How Much of the User Experience Is Outside Your Control

Allow me to take a moment to admit something personal: I drastically dislike shopping. I always have, with the exception of bookstores, which I could browse around forever. There are plenty of stereotypes about how men’s version of shopping consists of going in with a list, getting what’s needed and getting out before the dust settles that (again with the exception of bookstores) I would neatly fall into.

This dislike of the shopping experience is partly about things that are directly related to the experience itself: I’m not a huge fan of crowds, the incessant barrage of lights and music gives me a headache quickly and while there are plenty of places to get coffee, the lack of…other…drink options still seems like a drastic oversight on the part of most mall planners. Even more than that, though, is the parking lot. Most parking lots are, in my view, part of a long-running experiment designed to see how far people can be pushed before society crumbles.

Outside of that, though, the parking lot is something that’s essential to the physical (meaning “not online”) shopping experience but is wholly disconnected from the actual experience of searching for, finding and purchasing the item/s in question. My local hardware store has optimized the in-store experience, but MY experience doesn’t begin and end as I walk in/out of the doors. Instead, it’s when I pull into the parking lot.

And it got me wondering: How much of your business relies on infrastructure built by others? It’s a question worth asking whenever you look at program goals and measure whether or not they’re being achieved.

Essentially all of social media is, as we all know too well, built on land that’s not even rented but…I don’t know what the right word is. “Owned” certainly isn’t appropriate and even “Managed” implies a level of functionality and oversight that doesn’t exist on most networks. Instead the businesses that have social profiles are subject to the whims of Facebook, Twitter and others not only in how they do or don’t control reach, engagement and other factors but in how they market the overall experience to the general public as well. In other words, X business has zero control over whether Y network can or can’t market itself and achieve a critical mass of users. Even online storefronts like Amazon and others are not owned in the traditional sense, as sellers there are still only as visible as the site’s algorithm and “featured product” curation process allow them to be.

So the question remains: How do you work around the aspects of the user experience you have zero control over?

When we – PNConnect and Porter Novelli as a whole – talk about content programs we used “owned” when referring to websites that the client (or we on behalf of the client) manage and have full control over. So PorterNovelli.com is an “owned” channel because it’s built by us, for us and can only be changed by us. Owned channels are an important – nay, an essential – element of content programs because because of that fact. No third party is going to pull the plug on your website because its ad-based business model collapsed. And no one can throttle the number of blog posts published to an on-domain site.

But – you knew there was going to be a “but” – discovery and distribution are still largely controlled by others. Search algorithms change regularly and, again, social networks are increasingly dicey propositions when trying to reach the audience. You’re only as findable as the person optimizing your headlines and Facebook copy allows you to be.

It wasn’t always this lopsided in favor of tools outside of the control of publishers and web managers. Before social networks began pulling everyone’s attention, forcing brands to do likewise, the two main points of distribution were 1) Email and 2) RSS.

The first one was totally under the control of the publisher. They controlled the list, they controlled the distribution time and so on. People could opt out, of course, but outside of that this was very much something that was wholly grasped by the publisher. And the second was -and still is – a gloriously dumb technology that, as long as someone took the positive action of subscribing, would send updates to them regardless of how many other feeds they were subscribed to, with items building up until they were ready to read them.

(It’s my contention that if publishers had been better able to explain RSS to the mass audience it would have gone on to form the cornerstone of the social network explosion. Indeed Twitter is largely an XML-based platform. But that’s another post for another day.)

Strategies that emphasizes fully owned channels – on-domain blogs, email newsletters and the like – are emerging as must-haves for brand publishers who are seeing diminishing returns from the social networks they spent years building up audience numbers on. Not that those networks aren’t still an important part of the mix, but they’re just that: Part of a mix. It’s no longer safe to place big bets on one or the other of these non-owned platforms, but to spread bets around, with This being good for conversions, That being good for engagement, The Other Thing being good for distribution and so on. It all comes back, though, to having that on-domain managed channel that is the hub and archive for the program.

