Category Archives: Content Publishing

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.

Blog usage declines among Fortune 500 companies

The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research has release its annual report on social media usage among the Fortune 500 companies.

For the first time in seven years, since 2008, the number of companies in this group with a public facing corporate blog has dropped, down to 31% from 2013’s peak level of 34%. That could be the beginning of a trend, it could just signal a momentary dip…it’s unclear based on the data in the story. But it does hint that fewer companies (3% translates to 15 brands) are adopting a hub and spoke content marketing strategy since, if they don’t have a blog then the odds of them having the necessary hub is much lower.

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Of the most-used social networks, LinkedIn has the highest adoption rate, with 97% of the companies in this group operating pages there. The fact that it’s higher than Facebook (80%) or Twitter (83%), which may be slightly surprising until you consider that other studies consistently show the B2B industry is much more likely to find value on LinkedIn than they would on other networks that are more attuned to a general consumer audience.

Growth on Pinterest in the last year has been significant, jumping from 9% last year to 36% in 2014 as brands gravitate toward that network. While the report doesn’t spell it out exactly like this, it’s easy to assume that’s largely because Pinterest does not require connection to a larger publishing. By that I mean a retailer can actively post to and participate on Pinterest without having a blog or other outpost, they can just populate their boards with products from their online shop and so on. Even Instagram, for all its hype, didn’t see that kind of growth. And neither did Foursquare, which in 2014 has five times the corporate usage it did last year.

Meanwhile Google+ stands out for, as the study says, having a large number of open but inactive accounts, likely the result of Google+ being (until recently) a requirement when creating other Google accounts. This may also be brands claiming names/URLs without a clear strategy or reason to be on Google+, something that’s been a reality for quite a while.

Two Tragedies, Two Opportunities to Reconsider Social Media Publishing

People were stunned Tuesday afternoon when news broke that Robin Williams had, by his own hand, passed away. That includes myself. Williams was a huge talent and an incredibly loved and influential comedian, actor and person.

As the afternoon more and more people in the “Social Media Marketing” wing of Twitter particularly came out with their opinion that, in the wake of the tragedy, brands should pause their social publishing programs. While I certainly see their point, I disagreed. Williams’ death was certainly sudden and Twitter was filled with an outpouring of emotion over it, but in my opinion it didn’t rise to the level where brands appear incredibly insensitive and tone-deaf with their scheduled updates. There was nothing inappropriate about continuing to publish at that time like there is when there’s a shooting at a school, a bomb goes off somewhere in the U.S. or something similarly massive happens. It’s hard calculus, and I certainly respected differing opinions, but this didn’t meet the necessary criteria to make that recommendation.

(Note that if we paused every time a bomb goes off elsewhere in the world no brands would ever tweet again until the second coming of Christ himself. We also differentiate between shootings. 12 people could be killed in Chicago over this weekend and every brand in America would continue to publish without a second thought.)

After watching on Twitter as events unfolded in Ferguson, MO last night, though, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the situation *there* does cross that threshold.

Think about it: Right now in an American city – one just 275 miles from my front door – there are police confronting unarmed citizens with riot gear, including long-range rifles, tear gas and more. That’s really happening. Journalists are being taken to prison, peaceful protestors are being tear-gassed and more.

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(image via @chicagotribune)

Imagine if brands took a stand and said, “In light of the actions happening in Ferguson, MO we are taking a break from our social media marketing. When we feel the situation has been resolved, or there’s a clear path that’s being taken to that resolution, we will resume regular posts. Until then, our thoughts are with the people of Ferguson.”

Now that might sound like crazy talk. Take a stand on a public issue that has little to nothing to do with a company’s business? That’s nuts and this shouldn’t impact marketing one way or the other, right? But that’s exactly what brands and companies are doing everyday with issues like birth control, same-sex marriage and a host of other social issues.

Just like taking a stand on same-sex marriage shows companies attempting to convey human emotions and take a stand against what is the status quo, doing so around the events of Ferguson would be a showing that they’re not blind to the events around them, events that are, on many levels, hard to believe.

I’ll admit I’m not ready to make this call myself just yet. It’s so outside the norm that I’m still hesitant to recommend what I’ve outlined above. But it’s something that’s growing and growing in the back of my mind and, if things aren’t resolved there soon, I may work up the nerve to at least try to lead by example.

