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Rocking social media on Road Trip 2009

Wherein the author turns to the experts to learn how to best utilize Internet-based tools to expand, and maintain, an audience for his annual CNET Road Trip project.

Road Trip 2008 included a stop at the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky. Road Trip 2009 will feature visits to factories, as well as to Air Force Space Command, the Badlands, the Firefighters Challenge, and much more. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Dear readers: I want you. And I want you to stay.

For each of the past three summers, I've spent some time on the road, driving around different regions of the United States, reporting on some of the most interesting destinations I could find, and road-testing some of the coolest gear around. The CNET Road Trip has taken me through 17 states (and one Canadian province) in the Pacific Northwest (2006), the Southwest (2007), and the Southeast (2008).

The trips have been hits, but I have struggled to organically build an audience throughout each journey. Rather, it seems most people have tended to come across a story they liked, read it, and then left.

For Road Trip 2009, which will take me through Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota, I want not just to get you here, but to give you as many reasons as I can to stay. And that, I'm learning, means being much more proactive in keeping you engaged.

To be sure, the heart of what I'll be offering up will be a steady flow of feature stories and photo galleries from places like NORAD, Yellowstone National Park, a unique Mars research program, an innovative Wyoming wind farm, the highest paved road in North America, and much more. But I know there has to be more than that. And the tools at my disposal are powerful, yet complex.

With that in mind, I asked four power social-media users for tips on how to make Road Trip 2009 a regular destination for a sizable audience. And if one thing became clear afterward, it's that I need to step it up and do a lot more personal outreach than I've ever done before.

Very busy days
Not to make excuses for my past lackluster social-media usage, but let me give a little context for how these trips work: Each day, I wake up in a new motel and quickly rush off to an appointment. I spend the late morning and early afternoon reporting, and then usually drive several hours to the next town. I eat something and then I write and process photos for a few hours. Then I go to sleep. Repeat. For several weeks.

Sadly, this hasn't allowed much time for things like meet-ups. But to hear my expert panel tell it, I need to get beyond that, and just embrace meet-ups. Or tweet-ups, if they're organized on Twitter, as many are these days.

"I'm a huge fan of the tweet-up," said Laura Roeder, a social-media consultant. "I just moved to Los Angeles...from Chicago. I've met so many of my friends through Twitter and through tweet-ups."

And despite my limited amount of available time, Chris Heuer, co-founder of the Social Media Club, says tweet-ups don't have to take all that long.

"Say, 'I'm going to be here at this place, from 6 to 7," advised Heuer. "Or have readers come and meet you and (organize the tweet-up) for you."

I also told Heuer that another element of my Road Trips has traditionally involved road-testing a number of high-tech products, and that this year is no different. Among the products I'll have with me this time are an Apple MacBook Pro and iPhone 3G S, a LiveScribe Pulse recording pen, an Amazon Kindle 2, a Verizon MiFi and more. I'll also be driving a "clean diesel" Audi Q7 TDI.

Heuer said that given that, one good way to get people to come out to the meet-ups would be to bring the technology along with me so that people could check out all the gear for themselves.

Of course, not everyone is a big fan of the meet-up. I asked Boing Boing's Xeni Jardin what she thought of them, and she explained that she has tended to skip such gatherings on her many reporting journeys around the world. Largely, it seemed, she didn't feel that meeting up with readers added all that much to the overall experience, though she did say she organized a couple of them in Latin America recently.

Still, it's clear that doing meet-ups is a natural way to energize local audiences--and Heuer suggested that even if it's only local audiences at first, getting them interested in the trip, and the trip's themes, will have a snowball effect as they tweet and blog about coming together with me and other readers.

Among the many tools CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman plans to use to build an audience for his Road Trip 2009 project is Twellow, which allows anyone to search for Twitter users by city. Twellow

I wondered, though, about how to get people in the cities and towns I'll be visiting interested in meeting up in the first place. And Heuer suggested using sites like Twellow, which allow you to find Twitter users by geography. Then, by interacting with some of the most popular Twitterers in each area, it's possible to engage them in helping to promote a gathering.

To Facebook, or not to Facebook
I wondered if Facebook would be a good way to organize the get-togethers, but found that, despite the social network's incredible success, the experts I talked to were mixed about its utility for this specific purpose.

"I honestly find Facebook a lot less useful than Twitter," said Roeder. "Twitter is much easier for more fluid, instant communications....I tell my (business clients) not to even worry about Facebook. To me, the core difference is that Twitter is all about meeting new people, and a lot of people don't use Facebook that way."

Heuer, on the other hand, said he'd actually turn to Facebook first, since the site's reach can be huge, and it offers specific tools for events. Clearly, the answer is to post meet-ups on both Twitter and Facebook, and hope that the two combined can create an echo effect.

Of course, I'm already using Facebook to some extent. I'm not afraid to admit that I'm a rank amateur when it comes to the massively popular social network. But a couple months ago, I started a Road Trip 2009 fan page. The response has been moderate, but not that bad, given that I haven't posted any new content to the page since then. But that is about to change. This story, for example, will be the first new post there, and every new piece of Road Trip content will appear there, as well.

That is, if I can be disciplined. Heuer cautioned against dropping the ball when it comes to utilizing Facebook. "The most important thing there is staying on top of it," he said, "and not dropping it after you start."

I agree. And we'll see how it goes.

Finding themes
One of the first people I talked to about expanding the reach of Road Trip was the futurist Jerry Paffendorf. An organizer of the Metaverse Roadmap Project, a very early Electric Sheep employee and generally a visionary thinker, Paffendorf asked me how I thought all the various destinations on the trip were tied together.

To date, I'd been thinking of the trip as concentrating on three major themes--environmental and energy research, military and defense, and America's natural wonders.

But Paffendorf said I needed to find a way to tie everything together, and that perhaps turning to my readers to help with that would be a good way to build an audience. He suggested asking readers, via the Road Trip blog, or on Facebook or Twitter, to suggest questions to ask the people I interview at each destination. That, he said, might create a dynamic where readers begin to feel like they're coming "on the trip" with me. So it's, "We're going to go on the road," not I'm going on the road.

Paffendorf also told me about a really cool project Flickr had done not long ago, commissioning a company called Uncommon Projects to build them a series of bikes complete with cameras that automatically take, geotag, and upload pictures on the go. It seemed like that would be a great addition to the car I'd be driving, especially since I'll be driving through some of the most beautiful country in the United States.

Unfortunately, after talking with Uncommon Projects, I discovered that commissioning something like that would cost several thousand dollars--money I don't have.

What I do have, however, is a bag full of things to give away to readers, things like Flip video cameras, Showtime DVD sets, and a series of video games. I can imagine handing them out to people at meet-ups, or to people who suggest the best things to go visit in a certain town, or maybe who offer the best question to ask my host at a military installation or national park. Or maybe I can offer a chance to have your picture posted on my blog, live, with awe-inspiring natural beauty as a backdrop, far from any normally available Internet signal. I want to get readers excited, and I want to give back to them for their attention.

Boing Boing's Jardin, for her part, said that when that popular tech culture blog has given away things like iPhones or iPod Touches, people have indeed gotten excited about the contests.

"People get jazzed about cool stuff," Jardin said. "But it's not just the device that's going to get them excited. The device is part of it, but so is the experience....(Giveaways) will pique their interest, but you have to have other stuff going on."

And, dear readers, that is something I feel very confident about. I may have a lot to learn about utilizing social media to build an audience, but at the very least, Road Trip 2009 will offer you an intriguing picture of some of the best that America has to offer.

On June 21, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.