How to Attend Harvard University in your Pajamas

CS50 is Harvard University's introduction to the intellectual enterprises of computer science and the art of programming. It is to be offered at both Harvard and Yale in coming semesters, marking a notably rare educational collaboration between the rival institutions. The entire course is also available online for free. Complete with lectures, notes, problem sets & YouTube walkthroughs of various concepts, anyone can emulate Harvard’s introduction to Computer Science from home, and I’d highly recommend it.

In full disclosure, despite my love of technology, I had never taken a formal computer science course before, nor have I attended a course at Harvard University. The college and the Internet have made it possible to basically audit the entire course and absorb the masterful teaching of David J. Malan at your leisure. So if you’ve ever been interested in how computers work, this course is a great investment of your time.

The class assumes no prior knowledge and begins by explaining boolean logic and binary numbers. Building from there, Malan explains the fundamentals of programming: data types, variables, control structures and operators. Overviewing the C programming language and the details of how computers actually store and retrieve data, the class continues into an understanding of cryptography and data forensics. Building on these topics allows for an easy transition into a basic understanding of Internet Protocol, browsers, HTML and server configuration. While on the topic of the server client relationship, SQL, database integration and web based languages like JavaScript & PHP are introduced.  A familiarity with these concepts requires a subsequent discussion of data security and best practices for developers. Paired with a captivating presentation by Microsoft’s former CEO, Steve Ballmer, this is where the class transitions into a review of concepts on the final week.  

CS50 includes multiple tracks, challenges and exercises for students depending on their familiarity with the material. Even if you don’t have the slightest idea of how binary numbers work and you can’t tell a bit from a byte, this is the best way I know of to gain a general understanding of computer science and the fundamental concepts of programming. 

In summation, my hat’s off to Harvard for making this possible. There are a number of barriers between most people and institutions that offer this caliber of education, but distribution on the Internet overcomes every single one of them. Increasingly complicated electronics now permeate every aspect of modern life and a fundamental understanding of how computers function is a very empowering gift. 

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Success or Self Absorbed?

Let's Talk About Marketing Campaigns Real Quick

There are two kinds: branding and direct response. They have different names because they have different goals and objectives. Direct response campaigns compel people to action and traditionally focus on clicks, sign-ups, or conversions. Branding campaigns focus on impressions and awareness. The ALS ice bucket challenge is an example of the latter, a branding campaign.

When I think of awesome marketing campaigns, I think of “A Kodak Moment” or Mastercard’s “Priceless” campaign. I think about Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and the concept of an idea virus infecting people who spread it to others. I also now think about dumping big buckets of ice water on one’s head and daring three friends to do it, too. This idea originated as a way to raise awareness (and money, one presumes) for ALS; and it has. 

ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a vicious disease that destroys the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. It has nothing to do with ice water or intentionally giving yourself mild hypothermia on the internet; however, there are a number of charities all over the country that are working to end this disease. I know this, because my friends are all dumping ice water on themselves instead of donating money to the aforementioned charities. Now, this challenge has skyrocketed funding for ALS charities, generating over one million dollars. You can read more about that here and here. However, because of the comparative high attention, low net gain nature of this campaign, a lot of articles and posts hate on it by saying that it accomplishes nothing more than making people wet and cold. It’s nothing more than a reason for self absorbed people to get undressed and show off how sexy they (think they) are while dancing around under ice water. It is an excuse to do something hilarious and call it charity. Some go so far as to call it a waste of water. A hypothesis of that kind seems to misunderstand the basic objective of a branding campaign as I have defined it above.

People who say things like this have grasped the concept, yet misunderstood the point.

These Are Millennials We're Talking About

You know, the people who thought it would be a good idea to put a camera on both sides of the telephone for the apparently common occurrence that all you really want is another picture of yourself. The ALS ice bucket challenge hijacks the basic egocentric needs of the selfie generation and puts them to good use. And that’s the point. Without spending a dime, ALS has more impressions online than ever before. That is not an opinion. If you would like to see what successful viral marketing looks like all you need to do is ask Google. The chart below tracks search interest on the topic of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in the last 90 days in the US. This is one of the most successful marketing campaigns (and prettiest example graphs) I have ever seen.

Google Trends Report June through August search popularity of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

Google Trends Report June through August search popularity of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

And here’s the same graph for "ALS donation" in the last 30 days.

Thirty day trendline for ALS Donation in search popularity. 

Thirty day trendline for ALS Donation in search popularity. 

Success, or Self Absorption? 

