Brand journalism can be a good thing but requires transparency

News broke yesterday that Verizon was starting up its own tech-news site, a venture meant to compete (theoretically) with the likes of Wired and others that would also position Verizon as a thought-leader in the space. After all, that’s the end goal of all such brand content programs where the scope expands beyond that of company-specific news: To be an influential voice in the industry conversation.

But there was a hitch. As repotted by The Daily Dot, the online magazine, StringSearch.com, would be actively avoiding the topics of U.S. government surveillance of its citizens and net neutrality, two topics Verizon has an active interest in, or at least stories that Verizon is often the subject of.

As the story points out, Verizon is hardly the first to get into the brand journalism game and certainly won’t be the last. Companies are producing media (beyond just a corporate blog and social media program) right and left that rivals trade publications in some regards. And they’re not the first to turn an intentional blind eye to issues that paint them in less than a stellar light.

(later update: Verizon has tried to walk this back, but not very successfully)

As this story in the Columbia Journalism Review points out, “brand journalism” is the result of internal comms people and other consultants smelling an opportunity in the wake of so many *actual* media newsrooms experiencing severe cutbacks. But this isn’t just a void being filled, it’s a beachhead being secured by the brands who get to cut out that whole “objectivity” thing.

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This sort of media production by brands is usually labeled as a bad thing that’s harmful to the common interest. Indeed you can even see my bias toward that point of view here, though I realize it’s not always a black and white issue. at least it doesn’t need to be, but that would require the brands doing the production of these outlets to be proactive in their approach.

The biggest hurdle to get over is that of transparency and the realization that they can’t just ignore the uncomfortable topics. The media world is rife with examples of an outlet having to report on itself. The example that comes to mind first is the protracted drama within the Chicago Tribune having to do with debt negotiations that resulted from the miserable era of Sam Zell’s ownership. The coverage exposed all the gritty details of how talks with shareholders were going and contained a disclosure that, of course, this was all very naval-gazing for the paper. ]

With corporate ownership of “legitimate” media now a common thing, the audience is more used to the disclaimers that “X is owned by/owns Y” than they were even 20 years ago, when this started to get seriously out of hand. So a story about, say, net neutrality can be accompanied if necessary by a statement on the company’s position on the issue and a link to read more. Ideally this should be inserted *after* the story has been reported, edited and approved free of corporate interference.

Is this all a little naive? Sure, I’ll admit that. But I think there can absolutely be a place for this sort of brand-owned media outlet to exist peacefully alongside the ones that aren’t, or which at least aren’t produced explicitly by the brand even if the chain or corporate ownership ties them together in some manner. After all, the influence of brand publishers (again, I’m referring here to those programs that go above and beyond an external-facing blog to something that’ more full like a industry zine) is just going to grow, likely at the continued expense of traditional outlets who are hampered by not just the need to cut expenses but by an arguably outdated model not just of editorial distance but also distribution and other logistics.

There’s lots brand journalism can offer to the audience. But as it gets more and more mainstream it will need to adjust in its own way, just as the more traditional media outlets will need to make their own adjustments in order to survive.

On LinkedIn: What’s the right time to jump into a new social network?

This post originally was published on LinkedIn here.

A couple weekends ago Snapchat introduced advertising to the messaging app, with Universal Pictures running ads for their horror movie Ouija. In the wake of the ad Marc Graser at Variety points out there are a lot of questions still to be answered about the effectiveness of Snapchat as a marketing or advertising platform, least of which is the lack of actual metrics (at least those that are being shared publicly) from the campaign.

But there’s a bigger related question that is common to the social media industry: How soon after a new app/site launches or becomes popular should brands jump in? This has come up time and time again, though recently with the launch of things like Ello, Facebook Rooms and…well…just about everything else that’s received the slightest bit of press and “influencer” attention.

There seem to be three primary schools of thought:

“OMG SHINY!” These are the people who are eager to see the brands they work for/with heralded in the tech press as being first movers. As soon as something launches they’re right there, regardless of how little is known about the audience there (which is likely to be negligible) or what a long-term strategy might be.

“Let’s wait and see.” These people prefer a more cautious approach, waiting until they’re more sure that the network isn’t just a flash in the pan, when there’s a bit more information about the audience make-up and when they can figure out how to sustainably create content that’s unique to that network, or at least is presented in a more interesting way for that network.

“Why do brands even need to be there?” My favorite type of skeptic (though usually I personally fall into the second category), these are the people who, when asked what the brand strategy for a network should be usually counter with “Well why do we need to be there in the first place?”

The one thing the latter two types have in common is that, above and beyond any brand-centric considerations, they want to make sure that the burgeoning community is not unduly interrupted or interfered with because a brand wants to jump in and promote their products, their blog posts etc. They want to make sure there’s a good reason for brand participation in a way that’s not only good for the brand but is respectful of the people there.

 

PNConnect Workflow

I was the subject of the latest “On Workflow” feature, part of the monthly Digital Essentials report that’s put out by some of my colleagues on the PNConnect team. So if you’ve ever wondered how I get things done and force myself away from the myriad distractions each day brings, this is the time to do so.

