4 reasons why the death of Google Reader just doesn’t matter

Google ReaderA few weeks back, Google announced that its Reader product was to be shut down; the reaction was instant and vitriolic, as we would expect from the internet community. Now, with hindsight, the reaction all seems a little silly.

How The Shutdown Of Google Reader Threatens The Internet‘ - Forbes, 14th March 2013

Like a Dagger to Bloggers’ Hearts, Google Just Killed Google Reader‘ - The Atlantic Wire, 13th March 2013

Headlines such as these remind us of the value of objectivity and reason – being reactionary, a trait that seems to manifest itself across the journalistic world, might drive page views (or newspaper sales), but it doesn’t necessarily help or inform anyone.

Here are four reasons why we should not get our proverbial knickers in a twist over the death of Google Reader.

1. There are plenty of alternatives

Reader is your favourite RSS aggregator, that’s fine. You’ve got a Google account and it all fits nicely together, that’s fine too. But if an RSS aggregator is that important to the way you work, there are many other alternatives: Mashable listed five in its article ‘RIP Google Reader’, including Feedly and Newsblur.

For those that make the move – not that you have any choice in the matter after the 1st July 2013 – it’s possible to export your feeds using Google Takeaway or through generating an OPML file. The OPML file is a standard format and is accepted by other RSS readers; here’s an example from Netvibes. For other services it’s even easier to transfer your data; adding your Google account to Feedly or Flipboard will automatically synchronise all your feeds from one service to the other.

2. Things have moved on

Flipboard - CoverMore importantly, although there are straight ‘apples for  apples’ alternatives for Reader, there are a slew of new applications and services for interacting with RSS.

The most visible of these is Flipboard, a self-styled ‘Social Magazine’, which is created from a number of RSS feeds pulled together and displayed in a magazine format. It’s the format that really makes the difference here, moving away from text to a visually-rich experience with hi-definition imagery and print styling. It’s engaging and hooks into existing paradigms – books, magazines – to create a more compelling interface for news and information.

Even Google has got in on the act with Google Currents, a mobile-only application that works in a similar fashion to Flipboard. Summly – now purchased by Marissa Meyer’s Yahoo – is another strong product in the same space.

I’ve not included Twitter lists in this list, even though Mashable marked it as a candidate replacement application. For me they’re different: one is real-time, miss it and it’s gone, whilst RSS aggregators are archives, building slowly over time.

3. It’s not the death of RSS

Maybe I should have put this first, rather than third, as it seems as if the internet is equating the death of Reader with the death of RSS. But of course, it isn’t the death of RSS. All the products listed above use RSS to gather information – it’s just the way they display the information that changes from product to product.

For those of you worried that Google is in charge of everything related to the internet, from standards to connectivity and anything else you want to mention, they’re not. RSS will continue to live, and it will continue to be a brilliantly simple way of sharing data automatically between services, from Twitter feeds to blog posts.

4. For Google, it’s not a core product

Last of all, from Google’s perspective, Reader just isn’t a core product. When Larry Page took over the reins he was clear in his intention to strip away anything that was deemed non-critical. Some may argue that he hasn’t held to this completely - what with the driverless cars and Google Glasses still on the agenda – but there’s no doubt he has performed some spring cleaning.

The fact is that Google Reader does not add anything to search. It doesn’t provide contextual information like Google+, it just exists on the periphery. It’s user base may be loyal, but that’s no reason for a business to continue with a product.

All Things D technology reporter, Liz Gannes, also added that the issues around Reader’s shutdown may be linked to privacy and compliance, but this is unconfirmed by Google.

Google Reader – it doesn’t really matter after all

Google Reader may have been held dear by it’s power users, but I suspect – personally – that your average internet user will not mourn (or even be aware of) its passing. The internet is not static, it’s not the same even from hour to hour, and the way we interact with information will – and must – change with it.

For those that do want to stay with the “Reader experience”, they can still have it, but I will happily move on to something more visual, more interactive, and more engaging.