In short, you may not own the parking lot and you may never will. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore that part of the user experience is impacting the results of the program you’re trying to manage. Instead it needs to be accounted for and tracked so that adjustments to the elements that *are* under your control can be made.

Pew’s Study on Teens, Tech and Social Media: Five Things To Know

(Post originally published on the PNConnect Blog)

Pew has released a massive new study examining the technology and social media habits of teens in the United States. As usual there’s a plethora of interesting data in the study but for companies looking to incorporate this information into their social media marketing plans here are the big takeaways:

  1. PI_2015-04-09_teensandtech_01These teens are almost always online. More than half say they go online several times a day. And most of that is happening on mobile devices, with 91% of teens saying they use those devices to go online at least some of the time. Tellingly, those without mobile access to the internet go online less frequently. This is fast on its way to becoming the default on-ramp to the web.
  2. They’re mostly on Facebook but they aren’t loyal to any one site. 71% of teens say they use more than one social network. Interestingly, Google+ is used by the same percentage of those who DO only use one network as Instagram, 13% in both cases. So while Facebook continues to dominate – it’s used most by 41% and exclusively by 66% – it would be a mistake to pick a single channel to focus marketing efforts aimed at this demographic on.
  3. Income dramatically influences what networks are used. With the exception of Facebook, usage of other networks (Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter) increases as household income increases. Facebook is the only one with an inverse relationship with income, with usage decreasing as incomes rise. Not only does overall usage change with income levels but frequency of usage does as well.
  4. Gender and age play pretty big roles as well. As the report states, girls are more drawn to visually-oriented networks like Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Meanwhile, Instagram is the most-visited platform among those 13-14.
  5. The report points out that a lot – 33% – of teens in the survey use a messaging app like Kik, WhatsApp and others. Not only does this mark a substantive change in behavior from social media (these apps aren’t build around the stream or feed like Twitter, Facebook and so on) but it means they’re more interested in communicating with each other as opposed to broadcasting their updates to a wide – and sometimes unwelcome – audience. And these apps are more likely, almost twice as much so, to be used by Hispanic and African-American teens as white teens.

You can read the entire report, which breaks down usage of each of these and other networks in detail, here.

Star Wars and home video are, for me, forever linked

Yesterday news broke that the six Star Wars movies would finally be coming to digital-download storefronts like iTunes, Amazon Video, PlayStation Video and so on for the first time in what was being called the “Digital Movie Collection,” with the movies available individually and as a bundle. The news got me thinking about my history with the Star Wars film franchise, specifically about how in my mind those movies and the evolving home video formats is irreversibly linked.

star-wars-the-digital-movie-collectionOutside of the handful of times I’ve seen the movies in theaters, my biggest experience with them is through home video in some form or another.

For many years when I was a kid both my parents were working and so my brother and I would spend summer days at my grandparents’ house. And while the video collection there would provide my first experience with movies like Just One of The Guys and the fact that they had cable while we didn’t would mean I was watching lots of other movies over and over again, Star Wars was the go-to in terms of “What do you want to watch today?” But home video at that time isn’t what it is now. So we would have to plan ahead and rent The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi from the local video store (Nu-Time Video in downtown Elmhurst, IL) or from the rental kiosk (an early version of something like Redbox, but with VHS tapes) at the Dominick’s my grandparents frequented.