Facebook Reach (Or You Can’t Have the Glengarry Leads)

facebook_logo.pngBrian Boland, who leads the Ads Product Marketing team at Facebook, has published a very interesting and much discussed piece on the Facebook Business Blog about the decrease in organic reach most brand publishers have been, are and will be seeing for their posts.

Boland lays the fault for that dropping reach at the feet of two things: First, there’s more content being produced than ever before and Second, this is actually how the News Feed is supposed to work, pulling out what it deems to be important – or of value – and showing it off while hiding other posts. He specifically denies that reach is being throttled in an effort to encourage companies to buy ads to boost that reach.

We’ve no choice but to take Boland at his word. But there are several points at which it’s easy to contest what he says here:

First, for most brands (at least in my experience) the falloff wasn’t a gradual thing; It was sudden. One month everything was running at a certain level and the next the bottom fell all the way out. That’s not because 300% more people were posting and fighting for New Feed position than they were the month before. That’s because *something* about the algorithm changed and it directly impacted how brands were doing business.

Second, it’s a bit hard to take his initial statements about organic reach *not* being tied to a desire for ad revenue when the entire second half of the post is filled with examples and stories about how buying ads is the smart play for brands who actually want to reach people. It’s a bit like being told “No, you won’t die unless I amputate your leg. But let me tell you the 17 reasons amputating your leg is the only way you’ll live.”

But the part that sticks out for me most is that this is business as usual for Facebook, that they’re just doing what they should be doing. Which is fine, right up to the point where you realize the following:

They’re telling you what should or shouldn’t be important to you.

Put all the social media strategy concerns aside for a moment and think of how monumental that is. We’ve not only ceded control of what we see to Facebook (and others) but we’ve given up the ability to, on any level, make value designations for ourselves. And we’ve done this out of a sense of it being more convenient this way.

Facebook has often tried to compare itself to a newspaper, which often makes that same sort of decision-making. This or that story does make it into the paper (you can also use the analogy of a TV or radio broadcast if you life) and some don’t. Those decisions are out of the control of the reader and in the hands of someone else – a gatekeeper to use the vernacular – whose job it is to rank stories in order of importance. After a certain point there’s no more room for them.

But that analogy falls apart for me when you realize that Facebook is not the one producing the news, a term that’s loose enough to include everything from your aunt’s picture of her flowers to updates from your favorite retailer to a story from CNN about the federal budget. It’s the platform on which many news producers – again, using a fairly broad definition of the word – distribute their material.

So it’s not a newspaper, simply doing what it does. It’s more like a television set – the actual physical appliance – deciding what shows you can and can’t watch based on some unseen algorithm that allows for no override when you, the viewer, realize it’s not doing what you want it to.

It’s in that sense that Facebook, I think, needs to stop acting like a newspaper and we all stop thinking that “well that’s just how it works” is a legitimate rationale.

Instead it needs to act more like a newspaper stand, allowing for indiscriminate access to whatever material the audience would like and allowing each member of that audience to set their own priorities. X person wants this, Y person wants that and it’s up to them decide. And if they want everything – the proverbial firehose – that’s their choice as well.

To do that Facebook would need to stop basing an individual’s News Feed on each individual piece of content or the activity of others in someone’s network and start giving each user more control at the Page level. Let me mark This Page as a Tier 1, where I see everything they publish, this one as Tier 2 where I only see some of what’s published and so on.

*This* would be Facebook acting more like a neutral delivery platform than anything they’ve done before. Which of course means it likely won’t happen.

For brand publishers there’s some serious debating that needs to happen about what’s more valuable for them: Encouraging fans to consume content in the News Feed, where exposure is a dicey proposition or encouraging them to visit the Facebook Page directly to check for recent updates. And no, you’re not imagining things: That sounds like exactly how the web worked before there was such as thing as real-time streams, social networks or anything else. It was the static web and it was inconvenient. But right now there may be more value in making a Facebook page a destination site than something that’s about the stream.

That reality calls into question, though, the very value proposition of Facebook itself. If you’re pushing people to visit a Page directly as opposed to waiting until (or if) something crosses the News Feed, then what’s the value of doing *anything* on the rented land of Facebook where you’re constrained by a set of T&C that’s outside your control as opposed to building a site – or microsite – for a particular kind of content and owning the entire user experience, as well as capturing all the data that comes with that scenario?