From product to platform (why Hipster sucks and Contently doesn’t)

Contently versus Hipster

What makes a successful product? It’s the question that people all over the world try to answer, day after day, month after month, year after year. And not just in the technology sector. But at the moment, it’s the technology sector that should be looking hard at itself. The last two years have seen a few so called ‘products’ garner heavy investment from venture capitalists, when, in reality, there has been very little to invest in. Color raised $13 million in Series A funding in 2010, only to fail with its ‘revolutionary’ take on social photo sharing. Hipster had more technology press coverage than if the Pope got caught in a girl’s school gym locker, only to underwhelm massively on launch (yes, they were bought by AOL last week, but since when did AOL make something work?) Jason Freedman’s post from the 8th April highlights some of these issues, and this from the perspective of the start-up.

That’s not to say that there is anything wrong with failing. The ability to companies to ‘pivot‘ their products shows an agility and a will to succeed that is admirable; it is a lesson we should all learn. Both Color and Hipster have done this, but I think we should ask some serious questions when we see the amount of money invested in these products.

What does make a successful product?

Facebook logoThe true measure of success is to make the transition from product to platform, that’s where the real money is. On a day that saw Facebook ready itself for a May 2012 $5 billion IPO, we can see the real effect of this transition. Facebook has made the jump from a standalone social network – if that’s not a oxymoron – to a platform upon which many other brands and products depend. From social reading apps to gaming, Facebook facilitates sharing and communication; it provides the infrastructure behind the social in the same way as switches and routers are the infrastructure behind the internet.

They’re not alone in making this transition. Here are some other examples:

Amazon

Amazon started off selling books, plain and simple. But it has evolved into the shopping platform. The introduction of Amazon Marketplace, giving other sellers the ability to sell directly through Amazon to its userbase, was the turning point. Amazon no longer has to source all its goods – although it still does – as it can generate revenue from the transactions that flow through its shopping platform.

iTunes

Steve Jobs took a different approach when building iTunes – he started with the device, the iPod, and used it as the basis for building a closed infrastructure for purchasing music, TV and films. It’s not an open infrastructure in the way Amazon or Steam is, but due to the ubiquity of Apple devices (phones, music players, tablets, laptops or desktop), it doesn’t need to be. Now, being on iTunes is essential for content producers.

Steam

Steam started with Half-Life, the smash-hit game from Valve. Following the hug success of the first game and its expansions, the sequel was launched with the Steam platform baked in: installing Half-Life installed Steam. The reaction wasn’t great at the time, but it was a shrewd move. It’s large initial userbase meant that Valve could now use its platform to deliver games from other publishers, taking that all important percentage cut. This in turn has allowed Valve to innovate: the platform funds game development, including hits such as Portal 2, and allows new business model, such as the one found in Team Fortress 2. Team Fortress went free to play last year, but has its own in-game (in-Steam) marketplace where players can buy additional content (yet another revenue stream). In 2009, Steam was estimated to have 70% of the digital games distribution market.

Google

And of course there is Google. Google’s control of the search marketplace has enabled it to create the most powerful ad platform in the world.

Hipster and Contently

So why does Hipster suck? Simply because they went to market with something that can never make this transition. The ability to create postcards doesn’t make for a platform, just an interesting application of existing technologies. Hipster was built only to be a talent or IP sell – short-term.

And why doesn’t Contently? I believe that Contently has found a niche will allow it to transition – albeit in a limited fashion. In an environment where content is becoming more and more important, Contently is positioning itself as the glue between the content makers and content consumers. By putting writers in direct contact with publishers, they creating a commercial relationship that has legs. If they develop it in the right way – thinking of themselves as representing all groups of content producers, not just writers – they have the opportunity to be come a pivotal service in the new content economy. For me, that’s admirable.

Whether Hipster or Contently are successful in the long-run, only time will tell, but I know who I’m supporting.

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When 5000 followers isn’t enough: the future of Twitter

Twitter Bird

Around 2 o’clock in the afternoon UK time, America gets online.

I have no need for a clock. I know it is around 2 o’clock because my Twitter feed suddenly goes apes**t. I see it accelerate exponentially over the course of a few minutes. I can no quicker press the ‘(x) new tweets’ banner to refresh the page, than it appears again.

I follow only 200 people (give or take a few).

Which leads me to wonder what your Twitter feed must be like if you follow 5,000 people. Or even 10,000? I daren’t imagine.