GE DIGITAL CAMERALater on the Original Trilogy would finally get a VHS release at a price that was geared toward ownership, again at a time when owning a video collection was still largely unheard of. This would be the primary way I would watch the movies for years and years. They were my movies of choice on days I was sick and home from school or, really, any other time. They were not great transfers and, even outside of the quality of the picture, they were pan-and-scan transfers, what at the time was called “full frame” because they would fill the entirety of the standard TVs of the time. So for a decade I watched the movies missing 2/3 of the action.

thx_wideIn 1995 the scales fell from my eyes and I saw clearly for the first time. That’s when Lucasfilm/Fox released a set of VHS tapes featuring not only a remastered version of the movies but a *widescreen* remastered version of the movies. Yes, there was a “full frame” version available, but come on. These were a revelation. It had been years – since they were in theaters – since I had seen the movies in all their 1×2.35 glory and wow. I kept the full frame versions for nostalgic reasons, but with this new edition they remained unplayed.

star wars special edition widescreenThen three or so years later I would, yes, buy the widescreen Special Editions on VHS. I know, I know. But I still liked the movies and even liked some of the changes Lucas made. And the Special Editions themselves represented a moment in time for me that I wanted to capture, specifically the opportunity to see the movies on the big screen again. And having the tapes reminded me of that.

So at one point I had three versions of the original trilogy on VHS on my shelf. Getting rid of any one of them wasn’t an option because they were all essential components in my “having it all” plan that also included me collecting all available adaptions. That included novelizations, comic collections, the outstanding Radio Dramas, script reproductions (which I remember buying at Suncoast Video, if that tells you anything) and more.

As they came out I would pick up the Prequel Trilogy movies (which, as I’ve admitted on previous occasions, I mostly like) on DVD, frantically waiting for the day the OT would be made available on that format. Prior to that, even, I bought the VHS Collector’s Edition of Episode I that came with a nice art-of book and some other goodies. But that was quickly discarded when the DVD came out.

star-wars-prequel-trilogy-custom-case-dvd-set-48ec4Star_wars_dvd_coverThat day finally came in 2004, when the first set of the Original Trilogy hit DVD. This was the controversial release that included not only the changes made for the Special Editions but also the addition of Hayden Christiansen as Anakin at the end of Return of the Jedi, replacing Sebastian Shaw, who originally played Darth Vader not just during the fateful “unmasking” scene toward the end of the movie but also the iconic “ghost Jedi” scene at the very end, showing the Anakin had come back to the Light Side of the Force. Again, though, that didn’t matter: I had *this* release and it represented another part of the saga’s release history.

At this point I still had my VHS tapes (probably not the original versions but definitely the THX remasters and Special Editions) so that was fine: I still had the original, unaltered releases. They could change things all they wanted, I had history, the ones I had grown up with.

But eventually I got rid of all my VHS tapes, Star Wars included. So for a while these heavily-changed versions were the only version of the OT I had. That changed, though, in I think 2008, when I got the Limited Edition version of the movies on DVD as a gift one Christmas.

star-wars-widescreen-limited-edition-dvds

These two-disc sets for each movie had both the Special Editions AND the original theatrical versions, though the latter was unfortunately non-anomorphic. But hey, neither were my old VHS tapes and at least once again I had the original versions of the movies I loved so much.

There are, much to my chagrin, some releases I’ve skipped. I haven’t bought any of the Blu-ray editions. And there was a new version of the Special Editions released in 2000 that included a teaser for Episode II that I didn’t feel was worth the time or money, though I admit I was still tempted at times.

Does all this sound a little obsessive? Absolutely. But each one of these represents not only the obvious need to be a completist in some manner but also where I was at different points in my life. So it’s impossible for me to think back on all these – and the money I spent on them – and not think about that period as a whole and everything that was going on. Even more than the movies themselves, thinking back on the various iterations I’ve bought on home video are touch points that lead to other, fuller memories of my life. That’s why something as simple as a digital release announcement has me reflecting back on Star Wars as whole and the role all these releases has played in my life.

Facebook to Publishers: Feed Me, Seymour

facebook_logo.pngFacebook has made official a move that’s been hinted at and rumored for a few months now: It’s making the appeal to media companies to fully host their content on Facebook itself as opposed to using it as simply a platform through which to drive traffic and readers elsewhere. The social network has lined up The New York Times, Buzzfeed and National Geographic as the initial list of partners who are going to be trying this out.