No, dumping water on your head doesn't directly help. Yes, campaigns like this are going to become less effective over time because they are subject to the laws of diminishing returns. That’s really not the point; very few companies (much less charities) are prepared to sustainably scale at these rates in 30-90 day periods anyways. The point is: right now, today, more people are aware of ALS because it is correlated with an ice bucket challenge; and this is a story of tremendous success. I'd encourage anyone to donate if he feels compelled; but if not, definitely leverage your social circle to let those close to you know about a way they can help raise awareness for an underfunded group in much need of financial assistance. 

Net Neutrality, & The Right to be Forgotten

As the world progresses in technology, we continue to have new decisions to make. One decision that has been on my mind lately is the argument for net neutrality, and it’s effect on search engines. 

According to Wikipedia, Net neutrality is defined as “the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication.” 

In my line of work, I deal with people and companies on a daily basis who are in the unfortunate position of having negative or false allegations present in search engine results pages. I have seen first hand how destructive posts can be. Under the present legislation, websites are not responsible for any information or media online if it is user generated content. This is the body of law that protects Facebook and Twitter. At first glance, this makes intrinsic sense. People have the right to free speech; websites have the right to act as a platform without accepting any liability for the way users employ their rights under the first amendment. The problem arises when websites allow anonymous posts, or refuse to allow users to edit content after it has been posted.  Sometimes this content is in violation of people’s privacy, copyrights, or other applicable laws. Now what? 

Dealing with this situation is time consuming and requires navigation through a grey area of the law. Often, the individual being defamed is at a loss for a way to deal with the situation. Recently, in the European Union, a body of law knows as the “Right to be Forgotten” act was passed into existence and last month, Google announced plans to comply. What this law does is allow individuals who have negative links appearing in search results to petition search engines to remove the links. In other words, it allows individuals to remove links from search results if they meet certain criteria.  While this protects the individual, it is a landmark law in Internet censorship. 

Google’s intention is to add footnotes wherever links have been removed in accordance with this legislation, making it more like a “right to be vaguely remembered.” Nevertheless, this law (and Google’s compliance) has stirred up some debate about net neutrality and the path we are headed down if governments force censorship on information. It seems obvious that there should be some protection for individuals against online attacks. And it seems equally obvious that government sanctioned programs to hinder people’s access to unbiased information have caused poor outcomes for humanity in the past. It will be interesting to see if progressive legislation makes its way west in the coming months. 

Creating an Outreach Strategy that Works

Email outreach is dying for two reasons. Number one: people hate it. Number two: Email is now an app. When I say email outreach, I don’t mean a newsletter people sign up for. If you continue to provide value and relevant content (without constantly trying to push products) people will be happy to receive your emails, and email marketing will actually be easier than ever. However, if you a blasting out emails going for conversions, you need to rethink your outreach strategy.

Numbers Talk

My experience working with various firms in digital taught me to email market with the goal of a high single digit click through rate. Typically, companies would see around 3% CTR and we would go about improving from there. While the medium can be argued to be “effective”, it’s far from the most effective strategy.

Achieve a 90% Open Rate

Do you know why industry averages for email outreach range from high single digits to about 25%? It’s because people don't want this stuff; they are busy. Furthermore, the inbox was very recently an oasis of solitude in the noisy chaos of the Internet. Invading this space has serious consequences; enter creeping unsubscribe and report as spam rates.

For the last three months, I have been operating my own company with a partner and we are consistently achieving 90% open rates and 60% response rates by utilizing more effective means of outreach.

Think Like Marketing and Execute Like Sales

Leverage social media to start a conversation. The direct outreach model is no longer just: educate, demonstrate, and go for a close. The only value of that model is scalability, and attempting to raise awareness through email marketing is ineffective at best. If you don’t know whom you are targeting, emailing everyone and letting him or her sort it out is a rather lazy way to solve the problem. Seriously, we are now in a world with tangible metrics on (demographic and interest based) display networks and social media advertising. Finding real estate on the Internet where your customers hang out has never been easier to measure and act on.

Facebook allows you to send a message to anyone for one dollar, and a premium LinkedIn Executive account costs around $100. This is great for two reasons. Number one: Familiarity. People use these platforms to talk to people they already know. Number two: Money. The spend makes more sense than PPC. It costs $1.00 to purchase two clicks at $0.50 each. It costs the same to outreach to a person on Facebook who will see messages 90% of the time, and responds 60% of the time. PPC costs and bounce rates vary across industries and campaigns so averages would be irrelevant here, but anyone can tell you that initiating a dialogue increases your chances of a conversion exponentially; it makes more sense to be pound wise and penny foolish. A social inbox today is what an e-mail inbox was ten years ago: hard to scale but worth the effort. Email on the other hand is changing, and not in a marketer’s favor.

