That Question Mark In Your Headline Isn’t Fooling Anyone


More than pedantic and insulting than “13 Things You Didn’t Know About…”

More than “…And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”

More than “How One Tweet Perfectly Explains (complex topic)”

More than any of those, the most insidious headline tactic plaguing the online publishing world is the dreaded question mark. You know you’ve seen it. And now that I’ve pointed it out you’ll see it even more often, I’m guessing. “Did X Company Just Hire Y Person?” “Did X Company Just Release All Your Data To the Russian Government?” That punctuation is everywhere.

It’s known as Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, something I now know courtesy of Rex Hammock. That law states that any headline with a ? at the end can be answered by a simple “No” since the writer and everyone involved know they can’t back up the claim of the headline, though the rest of the article will lay out why they’re publishing it in the first place.

And it’s used by writers and editors as a sort of Get Out of Jail Free Card, one that seemingly absolves them of being accountable for what they’re writing. By appending it to the end of their headline they can write whatever conjecture, hearsay or unsubstantiated rumor they want, all while hiding under the cover provided by the crook of the question mark. If confronted about it they can always say they weren’t sure about it so were asking the question instead of making a declaration.

It’s a small distinction but one that serves an important purpose. If they were to pass along the same rumor that was coming to them third-hand but report it in a more declarative statement they could be opening themselves up to legal action by the subject of the rumor.

To avoid that the options would be either to A) Not report on it at all or B) Do actual reporting to see if there’s any truth to what’s being said.

The first option isn’t taken because if Site M reports it and Site N doesn’t then the latter potentially loses out on revenue, whether those pageviews are coming from social networks or from search. Not only that but they look out of touch by being so far outside the current buzz.

The second option isn’t taken because, well, who has the time or resources to do actual reporting? While we’re seeing more publication launch than ever before, very few of them are being staffed with writers who have any journalistic skills or contact networks that can be used to substantiate claims made by others.

In many ways this is more destructive than when a publication publishes something but then has to issue a correction/retraction or even take the piece down from their site. Not only does this show that the publication in question at least has the courage of its convictions (not to mention more faith in their editorial staff as a whole) but it doesn’t do as much to destroy the the foundation of tomorrow’s knowledge that we’re building today.

Think about what search results are going to look like two, three, five years from now. Every article will end with a question mark and therefore lack any sense of authority or truth and therefore be unreliable. Subsequent opinions and information will then be built upon the shakiest of sands.

We need to demand more of the publications we turn to for information. And those publications need to demand more of their staff. Most of all, the whole industry needs to be accountable to something more than the race to the bottom where, seemingly, all of the advertising revenue lies.


Snapchat’s Crisis Comms Include Blaming Users

snapchat-logoA few weeks ago there was a big kerfluffle when Snapchat user information, including photos and other “snaps” were accessed and exposed beyond the walled, self-destructing garden of the app itself. In the wake of the hack – there’s little better word for it – Snapchat took the odd position that users were mostly to blame since the hack took advantage of weaknesses in the API it made available to third party apps.

Now it has announced a change to how it handles third party apps, saying they will warn users they find are using such apps and tell them to stop using it and change their password.

That’s a surprising approach to take since the issue seems to be with weaknesses in the API Snapchat offers, and which these apps then build on. If Snapchat is going to offer an API that allows developers to build alternative apps for people to choose from then it would seem the responsibility is on them to make sure said API cannot be used for malicious purposes, or really anything that goes against the Snapchat terms of service or other agreements.

Perhaps Snapchat’s reluctance to completely dismantle or drastically alter their API, which would had significant downstream impacts on not just the developer ecosystem but also potentially on user behavior, are lessons learned from the ham-handed way Twitter handled their app developer relationships two or three years ago, relationships the company is only now working to repair. In that case Twitter made broad sweeping changes that drastically changed what apps could or couldn’t do, leaving many without a purpose for existing and severely debilitating the usefulness of others.

While there were certainly transparency images in what Twitter did – leaving it to outsiders to assume the moves were motivated by the desire to sell more ads in a controlled environment. Those may have been true to an extent and certainly Twitter’s moves since then have been more and more about rolling out new ad products and introducing environments that are conducive to more ads.

But Snapchat isn’t (at least in this instance) looking to sell more ads. Instead they’re faced with a security problem. Which makes it all the more confusing as to why they aren’t taking more of an active role in plugging the hole. Putting the onus on users to stop using third-party apps instead of cracking down on the apps themselves seems to say that, while Twitter took a hard line with developers Snapchat is less afraid of causing waves in developer relationships than it is in taking a position of plausible deniability.

Internet/mobile security is an increasingly hot topic in not just wonkish academic circles but among the base of everyday user. We’re turning more and more of our quantified selves over to the apps and networks we use. And that trade off has to come with a level of responsibility for safeguarding that information on the part of the apss and networks. In this case Snapchat does not seem to be hitting that mark.

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.

Hollywood wants to make movies easier to find online

So Peter Kafka at Re/code may be right: No one who already has a good system of pirating movies is going to be swayed into not breaking the law by Wheretowatch, the new site from the MPAA that is meant to serve as a directory of where to find movies for legal streaming or download. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve an important purpose for the rest of us.


Right now the legal viewing ecosystem is incredibly fragmented. Netflix has the rights to movies from these three studios, Amazon has the rights to movies from those two and so on. And things get even more confusing when you go beyond the world of big studios movies and into indies, where the various rights holders placing small bets all over the place. So if someone wants to watch anything from the latest James Bond movie to a buzzed-about documentary may wind up searching any of a number of places and never stumble on the right one. This frustration is just one factor that pushes people into illegal torrenting and such.