One of the main points Facebook is using in their argument is that load times are, particularly on mobile where so many people are consuming an increasing amount of content, pretty slow taking nearly 10 seconds to go from Facebook itself to the page that’s been linked to. Becoming a full-fledged publishing platform for that material, it’s argued cuts down on that load time significantly and will provide a better user experience. And for agreeing to this the publisher in question gets a share of the ads that Facebook will sell against that content.

This is, in my considered opinion, a sucker’s bet and a deal only someone who has been intentionally not paying attention over the last five years would make. Here’s why:

First: Facebook has never made any move that has not been primarily to its own benefit, specifically to the benefit of its advertising sales division. That’s not a bad thing, it’s how all companies work. But the way that its going about reaching this goal is not only upending many existing business models (again, not in and of itself a negate thing) but also seems to be threatening the very idea of an independent business model for media companies. It has systematically and methodically pulled the football out from in front of media producers on such a regular basis that these media companies are searching for any whiff of potential help and all too often are failing to realize that the helping hand being offered is the same one that just slapped them.

Second: No doubt this natively-published content will get preferred treatment in the Newsfeed algorithm, giving further lie to the repeated statements by Facebook executives that the Newsfeed is agnostic and that there’s no editorial judgment behind what people see, it going unsaid (by both those executives and the news organizations who are too timid to call them out) that the Newsfeed is designed by humans who are, at some level, exercising some form of editorial judgement. These Facebook-hosted posts will show up more frequently to people and see a higher level of engagement, which will then by used by Facebook to explain why they showed up more often. It’s circular logic that no one has the nerve to scream about, pointing to the fact that there has to be an inciting incident, these things don’t just happen magically in a way that always seems to prove Facebook’s thesis.

Third: Facebook has changed the goal posts on media publishers so many times it’s hard to imagine they all don’t have bruised tailbones from falling on their ass so often. First it promised huge reach numbers to brands and publishers who built up their audience there, then it limited reach, something it continues to do under the pretense of there being so much content published by brands and individuals that they can’t possibly display everything. First it told brands and publishers to use more photos in their posts to see higher engagement, then it said that photo posts were “overly promotional” and would be downgraded in the Newsfeed algorithm. First it said posts should have a clear call-to-action, then it said posts with that call-to-action were, again, “overly promotional” and would be similarly filtered heavily. The list goes on and on.

Fourth: While media companies in particular are fighting for staunch the bleeding that is happening with their online ad revenue it may be attractive to get a percentage of something rather than a whole nothing. But that’s absolutely not true. If Facebook is able to so nicely target ads against content and track where revenue is being produced how come it hasn’t been doing that all along? So be clear, if it can show that X ad performed at Y level and brought in Z revenue against a media organization’s content, why hasn’t it been sharing a percentage of that revenue for years?

Fifth: It’s more damage to the open web. It’s hard to imagine these stories will be indexed by Google or other search engines and, even outside of that, Facebook can do whatever it wants with them. That content might be owned by National Geographic but it’s managed by Facebook and that’s who will control access to it. Facebook doesn’t want you using Google or Yahoo or Bing or anything else; It wants you to only use Facebook. It’s the company store that everyone has to buy from and where prices are 60% higher than what you’d pay anywhere else, if you even had that choice.

Sixth: The long term – and even short term – damage that’s going to be done to current and future brand loyalty in the eyes of the audience cannot be over-stated. What connection is being built to The New York Times, for example, if it’s all just appearing as part of the Facebook Newsfeed? None. It’s just more content. It’s no better or worse than what came before it, which could be anything from a friend’s vacation photos to a “Which Verse of ‘Smelly Cat’ Most Defines Your Monday” quiz? The entire idea of an owned brand channel – whether we’re talking about a newspaper, a magazine, a website, a TV channel or anything else – is that the brand itself has some level of control over what surrounds any individual story or other item.