Email is Now an App

Within three months of Gmail announcing tabbed email inboxes, overall open rates went down 18%. Better yet, 66% of Gmail opens are on mobile devices. To broad stroke it: Google is making it easier for users to ignore info that may be irrelevant. Mail clients (like mobile apps) offer increased filtering and, this just in, Gmail is making the unsubscribe button bigger. The trends for email outreach make unexpected email a medium that is very likely to keep seeing diminishing returns. Luckily businesses that understand outreach resources can easily troubleshoot this problem. Email marketing is getting harder, but the user experience with email is improving, meaning it’s easier for people synthesize incoming emails and get to info that they want. 

In conclusion, challenges are ahead, but there is good news all around. User experience in email makes it easier to get emails that they want. That is good news if you have a GREAT email program; not if you are using scaled email outreach to introduce your company. For those pursuing the latter goal, multiple platforms make people more available and willing to listen than ever before.


Do you have an idea for successful outreach?


(not provided) Keywords

Changes as Google turns 15

As Google celebrates their 15th birthday, several changes have the SEO world in a bit of an uproar. First, all organic keywords will soon be listed as (not provided) in Google Analytics. Second, it is cheaper and easier than ever to get started with Google’s paid advertising. If that’s not enough, there are rumors of a new algorithm change afoot as well. It seems very clear that Google is pushing everyone towards paid advertising.

"I think this is Google abusing their monopolistic position in the United States. Unfortunately, I don't really see a way out of it."-Rand Fishkin, 

 I have been casually observing the amount of (not provided) keywords in my analytics accounts rise over the last year. Earlier this week, Google announced that all keyword data would eventually be (not provided). This cripples SEO strategies as we know them and the backlash from the SEO industry has been noteworthy. This is not a new problem, however. Hoarding information behind a veil of and SSL connection and listing organic traffic generating keywords as (not provided) has been a thorn in the side of SEO's for some time. Furthermore, Google originally promised that (not provided) keywords would only be listed for a marginal amount of organic traffic. I don't think Google is an "evil" company per se, but Google has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder equity. The economic advantages of making it more difficult to strategize for organic ranking are painfully obvious; the obvious choice for advertisers and marketers who wish to target keywords is now to purchase them. This happens exactly one week after I got an email that says becoming a Google Adwords Certified Professional will now be free (it was $50 to sit for the test before). Coincidence? I think not...

Keywords and content strategy are cornerstones of digital marketing. In a rather suprising release of a Whiteboard Tuesday, laid out the new strategies for targeting specific keywords. The methods in this video for keyword research are somewhat Frankensteined together and notably less effective than judging empirical evidence from traffic; that creates a more difficult scenario requiring more experimentation. The market will have little choice but to adapt to Google. Or will it?

What Happens Next?

I agree with Rand Fishkin; optimizing pages is not a black hat activity and actually makes it easier for users to find what they are looking for. I predicate my assumption below on the premise that search engine optimization is a positive thing for user experience. That was the goal, Google; was it not? If this assumption hold true, then Google has opened a window of opportunity for a competitor to create a better user experience with much less effort. 

Bing has been slowly gaining momentum, and I'm interested in their selling points for paid advertisements. Bing is not in a position to battle Google in terms of volume. Google maintains the lion’s share of worldwide search traffic and 83% of Internet users are exposed to Google’s display network. To say nothing of the fact the 800 million users visit Google's YouTube every month, making it the third most popular web property. As a response, Bing has been forced to innovate by creating competitive ad optimization options. This is exactly the type of logical strategy I would expect from Microsoft; better insight into optimization and hence better ROI will attract larger budgets. Competitive advantages match corporate strategy and Bing leverages allowing paid advertisers to view more information.

Now advertisers can optimize organic traffic on Bing much more effectively as well. If the above premise that optimization is good stands, and all other variables are held constant, it stands to reason that the search engine that allows better optimization will provide a better user experience. Again, I'm not talking about exploiting the gap between computer comprehension and user experience to display less relevant pages higher; I'm talking about gaining insight into searcher intentions and tailoring a website to match. 

If I have learned anything as a digital marketer, I have learned that people online will gravitate towards the best online experience. That’s why we do all of this. If I'm right, then Google is crafting their own demise by continuing to force more and more advertisements at the expense of user experience.

Making keyword optimization less effective, offering free advertising certifications, and launching a new simplified interface for ad design will likely attract a lot of short term revenue. But if the overall user experience suffers, Google might be killing their goose to get a golden egg.


Four Reasons Facebook is Like a Drug

I have never been into drugs, but I know a few things about them.

