Those Users Are People

Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter wants us to get out of the habit of calling people “users.”

The entire technology industry uses the word “user” to describe its customers. While it might be convenient, “users” is a rather passive and abstract word. No one wants to be thought of as a “user” (or “consumer” for that matter). I certainly don’t. And I wouldn’t consider my mom a “user” either, she’s my mom. The word “user” abstracts the actual individual. This may seem like a small and insignificant detail that doesn’t matter, but the vernacular and words we use here at Square set a very strong and subtle tone for everything we do. So let’s now part ways with our industry and rethink this.

It’s a good point and yes, this term is one that’s an easy and lazy shorthand. It’s not necessarily that it’s bad, and that’s not Dorsey’s point, but it is somewhat depersonalizing and that kind of mindset can turn south quickly.

Personally, I’ll take up the challenge to remove this from my vocabulary unless it’s situationally appropriate. I can’t quite afford to have people charge me $140 for every infraction, but I’ll take a slap upside the head on occasion.

Memes Invade the Culture

The Verge looks at the professionalization of memesand how, especially around the recent presidential and vice-presidential debates, the idea of “live-giffing” has become one that has been embraced as part of the media’s coverage. Someone says “binders full of women” or has a particularly dramatic eye-roll and there are armies of people ready to slap a caption on a photo or turn it into some sort of image.

Image via

The creation and dissemination of memes has also become a steady news hook as everyone rushes to profile the latest Twitter account or Tumblr blog to come out of any news event. Again especially in the wake of all the election cycle news there’s been no shortage of people who rush to be the first to create an Empty Obama or some other sort of related social media profile. And the news media has realized that, in the age of “The Daily Show” and its ilk there are plenty of people who will rush to read their coverage.

While there are lots of people who are (rightly) pointing out that creating a meme isn’t something that can just be arbitrarily done – like “viral,” becoming a meme is a result not a construct – I think that overlooks the meta point, which is this:

The creation of this sort of online miscellania has in and of itself become a meme, one in which we’re all participating.

The media, whether they’re the ones creating these sorts of insta-tweaks of current events or the ones attempting to show their cultural relevance by covering them, are both after the same thing: An increasingly cynical audience that feels it needs fast, easy, humorous and immediately disposable entry points into the news of the day. This is an audience that may or may not read op-eds and probably doesn’t give much weight to their local newspapers political endorsements but they do know what makes them *feel* something and often that’s an immediate skewering of a person or institution they feel is out of touch. It doesn’t need to be great, it just needs to be now.

Eventually this sort of thing will fade out of favor as something else is latched on to. Honestly if we’re already at the point where there’s a cottage industry of gif producers who are professionally covering presidential debates we might already be on the downswing of the trend. You can’t corporately co-opt a format that was embraced as an outlet for the everyday sarcasm practitioner without that group turning a cynical eye to how their expression outlet has been unironically used. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t served a purpose, primarily to show that there’s nothing ridiculous that can’t be immediately captioned and spread online by the audience and to the audience.

My Inevitable Newsweek Post

As has already been discussed countless times elsewhere, Newsweek is shutting down its print operations as of the end of the year and going online-only.
In a message posted on The Daily Beast, Ms. Brown announced that Newsweek would cease print publication at the end of the year and move to an all-digital format. The transition, she wrote, would include layoffs, and at a staff meeting Thursday morning, she grew teary-eyed when she told employees that she didn’t know how many people would be let go.
The decision wasn’t all that shocking, though it also didn’t come at a time when anyone was expecting it to. The magazine had been trying to gain attention through a series of intentionally controversial covers and other tactics – it runs a great Tumblr feed that is an almost perfect example of how a major media brand should be interacting on that platform – but ultimately it’s going to go digital only. It, like many newspapers and other news outlets, seemed to be doing well right up to the point it wasn’t, at which point it tried a bunch of stuff that doesn’t seem to have stuck.
So what does this mean?
This shouldn’t be read as a failure of any sort, I don’t think. The Newsweek brand is not what caused the problem. The problems, instead, were a lack of clear identity (without which it’s almost impossible to present an attractive value proposition to the audience) and the general change in consumer behavior. Ultimately it’s not that Newsweek failed, it’s that the current business model employed by the magazine was no longer sustainable.

There are no shortage of prognostications about what the future holds and no shortage of people giving advice on how to adapt to the new reality. But the reality is that they will have carve out their own path and identity in order to survive as anything more than a small sub-section of The Daily Beast.

It’s always tragic to see a once-revered publication fall by the wayside like this. And it’s hard not to view the news in a unique way considering it came at roughly the same time the Chicago Tribune announced it was putting an online paywall in place and that Penske Media, which recently bought Variety, had named someone already with that magazine as the new publisher instead of bringing in someone from one of its web-only properties. It seems sometimes that the only media brand that’s thriving is Buzzfeed, which announced it’s opening a west coast-based entertainment-focused office as it continues to redefine the media world, including blurring the lines between article and advertisement.