It also reminds me of the existence of a technology that allows you to *not* have to bookmark all your favorite websites to see what’s new but still allows you to have absolute control over what you consume and what you do with it: RSS. That simple, neglected and much-derided format lets you see everything that’s new from a site, all within a “reader” that is completely neutral, treating content from one site in the same way it does all the others, with publishers themselves in charge of most of the user experience.

I’m not saying everyone needs to stop using Facebook for brand publishing tomorrow. Far from it, there’s still a lot to be said for the “fish where the fish are” philosophy. But right now we’re in an environment where the fisherman’s lines are being shortened by the people who own the lake and they’re being told they can reach more fish if they just buy this longer line, though making money off the longer line is totally not the reason the lines were cut in the first place.

Or, to put it another way. These leads are not for you.

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That, to me, is making increasingly less sense.

The shifting Facebook sands

In the latest of what’s become a series of stories – some featuring solid reporting, some anecdotal experience and some based solely on speculation – reports are emerging that Facebook is getting ready to cut organic reach for Pages down to somewhere around the 1% mark. And shortly after that Adweek published this story about how some publishers were seeing massive dips in traffic coming from Facebook.

I asked on Twitter the other day if, given all these changes, people would start a Facebook page for their brand if they didn’t already have one. In other words, has the value proposition shifted enough to make putting work into building a Facebook audience not worth the potential return?

Honestly it’s a question worth asking. If know the return you get from reaching 1% of of five millions fans is going to be less than the return from reaching 25% of 100,000, what’s the incentive to keep working at acquiring new Facebook fans?

If you ask me, the winds just changed and they’re no longer in Facebook’s favor. This is the kind of huge shift that makes brands (including those that provide the advertising revenue Facebook depends on) reevaluate their publishing strategy. How’s Google+ looking these days? Is there an upstart waiting in the wings? These are the kinds of things brand managers are researching right now. I know. I’m one of them.

Medium needs to decide which side it’s playing on

Medium-LogoThere’s a lot of good discussion about journalistic practices and so on in this CJR piece about a story that recently appeared on Medium, the long-form writing platform founded by the guys behind Twitter. Here’s the conclusion, though, which also serves as the nut of the piece:

 …until Medium clarifies which pieces contain the full weight of their editorial judgement and which pieces are just hosted on the site, they’re leaving room for a whole lot of confusion and gossip.

That gets close to what has always been the problem with Medium for me. It’s tried to have the best of both worlds but has, by virtue of that, kind of fallen through the cracks and failed to fully do either. If it was just trying to be a cool platform that surfaced, through a mix of algorithms and some human editor curation, some interesting and important community-contributed stories and articles it could be really cool. If it was just a platform for high-end commissioned content from a series of top-tier writers (and maybe paid articles from brands) that would be great as well. It could be a cool platform on which to rethink the traditional magazine format in a way that established media brands – I’m looking at you Newsweek and others – haven’t been able to.

Instead it’s decided to have feet in both worlds. And while that’s made for an experience where the reader often doesn’t know what it is they’re getting – a fully edited story or someone’s random op-ed – there are opportunities to clear things up and eliminate confusion.

The first and biggest step would be to spike the “all content is created equal” mindset and create clear sections on the site that differentiate one type from the other. Right now the “collections” that content within Medium is pushed into are great if you know what you’re looking for, but this needs to be expanded a bit so that, for lack of a better phrase, the professional is divided from the amateur.

The best rest example I can think of is how Buzzfeed a while ago opened their platform to content from outside writers – including brands – that was then vetted by someone on the editorial staff and which had the potential to then be promoted more fully on the site. Those different types of articles were labeled differently so the audience (at least those who were paying attention) knew what they were reading and could judge accordingly.

Medium doesn’t need to abandon both models/services. But it does need to more fully figure out how it’s going to differentiate between the two, not just for the sake of the readers but also for its own sake, so it can decide what it’s going to be accountable for and what it won’t. That doesn’t mean there should be content that it’s alright with taking down because of some complaint or another. Quit the contrary, it should adopt the model used by Twitter, WordPress and other “dumb” platforms that it won’t remove material published there unless there’s a damn good reason to do so, a damn good reason that’s accompanied by a court order.