At this point in time, I can only see two reasons why you would follow 5,000 people:

  1. You are hell bent on gathering a massive following yourself. And you are following people in the vain hope that they will follow back[1].
  2. You have the latest cyber-implant from Sarif Industries which allows you to directly upload and pre-process Twitter’s firehose feed into your brain, so it’s no issue.

The end result of this is always the same, an unmanageable torrent of content. How are we supposed to make anything of this? How is it in anyway ‘useful’? Surely following a small number of people whose opinions and judgement you respect and value would be a better way to go? Yes, you’ll miss out on a few links here and there, but the majority of information you get will be useful to you.

However, there are opportunities lurking in the large datasets that Twitter is home to.

Twitter’s opportunity

Let’s face it; having a constructive conversation over Twitter is about as easy as playing pat-a-cake with your arms cut off. But what Twitter does do very well is facilitate the sharing of content. Even back in September 2010, a whole year ago, Twitter was sending 22.5 million tweets containing links.

Twitter Trending Topics
Twitter's Trending Topics in the UK (22/11/2011)

Twitter’s Trending Topics (TTs) are a fairly feeble attempt at uncovering the trends within their dataset, and suffer from being self-referential; as soon as a topic starts to trend, it immediately trends more as people start to investigate it and as the Twitter spam accounts start broadcasting tweets that simply repeat the TTs. They do nothing but scratch the surface of what is possible.

TTs incorrectly focus on common words and hashtags, instead of looking at something much more valuable: what people are sharing. Twitter could be seen as a content producer in some (limited) ways, but its value lies in its ability to distribute content quickly to large numbers of people. And it is here that the opportunity lies.

Social content

By mining its data stores, Twitter can understand the most popular content at any one time, across the whole network, by country, or even within our own sphere of interest.

Imagine a Twitter where we could see the most influential content available, ranked and ready for our attention. Suddenly, following 5,000 or even 10,000 people is not an issue, because we are being presented with the salient data from those people without having to wade through every tweet.

Twitter has enough data to be able to do this. It can provide its users with targeted and valuable content because:

  1. They know who we follow and who follows us
  2. They know what we have shared in the past (first tweet and retweeting)
  3. They know who we engage with most regularly, either through DMs or open tweets.
  4. They know what content is being shared (even that which is obfuscated behind URL shorteners)

From this they can provide us with a new view based on content relevancy and social importance. Alongside our standard view, of course, because this isn’t about either/or, it’s about augmenting what we have with a layer of intelligence.

Twitter always argued that they don’t want to lose the simplicity of the product, but by enhancing the third party tools that people use to access Twitter they can have the best of both worlds.With the purchase of Tweetdeck earlier this year, and with the greater control it is now exercising over the third-party applications that work with the service, Twitter is now well positioned to take advantage of the opportunity. As in, right now.

One step further – Goodbye Google Ripples, Goodbye Klout?

No, not really…   but kind of.

Google Ripples is an experimental visualisation of how a piece of content is shared, emanating from the source like the titular ripples from a stone thrown into water. It enables you to see how content moves through your social ecosystem and provides valuable insight to marketers. But compared to Twitter in terms of the amount of content, it’s a minnow. Imagine seeing ripples for Twitter; they could do that right now.

Klout purports to be the standard for measuring influence across the web. It’s going through a little bit of a sticky patch right now due to a change in the way it works (although I’m not complaining. my score went up from 45 to 69), but it could get a lot worse. Its weakness is that it measures from the outside and only has access to a limited set of information from each of the networks it interfaces with. Twitter has access to everything you do on their platform, so could easily understand who is producing content and how it is being shared. If it is true that Klout base their scores heavily on your primary network, why have a Klout score if you could have an ‘official’ Twitter ranking that shows the true value of the content you produce? They could do this right now.

Opportunities, opportunities

Twitter hasn’t ever had a problem with its product, but it has always had a problem with understanding what its business is.  As one of the principle ‘big data’ companies, now is the time to start making more of its most valuable asset. Content suggestion and referral, arm-in-arm with their nascent advertising model, could be a powerful product.


[1] The sad fact of this is that there are many people out there who profess to ‘Always follow back’. Quite why you would offer to follow someone back without at least looking at their content first, I don’t know.

This article is also available at , also available at Business2Community.

Google +1 and Facebook Like – two sides of the same coin?