As some have said, it will be interesting to see what the next couple months of print editions at Newsweek look like considering how everyone knows its fate. But it’s important to remember that while, yes, the medium is often the message, the medium does not automatically determine the quality of the message. Newsweek – as well as any other news media – can produce great media on the web as an online/tablet-only outlet in the same way a print magazine can be absolutely terrible. What it comes down to ultimately is what sort of values those producing it are doing their jobs with and what sort of commitment they hold to retaining the trust and loyalty of the audience.

More Media in Twitter

I’ve noticed this of late and this blog post makes it official: Twitter is adding more media previews to its publishing.

When you click a Tweet that contains a link to a partner site, the Tweet will expand, and you’ll be able to see more content directly within it.

So you’ll be able to see a preview of an product page, a photo thumbnail or video from a story and so on. Right now this is just available to partner sites, but we’ve seen other such features eventually be rolled out to all users so I’d expect it at some point in the near future.

This is another example of a feature that’s really only possible if, as it’s increasingly doing, Twitter controls most (if not all) the tools on which Tweets are displayed.

The Relation of Social Media to Finances

It’s important to be clear that this most likely is a case of correlation, not causation. A company that’s perceived in a positive light will do better in many regards – social media activity, stock price, retail sales, than one that isn’t. Still, an interesting study.

“So, 99.95 percent of the change could be explained by the change in fan counts,” he says. In other words, the overwhelming majority of the change in a company’s stock price correlated with the Facebook likes that day or that period. It’s not that Facebook likes caused shares to rise or fall, but the admiration a company gets on social media seems to be a good clue about stock market performance.

So the two are related, not because they impact each other but because both factors tend to swim in the same direction at the same time.

This is different than, though there are certainly similarities, the question of what a social media fan – or the interactions and engagement of those fans – are worth in a very clear monetary sense. That’s a question that is going to vary from program to program, though Eventbrite has been making some news by releasing their findings on that issue.

There may not be a way to clearly track the impact of social network activity to stock price other than to observe both things and look for points where they track along similar lines. But there are a number of ways to see what sort of financial impact online activity is having on a clearly defined action like sales, so it’s important to put those trackers in place.

With Everyone On Twitter, the Role of the Press Has Changed

TV stars are just one portion of the celebrity block breaking news on Twitter with or without the blessing of official studio or network PR departments:

Simon Cowell sent the news of “The X Factor’s” renewal for a third season out to his nearly 4.5 million Twitter followers long before Fox issued an official press release. Stephen Amell, star of CW’s “Arrow,” tweeted the news of the Warner Bros. TV frosh drama’s back-nine order nearly an hour before CW issued a statement from network topper Mark Pedowitz. “Best way to start a Monday?” Amell wrote. “Getting picked up for your back nine episodes. Thwick.” Not to be left out, “Raising Hope” star Lucas Neff let loose with the news that his Fox laffer had been given an order for an additional two episodes this season.

*Disclosure: Arrow is related to some client work that I do, though I’m not involved in that portion on a daily basis.

The Variety story is focused on how it’s a scary new world for PR pros, who are often taken off guard when talent decides to go it alone and break big news on their own. But there’s more to the story of how the press has fed that behavior, what it means for the traditional definition of reporting and what value then the media gatekeepers have for an audience that can get the news straight from the horse’s mouth hours before a story is filed.

Believe it or not I’m not going to come out and say the idea of “the press” is passe in a world where stars, athletes and corporate executives can say whatever they want to say (on Twitter, a blog or anywhere else) whenever they want to. Quite the contrary, in fact: The press plays an even more vital role in that world since they’re the ones who can go beyond the “yay, us!” sentiment and spin and get to the real story. The press serves an essential role of checking the statements made by those parties against reality.

In other words, the job of the press has not changed.

What has changed for them is the idea that they have some sort of exclusive access to newsmakers of any stripe. When the public can get the news, gossip and opinions of people they find interesting directly then the role of the gatekeeper is very different. It’s not just that news outlets simply need to be monitoring Twitter feeds to see what people are saying so that they can throw the text into a graphic and display it over the left shoulder of a morning show anchorperson. Doing so shows that the news organization has nothing to add and positions them as being essentially irrelevant. They also need to add context behind the quote. Why did they say that thing, at that time, to those people in that venue? What’s the story behind those <140 characters? If that’s missing then, yes, there’s no reason for me to watch your news program or read your newspaper.

For PR professionals who are seeing these people go off the reservation and lay to waste their carefully assembled plans, the role *has* changed more substantively. In one scenario they can rail against it and tell everyone to STFU until after an embargoed press story has broken. In another they can co-opt this change, bringing a celebrity and their loyal Twitter followers into the plan and making it an essential component in a very formal and, let’s face it, stilted way. In a third scenario they can leave the celebrities, CEOs and others to do what they’re going to do and come up with a plan that doesn’t factor their behavior in at all.