  • They require a lot of resources
  • They make you temporarily feel good
  • They make you temporarily act like someone you are not
  • If you don’t stop taking them, they will make you miserable

People are developing a love-hate relationship with Facebook; I know I am. While it is one of the most revolutionary inventions since the telephone, there are surprisingly few good reasons to have an account. I’ll explain.


Drugs Take A Lot of Resources

Facebook is free! While Facebook does not charge a fee to users, it takes something much more valuable and scarce today: time. The truth is, one half of over a billion users login every day for an average session of 20 minutes. That’s over 150,000 hours OR 17.36 years. Yeah. Per day.

In fact, an article I read recently advocated that people delete their Facebook accounts in order to free up 35 hours per month. Think of what you could accomplish instead of keeping up with your “friends.” You could do that thing you always wanted to do like play the piano or learn a second language. These stats alone were enough to make me beg the question: why am I on Facebook?

Drugs Make You Temporarily Feel Good

Facebook is a happy, joyous place where people celebrate the greatest things in life. I got a Facebook in 2006 when it was only college students so the greatest things in life have changed from toga parties and homecoming to babies and new cars. Nevertheless, the point is that everyone controls his or her projected, digital self-image.

It’s great.

It’s so great, in fact, that some days I wonder: are those people real?

Drugs Make You Act Like Someone You Are Not

I have several Facebook friends who I’m also friend with in real life (weird, right?) who are absolutely miserable, but post the happiest pictures and statuses every day. Facebook is competitive. If you post a picture of your car, it better be a nice car. If you just got promoted and now get to work 60 hours a week instead of 50, you better let the world know how great it is. A lot on social media has a very positive spin on it, which is great for personal branding, but there are some additional outcomes. If you like your truth served cold and want to get to the heart of this issue fast, check out this post on why social media makes everyone seem better than they are.

If You Don’t Stop, Drugs Will Make You Miserable

Did you know that, Huffington Post, and Time have all published articles about how Facebook causes depression? As it turns out, being someone you are not around a lot of other people who are trying to be someone they are not keeps you from developing real connections and meaningful relationships. In the meantime, your personal information is being guarded poorly as it is farmed out to an ever-increasing number of applications. Facebook has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize shareholder equity after all, and they aren’t doing it by selling ads on one of the less effective advertising platforms on the Internet today. But that’s a topic for another post.

In summary, I encourage you to consider how you spend your time. Is Facebook really as bad for you as doing drugs? Maybe not, but 35 hours a month is almost an entire workweek. Spend your time well, and don’t obsess over everyone else’s lives online.


The Philosophy of Social Media

Let’s Talk Metaphysics.

For the first time in human history, people are existent in multiple locations. It’s very cool. I heard a statistic that says more content goes online every three days than humanity produced between the beginning of recorded history and the year 2000. I watched a Google webinar last month that said Youtube serves more videos than Coke-a-cola serves beverages in a given day. People are posting online, and they are posting a lot. That is awesome, but I wonder how much thought people give to what they post online. Because content online lives forever.

When we evaluate history, we look through fossil records, written accounts, legends, and contextual clues. There is some ambiguity, but we evaluate the evidence we have and make an educated guess. Those days are over. Today everything is documented. Everything you buy from Amazon, your status, those tweets, Facebook photos, your likes, hobbies, interests, who you dated and for how long, where you worked and for whom, and who you were friends with at what point in your life. Think about that for a second. It’s almost like you exist in two places; you’re metaphysical. And you, dear reader, are among the first people ever in history to have this ability. You are the beta test; the trial version. Think about that while you watch Gary Vaynerchuck in this video.

Let’s Talk Existentialism.

Albert Camus is famed for The Myth of Sisyphus and his three responses to the question of how to deal with the absurd. I think it applies nicely to the question of how to deal with this trend of eternal existence online. I’ll give you the abridged version as Camus saw it.

  1. Avoid it
  2. Ignore it
  3. Embrace it

I think of an online reputation as a fact. Whether you love it, hate it, or are indifferent, you exist online. You can choose your response: abstain completely, exist passively, or go all in. That choice is yours, but know this: If you don't manage your digital presence, there is a good chance someone else will do it for you.

In the 8 short years since Facebook was created, it has become creepy not to have one. The stigma is if you don't have a Facebook , you have a dark past, an assumed identity, or a lot to hide. I've heard HR specialists say they don't consider candidates without social media. That’s not fair. We should not feel pressured to tell everyone what is going on in our lives to avoid appearing creepy.

Let's Talk Truth

At a minimum, I've come to realize that you should at least be cognizant of your image and affiliations online, because who you are online may not be the real you, but it's the you that everyone is going to remember forever. Barring some cataclysmic change, you're going to be around online for a long time, and you are the first one in your family with an image online. We should all think about the image we portray online. 

Something to think about…