogs (though that will happen as well soon): calendar postings, press releases, and constituent stories. We’re also planning to extend its use into the athletics site as well. Our hope is to get away from this idea that “user X only wants to share blogs.” Personally, I’d like to see tools such as this deployed widely. Don’t try to predict how users want to share you content. And never, ever, buy into the idea that tools like this are either meant or good for one thing and one thing only. Good web developers look for ways to take a tool and find the opportunity in it.
The reason I like ShareThis is that it has such a simple, clean, useful reporting dashboard. You can see how many people saw a given page (similar to normal analytics), you can tell how people are sharing, where it’s shared at, and even if they are simply using it to e-mail the article. The ShareThis plugin gives you the ability to empower users to take a conversation to any of the top social networking and sharing sites, but without you needing to try to predict or restrict which ones (though you do have the option to create a list a la carte). ShareThis automatically can populate the list from all the most popular sites, allowing you to enable easy user broadcasting. From there, you can begin to follow just where and how it’s being used. In our case, we see things getting shared on Facebook frequently, but also Reddit, Digg, Blinklist, and others.
Let’s take this chart from our reporting dashboard, for instance. It allows me to quickly see the most popular uses of our content across eight different utilities (in this case), or even export it to be reused with other data in a spreadsheet. Have you ever wondered if e-mail is dead? Using these reports, we are able to see that while Facebook manages to get the most referrals of all the sites, sharing via plain old e-mail stomped down other uses with about 68% of the users. Easy quantification. This can be very valuable information if you were considering planning a campaign over one site versus another. Or perhaps you see that Facebook penetration is strong, making it a likely target for easy expansion with some marketing in that area.
Value. That’s what ShareThis has. Making a tool like this yourself is little more than child’s play with a few lines of jQuery, but you don’t get the kind of tracking and data that ShareThis is able to return to you (at least not without way more work than it would take to slap the button on your site). Forget for a moment where people are even passing your content to. The medium is less important than the fact that you can easily quantify the fact that people ARE sharing information, and finding value enough in what you are producing to take it to their favorite venues. Tastes will change. This year’s Plurk could be next year’s Facebook. Your real goal is simple, basic, easy to measure penetration. You’ll find out how many people are sharing, and what ratio that is to people just viewing, which can enable you to start goal setting for a social media campaign.
It’s important to remember that tools like ShareThis aren’t going to make people read or share your content. You still need to be in the business of writing compelling, engaging stuff. That’s a whole different ball game, and if you see that the sharing ratio is low as a snake’s belly, you can begin to identify and diagnose a problem like that. I would also not recommend slapping ShareThis on every page of your site. This is why we focused on the people areas. Events, news, and stories tend to always involve people of the university in one way or another. A biology course syllabus? Not so much. If you run it universally, you’ll run the risk of desensitizing your audience to its presence. By selecting specific areas, you reinforce its value. It’s your way of saying “Hey, this is the kind of stuff you might want to show other people.”
Here’s an assignment I will leave you with. It is shameless, and I have no problems admitting it. Look a few lines below this at the green ShareThis button. Click it. Take a look at the options it provides - the e-mail, posting, and sharing functionality. Choose one and share this, see how it works. Then come up with a way that you could implement it on your site and post a comment with your thoughts below.