Category Archives: Content Publishing

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.

Committing fully to corporate blogging is the only way to see its value

RSS-feed-iconGenerally when an industry blog – in just about any industry – covers breaking company news it happens in one of three ways:

  1. The story links to an on-domain blog post from the company, citing it as the source of the news
  2. The story references the news as coming from a company blog post but, for some reason, doesn’t link to it
  3. The story references the news as coming from the company but doesn’t specify whether that means a blog post, an email press release or carrier pigeon

The first is great, at least as far as we think about corporate content publishing programs. The corporate blog – the “hub” in the “hub and spoke” model we evangelize – has become a source for media and other interested parties to get their news from. It has done what it needs to do and while there may be separate press outreach to add context, the blog is often the source of the news.

The second shows an odd evolution in online media. Namely, that it’s adopting many of the virtues and traits that were once evinced by legacy media. In this case specifically we’re talking about “not linking out.” 10+ years ago one of the key differentiators between old and new media was in the approach to linking. The first and second generation of blog publishers understood that links were indeed love and that linking to someone else’s post or story didn’t detract from their own, it added to it. It was a way of substantiating your own point of view, by linking to supporting points or to a post you disagreed with. But slowly those blogs became fiefdoms of their own, many being bought up by bigger media companies. And the focus shifted from making sure people got the best information and went to the original source to linking to archives, topic pages and so on. So the link went not to a source elsewhere but to all that site’s previous coverage of the company so additional page views could be gathered.

The third is actually (despite the obvious diatribe I just went on) the bigger point that I want to make: That companies are often not just missing pitches but not even steeping up to the plate. By which I mean they either don’t have a corporate blog of their own or aren’t utilizing it to get the full value from it.

“Own your news” is a frequently-repeated phrase as we advise clients that once you have the production workflow in place the incremental costs of each post are minimal. In other words, publishing nine posts a week doesn’t cost much, if any, more than publishing five posts a week. So put it all up on the corporate blog, letting it serve as a complete archive of news and announcements. This creates an archive both for on-domain and general search and easily allows for resurfacing of news later on in connection with something else.

The recent study of corporate social media usage among Inc 500 companies by The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth showed blog adoption had dropped from 2013’s 52% – its three year peak – to just 46%, only slightly above 2012’s 44%. That almost has to mean that not only did few, if any companies start new blogs but some who had been running them shut them down. And I have to wonder how many of those who shut them down never really fully committed to the idea to begin with, always acting with one foot fully and the other foot mostly out of the pool.

Tactics usually only work when they’re fully executed, which only comes when everyone is on board. Watching corporate blogging take a hit like this is disappointing since I truly believe it makes the most sense in the evolving media world. There are multiple ways to execute the idea, but having an owned on-domain source for all corporate news is the only long-term hedge to place against the managed networks that will fall in and out of fashion, often faster than a company and its publishing program can keep up.

What’s Left of Facebook’s Organic Reach Is About to Disappear

facebook_logo.pngFacebook dropped a bomb on the marketing industry last Friday when it published this post saying it would be reducing the number of “overly promotional” posts from brand pages that appear in people’s News Feed. According to Facebook these are the traits that people surveyed weren’t fond of:

Posts that solely push people to buy a product or install an app

Posts that push people to enter promotions and sweepstakes with no real context

Posts that reuse the exact same content from ads

That’s an incredibly broad definition that essentially eliminates everything but “News” as a possible topic for Facebook posts. Anything that sounds like a call to action to buy, watch, download or anything else would fall under the “overly promotional” definition and therefore sound too much like an ad, to use Facebook’s terms, to make it into the News Feed of the people who have Liked the page.

As many have pointed out, this threatens to drop organic reach on Facebook from the ~2% is currently hovers at (meaning if you have 2 million Facebook fans you’ll actually reach 20,000 of them with any given post) to effectively 0% (meaning if you have 2 million Facebook fans you’ll actually reach around five of them with any given post).

Facebook VP Brian Boland is quoted in the New York Times as saying this is not a move made out of the desire to increase ad revenue but considering the above three categories are all ones where Facebook has increasingly made serious ad dollars that claim is dubious at best.

So the question becomes, what can brand publishers do about it?

The answer, unfortunately, is not much. At least when it comes to Facebook itself. This is a stark reminder that not only are brands only renting space on Facebook in a relationship that is dramatically one-sided. There’s little to no recourse available than to agree to the new cruelty and either accept what’s given to them or pay for the privilege of getting more.