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Facebook says it’s not an editor, but it is a gatekeeper. And it’s one with no accountability

facebook_logo.pngIn Sunday’s New York Times, Ravi Somaiya offers the latest in a long string of stories about how Facebook is changing how people get the news.

The story opens with the usual invocation about how people don’t visit home pages any more but are instead visiting single pages. While this has been true since the advent of RSS and other technologies of the early social web it’s den more true when Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are considered.

RSS in particular was – and is – a dumb technology. It tells you exactly what to do and when to do it. Even Twitter follows a similar model, at least until it decides to implement some sort of algorithm-based feed. But Facebook is always there acting as a gatekeeper, using thousands of behind-the-scenes calculations to decide for you what you will think is important.

In Somaiya’s story, though, Facebook engineer Greg Marra offers up this quote to show a complete lack of self-awareness:

“We try to explicitly view ourselves as not editors,” he said. “We don’t want to have editorial judgment over the content that’s in your feed. You’ve made your friends, you’ve connected to the pages that you want to connect to and you’re the best decider for the things that you care about.”

The key word, I think, in that quote is “editorial” and it’s there that the entire concept of what Facebook is doing and what role it plays in the media equation hinges.

In Facebook’s world they’ve off-loaded the role of “editor,” someone who makes decisions as to what does and doesn’t get seen by the mass of people, to the News Feed algorithm. That way they get to continue to say that publishers should just publish good content and it will get to the people who want it without having to do anything to back that statement up.

“Editorial” implies value judgements and while they say they don’t want to do that, the assertion is invalidated by how they set the standards for the content that’s shared. A certain type of headline will perform well until they decide it’s become too pervasive, at which point they make a change to penalize it in the feed. So you go from “….And You Won’t Believe What Happens Next” to “Five Things You Missed In…” to incredibly condescending troll-ish headlines. And that doesn’t even get into how these networks employ teams of people to take down what’s deemed to be offensive, something that’s clearly an editorial decision.

And just like every other editor, the Facebook team’s decisions are being made based on what will benefit them most. Not to get all Old Testament, but engagement begets engagement, which begets ad revenue.

(Later Update: Jay Rosen destroys the idea that Facebook is some sort of impassive and impartial facilitator of news delivery in ways I could only dream of.)

So when, in David Carr’s accompanying NYT piece about Facebook and mobile publishing, Facebook says it may encourage publishers to build reading experiences that are solely within Facebook, publishers should take it as their cue to double-down on Google+. While Facebook says it’s all about optimizing load times and such by keeping all that data on its own servers, but what it’s actually talking about is owning the entire reader experience.

But at this point what can publishers realistically do?

Abandoning Facebook may not be a realistic solution. Too much traffic would be instantly lost and, because not everyone would do likewise, that ground would largely be ceded to a competitor. But they can do more to encourage use of those “dumb” technologies. Go back to writing for SEO, Show people how to use RSS. Do more to support the content agnostic platforms that treat everything that comes in equally, or at least isn’t so easily manipulated.

At this point Facebook is dangerous, arrogant and naive, a combination that spells trouble for publishers. The social network has been playing an extended game of “rope a dope” with the media industry for years now, And there’s almost no way out of it until a challenger comes along to know Facebook from its perch.

But there is something we as the readers can do: Switch over to “Most Recent.” See everything. Discover posts you may not have otherwise seen. And demand Facebook offer that as a perpetual option, not a decision you have to remember to make every morning. Either that or get outside the Facebook ecosystem entirely and discover new ways to get the news. Only these sorts of steps will do anything to hold the Facebook gatekeepers accountable for the decisions they’re making on your behalf, decisions based on data that could be inaccurate at best or massively off-base and potentially dangerous at worst. There’s no other system in place to get them to pay attention to how their actions are impacting the world outside of their own network.

Facebook Rooms: Anonymity at exactly the wrong time

As it’s long been expected to, Facebook finally unveiled its entry into the anonymous app market today. Dubbed “Rooms,” the standalone app does everything it can to hearken back to the early days of the web and the chat rooms that were part of the experience that followed opening Trumpet Winsock logging on via dial-up modem.

Rooms are meant to basically be anonymous chat rooms that anyone can build around any topic, inviting others through the use of QR codes that are either recognized by the app or can be printed out and scanned with the app.

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There are some customization options available and Facebook is promising more tools are coming. But the focus is on anonymity. From the introductory blog post:

That’s why in Rooms you can be “Wonder Woman” – or whatever name makes you feel most comfortable and proud. You can even create different identities for different contexts. In my room for technology industry discussions I am “Josh” but in another about backpacking travel I am “jm90403” – a homage to my hometown zip code. Sometimes I want to go with my real name and sometimes I prefer a nickname. It depends.

Again, they want to go back to the old days of the internet, when lots of people went by usernames that often bore no relation at all to their real names. You could be Wampa74 if you wanted to and fit in with everyone else who had the same sort of pseudonym.