Yesterday, Google launched its +1 button, an attempt to make search more social by using your friend’s recommendations to influence and enhance search results. At a basic level, the +1 button allows you to ‘+1′ information available on the web, indicating that you have found it useful in some way and that you recommend it to others.

How much this will affect search results remains to be seen. I must admit to being vaguely sceptical about its effectiveness. After all, there are billions of pages on the web and the chances of your friends +1′ing the same information you then discover via a search seems a little small. Of course, this is a slight simplification, +1 results will be also be used to give context to the popularity of a page – a more human Google PageRank. But then this is no longer your friend’s recommendation, but the wisdom of the crowds. Will it have the same effect? Possibly not.

Google +1 might be likened to the Facebook ‘Like’button; on the surface it seems to perform the same function. But, no, it’s not the same. And the reasons why provide illumination on the challenges that Google faces.

I’m sure most of us are familiar with the phrase ‘go where the fishes are’. On the whole, our friends don’t exist in Google, they exist in Facebook. Where as Facebook is a destination, Google is the map. Clicking a Facebook ‘Like’ button shares your preferences with a captive audience in a central place, encouraging comments, and building conversations and engagement.  +1′ing a page puts your preferences out in the ether, waiting to be discovered. Oh, and only if you have a ‘standard’ Google account; Google Apps users, you’ll just have to wait until Google Profiles works with Google Apps. For all the traffic and advertising revenue Google generates, it doesn’t have the close relationship with its audience that Facebook does, and in the end it may cost them dear.

Google’s ex-CEO, Eric Schmidt, admitted on stage at All Things Digital’s conference that Google had failed on social:

[Schmidt] repeatedly fell on his sword about missing the social/ identity revolution. He said four years ago he wrote memos about it, but did nothing about the memos he wrote. “I clearly knew I had to do something and I failed to do it,” he said. When asked why he responeded he was “busy, but the CEO should take responsibility and I screwed up.”

+1 is part of the long journey back towards social for Google, but the question has to be: ‘Is too little too late?’

What is… Groupon

Now that the dust has settled, and the hyperbole surrounding Groupon’s growth has subsided, we can now take an objective look at the service it provides. Here’s a 5-minute guide – or at least a 5-ish paragraph guide – to Groupon.

What is Groupon?

Groupon LogoGroupon is a collective buying service. Put simply, it offers discounts on products and services which only become valid once a set number of consumers buy into them. The numbers required may change, as will the amount of discount you get, but the principle remains the same: once enough people buy, the discount becomes active and everyone benefits. Consumers get the discount and businesses have the peace of mind that they have generated new customers and have enough take-up to make the offer pay off.

Sounds great in principle

And so it is. However, businesses need to be careful when they construct their offers. In January, a Japanese café was inundated with buyers for the traditional New Year’s meal “osechi”, leaving them unable to meet demand and leading to disappointment. Predictably, complaints were widely posted on the Internet. Usually, Groupon provides advice to businesses to stop this happening, but due to their rapid growth, the Japanese employees had not yet been trained to provide this service.

How did it get so big, so fast?

Groupon was launched in the US in November 2008, and its growth since then has been outstanding. It now covers over 565 cities around the world and has seen its web traffic grow from just 2 million unique visitors per month to over 15 million (source: Crunchbase). Annual revenue is around $2 billion. They are the market leader in the group-buying category by some distance.

In December 2010, they turned down a $6 billion offer from Google, a defiant move that shows the confidence they have in the marketplace and in the group-buying concept. This was after turning down approximately $2 billion from Yahoo in October 2010.

Their growth has been fueled by a mixture of acquisitions (Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Phillipines and Taiwan), aggressive IP protection (MobGob), partnerships (eBay, Ning) and smart deals (Gap). But also, and in some ways more importantly, they’ve come to the fore at the right time, catching the zeitgeist for the hyper-local service.

Zeitgeist… ?

As I’ve written before, following globalisation is localisation. The rise of mobile devices and geo-location technologies has led to a upsurge of interest in creating personalised web experiences. Service providers from search engines to advertisers are using these technologies to get closer to consumers, offering them more targeted information. And while pure online spend may be rising, connecting consumers with local businesses will always generate good return as that’s currently where the majority of our spend takes place.