Nate Elliott at Forrester has a couple of thoughts, including making sure your owned site has a form of community built into it and doubling down on tools like email marketing, where you have more control over the delivery of the message than you do on a platform like Facebook or other social network.

Before any decisions are made, though, it’s important to take a moment and examine what role Facebook currently plays in the marketing ecosystem at your company. How big is it in terms of referring visits to your site? Are those “quality” visitors? Do you know if your Facebook fans also get your email marketing? These are just some of the questions to be asking at this moment.

One thing is clear: Unless they’re willing to pay to achieve any sort of reach, Facebook is no longer the place to sell or promote your brand or products. It would seem that this would even apply to the “sale or coupons” deals that people have stated over and over again that they prefer from the brands they follow and align themselves with on social media.

The timing of this actually works out well. Brands who are in the midst of setting their 2015 strategies and goals now know the roadblocks in front of them on Facebook and can plan and allocate accordingly. That may be small consolation for those who have built their social strategy with Facebook promotion and publishing at the core, but better to know how much trouble you’re in before you have the rug pulled out from under your feet.

Instagram finally allows for editing…Now Twitter needs to catch up

instagram-logo.jpgIt’s great that Instagram has added the ability to edit captions on their posts. It really is. As someone who’s made more than a few typos (including on client photos) because the “i” and “o” buttons are two close together on a QWERTY keyboard, I sing the praises of something like this.

Unfortunately there’s still a big missing piece here: Twitter editing.

See, if I make a typo in the Instagram caption now I can go back and fix it. But if I share that photo on Twitter it pulls over the caption as well. But when I fix the typo on Instagram that change isn’t then reflected on Twitter and right now Twitter does not let you edit Tweets after their published.

That increasingly seems like a slap in the face to users and publishers and less and less like Twitter working to maintain the sanctity of the stream, warts and all. Now don’t get me wrong, having made my bones in the Weblogs Inc “publish fast, correct later” system, the occasional type doesn’t seem like that big a deal to me. But when it comes to brands, it’s a whole other set of considerations and these sorts of things can have a negative impact on reputation.

Right now Twitter (and its Vine app) are officially the outliers, the only major social networks that don’t allow for after-the-fact editing. And Twitter’s statements that post-publish editing would corrupt the “right now”-ness of the stream and allow for abuse rings increasingly hollow as they continue to talk about tweaking the stream to accommodate some sort of algorithm-based display.

Earned media distribution isn’t hard, but it takes structure

According to The Holmes Report, which recaps a session from the Global Public Relations Summit, earned media has a distribution problem.

The issue, according to those on the panel, is that earned media – getting story on CNN, for instance – has a very short shelf life and it’s hard to draw people’s attention to them. So, if I’m understanding this right, the issue is that while the CNN story might help persuade those who see it, the right people aren’t always seeing it.

With A Megaphone By A Wall

Yes, that is a problem for PR. But that’s why so many PR practitioners have evolved into content marketing practitioners.

Any good content publishing program should include two major elements: Original and curated content. And those media stories the PR team works so hard to pitch and secure fit snuggly into the “curated” section. So they can be shared on a brand’s Twitter, Facebook and other social profiles to bring them to the awareness of people who aren’t regularly checking the media sites they originated on.

(For the record, “original” content then refers to material that, for instance, is published on-domain.)

So while on-domain content may be 75% original and 25% curated (there’s still room for sharing some of those stories on your blog or other site) a social profile may be the exact opposite, favoring curated content as opposed to own. Ratios and percentages are going to vary from program to program of course, but that’s the general idea.

The point is, distribution of earned media is only a problem if you’re not trying hard enough. And the nice part of having owned channels you’re distributing curated earned media hits through is that, if desired, you can hit that beat more than once. If the article hits on Wednesday and you want to make sure the people on Saturday have seen it? You can post it again! And no one can stop you MWAHAHAHA.

Obviously there’s also a paid element here, and it’s telling that some of the people quoted in the story go immediately from earned to paid, without considering owned.

Maybe this is why native advertising is usually the first thing that some comms people turn to when they feel earned media isn’t getting it done. Those deals, to my understanding, almost always include distribution of those stories on the publication’s owned channels, which sometimes have larger reach than the brand’s own.

Again, if distribution of earned media is a problem, it’s one with a multitude of fixes available. This doesn’t need to be something where hands are thrown up. But it takes realigning resources behind making sure the infrastructure is in place to fix that problem in an effective way.

*Image via Flicker

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.

Hoe's_one_cylinder_printing_press

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.

corportatesocialmediausage

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.