It’s that last item that has me most concerned about the direction Facebook would lead the entire media industry down. Right now, for better or worse, we live in a system that is defined by channels. Not just TV channels but “channels” in the sense of any packaging of information in a way designed to bring efficiencies of scale to distribution and delivery. Even as we hear about more and more stand-alone on-demand video services that operate outside the traditional bucketing of cable packages, we’re still dealing with the distributors, not the producers. So it’s not, for instance, 20th Century Fox the production house that is launching an OTT streaming service, it’s CBS. So the producer is still largely behind-the-scenes, peeking out only as the end credits roll. It’s still that secondary layer of distributor that we primarily deal with. It’s similar for movies.

Facebook, though, wants to eliminate that system entirely and become something of an uber-distributor. So it may be, for instance, Scripps Howard that produces the story and The New York Times that distributes it. But none of those matter because the primary user activity and interaction is with and through Facebook. And in this scenario the middle man – The New York Times – becomes an unnecessary choke point.

Some people have this move by Facebook actually has precedent with services like Netflix and Spotify but I think those analogies fall apart pretty easily. Let’s look at music first, for which there have traditionally been one of two ways to consume (I’m intentionally ignoring some nuance here, I’ll admit). Either

A) Someone listens to an entire album, the packaging of which is designed to a self-contained and specifically constructed experience (i.e. by a single artist), or;

B) Someone listens to the radio (Spotify playlists, Pandora channels and such would also apply here), which aggregates material from across any and all distributors (the labels) into a curated sampling experience

What Facebook is doing is neither of these. It doesn’t want to offer a level playing field like radio does that allows what people like to rise to the top and it doesn’t offer a packaged experience for single-topic material in the way that a record offers a self-contained package of a single artist’s work. Instead if very clearly wants to dictate the rules of what will and won’t be allowed to even compete on the field and it mixes in the content from everywhere into an indecipherable hash that says more about the reader and their network than any intentions the original producer had in mind.

That’s the real danger here for media companies and brand publishers: That they are no longer in control of their own destiny. They may be willing to take the $.05 cents that Facebook offers them in ad revenue because they can’t be sure they’ll be able to get the $.30 they really want a month from now. But it’s not just about that $.30; It’s about that as well as the $.45 they are missing out on by being able to recommend stories on their own site. It’s about the $15 they’re sacrificing over the next year because someone decided their content was so good they became a loyal reader and, while that reader might still balk at a subscription, they bought a t-shirt or recommended the site to a friend or any of a number of other behaviors that have long-term value. It’s hard to make the value proposition for not just the reader to attach any sense of loyalty to a news brand that is just another in a string of posts they saw on Facebook while waiting for a bus. It’s hard to make the value proposition to writers and other producers who all but disappear from the equation as bylines and other personal identifiers are quickly discarded.

Facebook will do what’s best for Facebook. That’s their right. But publishers and media companies would be wise to look beyond the next week and beyond such limited stats as “engagement” and “time spent” and see that they are sacrificing an order of magnitude more than they could ever hope to gain. This is bad for them, it’s bad for the reader, who will no longer get access to the value inherent in *real* editorial judgment being exercised along with much more, and its bad for the entire state of media production, distribution and consumption. Publishers would be wise to, when Facebook rings their doorbell, hide in the basement while figuring out how to out-flank them with the strengths they alone possess.

Sunsetting Social Media Channels « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli

Sometimes a channel — a Facebook page, a Twitter account, or even a blog — needs to be mothballed in some manner. The program goals may have shifted, for example, or maybe the audience never reached critical mass. But even if you have to take a channel out of the regular editorial mix, you may not need to wipe it out completely. You have several options for shifting resources away from a channel that no longer fits with your strategic vision.

via Sunsetting Social Media Channels « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli.

I forgot to link to this the other day but I wrote this for PNConnect Digital Essentials, a regular report that’s put together of digital trends, deep-dive perspectives and so on. It’s really good stuff.

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