FourSquare is also based around these principles, but works the other way around to Groupon. Rather than introducing new customers to a business, it rewards consumers for their loyalty, with regular customers earning greater rewards. Using the two services together could provide a strong basis for generating and retaining consumers.

Shoppers queuing at a till
Groupon makes the queues a little more bearable (Credit: George Yi)

Does it have any value for B2B Marketers?

There’s no doubt that Groupon started out as a pure B2C proposition. It’s perfect for lower-value, impulse-led purchases, but it may well hold value for B2B organisations as well, even though the decision-making process is much slower. March saw the first B2B deals being made available, led by IT consulting firm Ajilitee. Their daily deal offered 50% off $25,000 of consulting and proved a great success for them, not in direct sales but as a demand generation tool. Although Groupon would prefer deals to demand, this has led to Groupon putting more resource behind B2B deals through Groupon Stores and redemption-tracking software.

Despite its market-leading position, the future isn’t completely clear for Groupon. It must continue to provide relevant offers and not become a home for drab low-value voucher code discounts, and it also faces competition from Living Social. However, it’s size and stature should keep it ahead of the game in the B2C space.

And B2B? Only time will tell whether B2B collective buying services will be successful, but (excuse the pun) they should certainly not be discounted.

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And the winner is…

Trophy

There have been hundreds of articles covering ‘predictions’ for 2011, most of them listing 10 or 20 ‘big’ topics. That’s a lot, so I’m going to try and make it a little easier on you and just talk about one thing.

“And the winner of the award for Breakthrough Service of 2011 is…” *hushed silence*

“…the company that can simplify the mass of stuff that is my online life!” *applause and tearful acceptance speech*

As I’ve covered before, the way that people use the internet evolves over time. This includes the type of information we transfer over the internet, the type of activities we do on the internet, and the way we access the internet. And the upshot of these changes?

Chaos.

I’ll stand up as an example. I’ve got Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Skype, Live Messenger, Google Talk, Mozilla Weave, Online banking (sorry, no specifics on that one) and other services. I’ve also got RSS feeds, work email, and the whole plethora of other sites that I use on a less regular basis. It takes a lot of tracking. Of course, for different people, the amount of their life spent online will vary, but, over time, I think we can be fairly certain that it will grow as the internet becomes more engrained in all walks of life.

There is a massive opportunity awaiting the company that can create order from this chaos.

The process of pulling these individual services together into a more meaningful and useful form is convergence. Convergence happens naturally in all industries as products or services mature towards a de facto standard, but the rate of innovation on the internet is so rapid that we are seeing very little of this.

How does this get resolved?

The key to addressing the issue lies in two areas: filtering and semantics.

  1. Filters provide the means to sort the important information from the unimportant, reducing the amount of information we are receiving. This will include social links (am I connected the sender in some way), past interactions (is this source of information one that I regularly communicate with), previous behaviour (do I tend to consume information from this source), amongst others.
  2. Semantics will allow automated systems to understand the relationship between items of data – messages, tweets, articles and others – so that they can be effectively categorised. Bundling information in this way will allow us to navigate the complex set of information more easily, and prioritise individual information sets. (There’s also a big opportunity to use this to understand the more serendipitous relationships between the information we acquire, but that’s another subject in itself)

A consumer-focused system that can successfully do this, that can sort the signals from the noise, make order out of chaos, will find themselves a real niche in the technology market and acquired before they can click their fingers.

Who is doing it now?

Not many. And where they are it’s only first steps, combining data types are very closely related already; in a previous post – Making sense of it all – I looked at a few examples of where this is being attempted in the messaging space, including Facebook Messages. Outside of this, there are only the content aggregators. Sites that collect information, but don’t apply any intelligence to the content they process.

FriendFeed was one of the more successful content aggregators, but the issue is that it simply collects into information a single place.  Although this saves me time – I don’t have to visit as many sites – it just creates a bigger pile of information to deal with.

It is the next generation of this type of service that will really change the way that we deal with information.

Where does the next generation service come from?

The usual suspects are lining up; both Facebook and Google have the required building blocks:

  1. Huge audiences for their products
  2. Massive reach – through OpenID and OpenGraph – into 3rd party information streams

Personally, I think Google has the slight advantage at the moment, due to their IP around search and there algorithmic culture, but the ongoing brain drain to Facebook will hinder this. Facebook also has the advantage of thinking more socially; it’s their core business and everything they do has that at its centre. Google doesn’t do this instinctively, and is still catching up.