Each scenario has its benefits and may be rightly applied in different situations. But unlike the press, the job of the PR professional has fundamentally changed. A stray tweet can mean life or death for a plan that’s been in the works for months and therefore needs to be accounted for in some manner.

This is an odd world we find ourselves in, where so much news is broken on platforms and channels that aren’t owned by some sort of organization. The appropriate response to the challenges and changes inherent in that new world isn’t fear, though. It’s adjustment.

Brand Amplification (and Audience Passivity) Up on Twitter

A recent study by Bazaarvoice suggests that more and more of people’s mentions of brands are not original from them but are retweets of updates from the brands themselves. That’s mixed-to-good news for brand publishers since it means that their pure, unadulterated message is being amplified more and people are weighing in with their messy opinions less. The reason I say “mixed” is that it means yeah, there’s probably less negatively but that comes with less positivity as well. If people aren’t feeling passionate enough in either direction then there’s a potential problem with the company that’s doing the publishing since attitudes may be veering toward the lukewarm.

Moving outside the view of what that means for brands who are doing the publishing it seems this also may say something about how the use of Twitter by the average person is changing. It’s hard for me to read this and not think it’s part of a shift toward Twitter becoming more of a passive platform for those in the “audience,” who are increasingly being asked to see it as a consumption took and not something for them to add original content to.

Twitter obviously wants more second tier engagement if the reports of the company testing out replacing the Favorite feature with a Like button. It’s a much lower bar to clear for someone to say they “Like” someone’s update than that it’s a “Favorite” and therefore has the potential to be much more widely used. It also mimics, obviously, behavior that’s already widespread on Facebook.

Back to the the study, it also shows that the number of followers the average person talking about a brand has is rising and that the number of updates about a brand that also include a link is dropping. So combined the picture shows that more people are amplifying a brand’s messaging (often without a link) in a much more passive way to a broader swath of people.

Again, there are upsides to this for brand managers and downsides as well. But the whole study is worth taking a look at as a picture of how corporate audience engagement is continuing to shift.

Audience Size Impacts Engagement

A recent study took a look at Facebook fan numbers and how they translated to subsequent engagement.

“A new study from Facebook app developer Napkin Labs has found that just because a brand’s Facebook page has more fans doesn’t mean it will see more user engagement. In fact, the study found that more fans could actually mean less interaction.”

This is solid advice and guidance and needs to be taken into account whenever engaging in any sort of audience acquisition tactic. Ask whether the quality of fans is going to pay off in the long term and whether those fans will be open to activation once they’ve joined the crowd.

Engagement, Like Disruption, Can Be Misused

A much-discussed article at PandoDaily takes a critical eye to the “cult of disruption” that exists among Silicon Valley tech startups.

The truth is, what Silicon Valley still calls “Disruption” has evolved into something very sinister indeed. Or perhaps “evolved” is the wrong word: The underlying ideology — that all government intervention is bad, that the free market is the only protection the public needs, and that if weaker people get trampled underfoot in the process then, well, fuck ‘em — increasingly recalls one that has been around for decades.

I’m not informed enough on the philosophy of Ayn Rand to speak with any knowledge about what the writer of the post may be getting right or wrong, but I will say that a very similar diatribe could be written about a certain subset of the social media and their fetishistic attitudes around “engagement.” Whichever term you’re talking about there are people who believe that it in and of itself is the goal. They see everything as needing to achieve it and anyone who stands in their way is a luddite who holds to an outdated, establishment-centric worldview.

While both can be good things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with either disrupting a current business or focusing a program on social engagement – they need to be integrated within a bigger plan. Neither comes without its share of frustrations and there are going to be forces that push back against them in almost every situation. It’s in the way that they’re presented and the approach taken by those doing the espousing that matters.

Remember Going to Buy Software?

Let’s just take a moment and collectively remember that buying software at a retail outlet – not to mention lining up to do so– was once something we all regularly did.

The Windows 95 launch was the iPhone launch of its day. On Aug. 24, 1995, crowds lined up to purchase what Microsoft promised was the biggest transformation yet in desktop computing. Where did they line up? At stores, which were still at the time really the only way outside of mail-order that the average consumer could buy software.

I wasn’t among those who did so but do remember buying it (I think it was at a store like CompUSA) after months and months of hype. After installing it (a laborious process) it slowed down my computer quite a bit and I remember not liking it very much.

But just compare the process of installing software then – whether it was via CD-ROM or on a handful of 3.25” disks that had to be inserted and run in a certain order – to what it is now, where a program downloads in the background and runs as soon as you click a couple buttons. What a shift.