Most urgently, Medium needs to be clear about what its plans are. Only then can it can get down to some serious innovation, which I remain convinced the platform is capable of, despite my frustrations to date with it.

Some sites just aren’t meant to see search engine success

A week or so ago, Buzzfeed shared the following chart that shows how traffic referrals from Facebook have spiked over the last six months while traffic from Google has remained relatively steady, dipping slightly. The usual caveats around making broad assumptions based on one use case are firmly in place here, of course.

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Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has his own take on the data, including a second chart that shows which publishers are faring best in terms of content being shared on Facebook. In this case Upworthy holds a massive lead and I’m going to stop myself from using any sort of “and you won’t believe why” joke here because it’s been done to death.

As both Ingram and Kafka note, Facebook has been making a big play recently for the attention of publishers, showing off how they can make their content more successful, promoting new tools to encourage sharing and discovery and more. The launch of Facebook Paper is all about that, with mainstream news publications – including ones an individual hasn’t Liked or otherwise followed – getting the same (maybe more) emphasis in the app as a user’s network of friends.

Much of the analysis around all this data has included commentary about how it’s just as likely that at some point Facebook will tweak it’s algorithm in a way that will benefit some and hurt others in the same way Google has done over the years. But, and it may be an over-simplification of the issue, no one has really looked at how it is the most obvious thing in the world that these publications benefit more from Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) while seeing only marginal results from search.

The short and simple answer is that the content that’s published on those sites is about as un-search friendly, at least in the traditional sense, as possible.

In the old days of SEO (read: 2000-2009), content optimization was about making sure there was a date structure in a post’s URL (so search would easily know it was new content and rank accordingly), that the headline and top two paragraphs were keyword-rich without crossing the line and more. You were basically writing for how you wanted people to find it. So you had to think like a searcher. If your article was about banana-shaped fish in the Pacific Ocean, you can be “banana, shaped, fish, pacific” and other keywords were going to be at or near the top of that page.

This is, in fact, an area where the “new” media was trumping the “old.” Newspaper and magazine editors continued to try to out-clever each other in their headline writing while bloggers and nascent brand publishers learned real quick what worked and what didn’t by tracking Google Analytics numbers and adjusting accordingly.

But content on Upworthy, Deadspin, Buzzfeed and others are back in the headline game since their discovery is so dependent on social sharing. They write provocative headlines that feature leading questions because yes, I do want to know why that dog wasn’t allowed in the pets-only area of the local park because that’s outrageous.

And no, that’s not something I’ve ever clicked on or thought to myself.

No one is going to search Google, Yahoo, Bing or anything else for 16 Parks and Recreation GIFs that Summarize the Sochi Olympics or similar stories. It’s highly unlikely that anyone has thought that was something that was missing from their lives. Other than that writer, of course. But it’s something a fair number of people will click on from Facebook because it’s low-calorie content and will take all of 90 seconds to consume.

Buzzfeed and it’s ilk are essentially so uninterested in search it’s kind of startling. Sure, they still get some traffic that way, but it’s not their bread and butter. And that’s almost a 180-degree flip from the old days, when the emphasis was on search while social sharing – done largely through Stumbleupon and the original version of Digg – was secondary.

For people like me who made our bones in old-school SEO (not specifically but as a subset of our skills in publishing) that means one of two things: We can either keep doing what we’ve been doing in the belief that by emphasizing long-term discoverability and value we are continuing to build a better web by not giving in to the latest cheap fad, or we can do the other thing. You can likely guess from how I’ve completely biased the two sides of the argument which side I fall on.

That’s not to say there isn’t a place – a valuable one – in listiicles, occasionally over-wrought headlines and stories that are just GIFs with the bare minimum of context. But, like that Snickers bar I’ve been craving for the last three days, it’s just one small part of the overall picture. And that’s the same advice I give my clients. My career will be decided by whether that works out long-term or not.

On a related note, Upworthy has come out and said they will moving away from page views as a measure of success and instead looking at something call “attention minutes.” They make a fair case as to why some traditional metrics don’t work in all cases and it will be interesting to see if other publishers begin to follow their lead on this in the same way they have on headline writing and so on.