But you never know, maybe a start-up will come along and be the next big thing? I hope so, and soon.

Right, back to sorting out my emails.

Making sense of it all – Part 1: the consumer

Wasn’t it nice in the days before social networking, before intelligent spam filters and privacy concerns? You could just send out a few thousand emails and watch them land on the virtual desks of the people in your bought list. Everything was so much simpler then, there was even the slight possibility that someone might open your email and take a look because they didn’t have 500 emails sitting permanently in their inbox, looking for a home.

Okay, I’m being facetious, but there’s no denying that our job as marketers have got more difficult in the last few years, and it’s going to get worse.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the consumer, it shouldn’t be difficult, as let’s not forget, we’re consumers too.

In this digital world we have more information than we could possibly ever want. Whether it’s videos to watch – 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute on YouTube – or articles to read – 25% of all tweets contain links and your average user receives approximately 40 tweeted links per day – we are flooded with information. Some of it will be important and some of it will be rubbish, but the challenge remains to be able to filter the good from the bad.

Automatic priorotisation of your messages
Image taken from Google's video introducing Google Priority Inbox

As a result of this information glut, especially the glut of messages, companies such as Google and Facebook are starting to introduce technology to help their customers manage their inbox.

Google Priority Inbox works out which mail is important to you using a combination of factors, including if how often you’ve emailed the sender before, Whether you have opened messages from the sender before (or just deleted them), whether the email contains keywords similar to those in emails you have read previously, and finally, whether you’ve replied to them before. Message that it deems are important get given priority billing at the top of your inbox, pushing unimportant mails down into the main bulk of email. Users can help train the system using the ‘Important’ and ‘Not Important’ buttons. Interestingly, early figures are showing that, on average, users are spending 15% less time each day reading email, and a significant 43% more time reading important mail compared to unimportant. These figures are compared to Google Mail users who haven’t enabled Priority Inbox, but they still give an insight as to how reading habits will change.

Facebook Messages is yet to roll out, but is grabbing a lot of attention. Their approach is to combine all communications into a single conversational view, so that email, chat and SMS all appear side by side. Using this paradigm, all messages would appear side-by-side in a single fluid conversation. For the user it’s a simple experience, for Facebook it’s a great lock-in tool. A key element of Messages is the ability to filter incoming messages, in much the same way as Google Priority inbox. However, Facebook has the added advantage of being able to see which senders you are friends with by looking directly at your friends list, not just your previous activity. Any messages received from sources outside this list get automatically moved to a separate folder that isn’t visible by default, and in some cases, will be automatically bounced back to the sender.

In the desktop space, Microsoft has included their Outlook Social Connector built in to Outlook 2010 (although it also works in 2007 and 2003). This add-on connects your Outlook to your social media accounts, and supports Facebook, LinkedIn and others. Although this is currently used simply to add contextual information to your contacts, it’s a simple jump for Microsoft to start using this information to prioritise and filter your email based on your relationship to the sender.

Although these technologies are all in relative infancy at the moment, there is no doubt that they will improve, and the fundamental idea behind them – that your social circle, personal and business, is the most important group with which you communicate – will be realised more effectively.

A few days ago, a B2BM Blog posed the question: Email is dead, email is not dead, arrgh! Which is it? Well, it’s neither. As with all things, it evolves over time. Communication systems that were once distinct (telephone, IM, Email, SMS) are merging, through the use of portals such as Facebook, Google and Outlook, into a single communication system. And with that convergence the rules that govern those systems will also merge.

So, as marketers, where does this leave us?

Put simply, we are going to have to make friends. Moving forward, to maximise our ability to engage and communicate with our customers across all touch points, we must become part of their social circle, and that will require a very different approach. Social Media will have to take the lead as we become more responsive, more personal and, ultimately, more human in our marketing activity. Those brands that can pull consumers to them (rather than push at them) will find themselves well set, taking on the affectations of web celebrity and gathering followers around them. Hopefully creating a strong group of brand advocates.

That’s enough for now. In part 2, I’ll look at how we can manage our clients growing social landscapes effectively and harness the relationships we build.