But while Facebook has come under fire for their insistence on using real names (criticism this new app does nothing to blunt, much less defuse) this is 2014. We’re in the middle of GamerGate, where anonymous bullies (calling them “trolls” doesn’t do it justice) are causing female journalists and others to leave their homes for fear of violence and recrimination. Robin Williams’ daughter abandoned Twitter and Instagram because of the anonymous bullying she was subjected to in the wake of her father’s death. And the existing anonymous apps are coming under fire from all sides for entirely predictable reasons.

So while Facebook is trying to get a piece of the anonymous app market, it’s doing so at exactly the wrong time from the perspective of public sentiment. More than ever it’s becoming apparent that anonymity, unless it’s for a legitimate purpose involving the safety of the person or people, is something that’s being abused in ways the trolls who would try to dominate and derail message boards back in the late 90s only dreamed of. People’s entire lives are online, so when they upset one of these bad actors there’s exponentially more damage that can be done, whether online or in the real world.

Taking another perspective, I’m sure there are brand managers around the country who are twiddling their fingers and white-boarding all their ideas for how to build Rooms around their brands’ industry thought leadership, use them as a rallying point for fans and so on. But considering how the app is anonymous, the idea of turning this into a long-term viable community is minimal. There are a dozen ways to misstep here, just like there are in any sort of community effort. It’s almost a certainty, though, that within a week there will be stories about a major company trying and reporting on initial results.

Whatever the case on all these fronts, Facebook finally made good on their promise to get into this market. Now we’ll just have to see both how it pans out on some of the points I’ve raised above and, quite frankly, whether the app survives the year. Facebook has not had great luck when it comes to stand-alone apps. While this takes a very different approach to anonymous conversations than other apps it remains to be seen whether that’s enough to get people to engage in behavior that, in today’s mobile-first world, is fairly unique.

Trailers not the most-shared movie marketing videos

800px-Movie_Trailer_Preview_ScreenI think I speak for everyone when I say I’m a little shocked that trailers aren’t the most frequently shared form of movie content. That comes from a study done by UK advertising firm Unruly Media.

So what is? Funny stuff and music videos.

The study showed the people who watched those other forms of video content (presumably after having it shared with them by a friend) were much more likely to wind up buying a ticket than if they just watched a trailer.

The lesson is remarkably simple and applies to just about all marketing: Don’t be boring. Material that defies expectations is going to not only cut through the clutter more often but also resonate more strongly and create more affinity.

That’s why you see more and more actual marketing and advertising trying to mimic the sort of videos that get passed around from person to person. They want their stuff to be shared and have found a way to do it.

Evernote’s office products are a brilliant form of content marketing

I’ll admit that, while I haven’t bought any of them yet, I love the look of Evernote’s line of deck accessories. The simple lines, the look of the wood…for someone who has a weird thing about desk and other organizational items to begin with (going to The Container Store, something Robin Phillips just wrote about, used to be akin to going to Borders for me) these are the epitome of being right up my alley.

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As I read this Wired story on the products this paragraph jumped out at me:

It’s about finding ways to keep people focused on their work rather than the clutter that’s around them. With the app, Evernote has begun to strip out features and streamline how you take notes. With the market, it’s about identifying those key products that will add to the experience of working at a desktop—things like the warmth and comfort wood provides—without adding to the disorder of our harried work lives.

When we in the industry talk about “content marketing” we’re usually talking about blog posts, native advertising or something like that. “Content” is what we write, film or design for use online. The kind of “online magazine” that brands are increasingly putting out. Or the kind of thing Tumblr is encouraging brands to get on board with. But that’s a massively narrow definition.

What Evernote has done here is a fantastic example of content marketing that extends the branding/brand experience offline not just in a funny way (think of Staple’s real-live Easy button) but in a way that’s contextual with the brand. As the above quote points out, these products are absolutely in line with Evernote’s overall goal of streamlining work and workflows.

Now every retailer has branded products they want to sell you. But the choice to use them is often based on price and not brand affinity. No one feels increased loyalty to Office Max and so, because of that, buys their notebooks over another brands’. They buy them because their $.50 cheaper. The same goes for the free branded chotchkies you get at trade shows or elsewhere. Yes, they’re a form of content marketing, but there’s usually a tenuous connection at best between the item and the brand. That brain-shaped stress ball, for instance, has nothing to do with enterprise video distribution services. It’s just meant to sit there on your desk and remind you that they’re an option if you need one.

Content (while not a great word, it’s the best one available at the moment) is content, wherever you find it. And in this case Evernote has embraced part of its brand identity – functional simplicity – and extended it to a line of products that bring the company’s message into the real world. Sure, they’re most likely to appeal to Evernote users because those users have seen them in the Marketplace. But they also provide an opportunity for those enthusiast users to talk about the company/product in a new and exciting way, making it a tide that will raise all ships. Since that’s the core goal of all content marketing – use owned channels to bring a message to the audience – this absolutely fits that definition.

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