But if people had – and knew about – a single search tool they could use to find what they were looking for then it can make for a much more efficient experience. Again, it may not have the power to sway anyone who’s already tied to their torrenting site since they may be using it for ideological reasons as much as for frugality. Someone who hasn’t yet been pushed to the “Oh forget this, I’m torrenting it” line, though, may find this is a good reason to say on the legal side of the equation.

It starts and ends with education, though. The stories I’ve read about this site don’t mention it, but it would make a ton of sense for the MPAA to not only get studios on board but also sites like Netflix, Amazon and others (this newly formed group of streaming companies comes to mind). The former could link to the search database from a movie’s official website and social profiles, something that would be much more efficient than sending out a stream of updates every time the licensing deals change. And the latter could get on board from an education point of view, saying they support legal streaming/downloading and offering this as a place to find the best experience.

In other words, it’s incumbent on the MPAA to get the word out and to use all means at its disposal to do so. Otherwise this is a solution that does almost nothing to solve the problem.

Should editorial brands sell their social network followers to advertisers?

Is there a big difference between a media company turning its owned website over to advertisers and turning over their social media profiles to advertisers? That’s the question I’m pondering after reading this story about Wired working with third-party content producers on an ad campaign that would appear both on the Wired site and on select social media profiles.

From my perspective the audience expectations are much different between on-domain and on social accounts. While advertising – particularly now native advertising – is pretty much the norm for editorial sites now, the basic promise on social is that the audience is connecting with the brand, who they want to hear from whether it’s for deals, insider news, breaking updates or any of a number of other reasons.

So I’m not a huge fan of editorial brands selling their social audiences to advertisers. Wired is by no means the first to do this, there are a half dozen others I could probably find. I get why they do it – revenue is revenue – but to me it seems to be an example of breaking the core contract between the brand and the audience.

Shazam’s ads program could be the beginning of so much more

unnamedIt’s taken me a few days to figure out what it is that I found so intriguing about the news that Shazam and National CineMedia would be partnering to let users of the “identify by sound” app dig into more information about NCM’s pre-movie ads.

Finally I realized that this kind of functionality, which has been available for a while with select TV ads, has the potential to succeed where a technology like QR codes has so far eluded mass adoption. In fact, this is the rare occasion where an app that ran in the background and send push notifications could actually be kind of cool.

If Shazam (or something like it…I have no particular allegiance to that particular app) were running in the background and detected an ad that had additional content it could create a notification to “Click here for more information about X” on the user’s smartphone automatically. Right now the biggest obstacle, at least to me, to doing something like this is actually pulling the phone out of my pocket or otherwise grabbing it in time to still be able to capture the ad’s noise. But if it was running in the background that step would be taken out and the further information that lies behind the action would be there whenever I was ready to access it. Even accounting for those who are using their devices right at the moment a Shazam-able ad comes on this would be useful since the only thing that’s harder than getting somebody to do something is getting them to stop what they’re currently doing and do something else. So this would allow them to defer the experience to later.

I really believe this would be easier than the current QR code experience, which right now has been filled with widespread adoption by marketers (seriously, I see these things everywhere) but lack of adoption by users, who don’t know what exactly to do when confronted with those little squiggly lined-boxes on signs. Part of my thinking is there’s just such a difference in the app experience. “Use Shazam” is a much easier call to action that everyone will at least kind of understand. But there’s no single branded app that people can use for QR codes. And “Search the App Store for any of a number of QR readers, find one you kind of like, open it up and hold your camera over this box” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

(Why exactly haven’t Google or Apple come out with defaults for QR code reading? Seems like a massive missed opportunity to, by putting it right there front and center in the user experience.)

Basically 1) There’s an opportunity to make the “find out more about this ad” experience much more seamless and 2) Part of that would involve letting the recipient defer that deep-dive for a time that’s more convenient for them. That’s the point of apps like Instapaper, Facebook’s Save, Pocket and others. So it’s only natural for it to eventually come to advertising as well, particularly when the educational opportunities are so rife with potential.

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.

Twitter makes its play for the casual user

twitter-bird-blue-on-white.pngTwitter has laid out what seem to be their plans for the first half of 2015. We can look forward to:

  • The ability to record, edit and share videos natively within the Twitter app. While they seem to say this will coexist alongside Vine it’s easy to take the next step and guess that Vine functionality may one day exist solely within Twitter and Vine cease to exist as a standalone app.
  • Further “experiments” with how “relevant” Tweets are surfaced in someone’s Timeline. The post certainly leaves the door wide open for the much-discussed algorithmic feed that would mimic Facebook’s to an extent but it also hints at giving you a prioritized recap snapshot for the period you were away from Twitter so you can catch up.
  • A way to fill up the Timelines for those people who haven’t put the legwork into following a bunch of people. It’s easy to expect that these “personalized” timelines will be to some degree filled with the accounts Twitter thinks someone will engage with most.
  • A revamped Direct Message experience. The end goal here seems to bring DMs more in line with other messaging apps, though details here are the light.

Put all of that together and you can see the company is focused on two audiences: Light/casual users and big media companies.

The first is absolutely being targeted with the changes that are being made to the timeline. While it’s still unclear as to whether those changes will be opt-in/out or not, the idea of seeing “top stories” immediately upon returning is meant to appeal to those who maybe don’t have Twitter open all day or who don’t have other ways they’re keeping up with the news. In fact, here Twitter may have an advantage over Facebook. If Twitter can indeed figure out how to surface stories that are important and not just highly-engaged with (as Facebook) does then it can retain its standing as the place people go for news while Facebook stays as the place for people who want to watch that Christmas ad with the penguins.

The second is being targeted because they’re the ones behind the accounts (along with celebrities) who are most likely to be used to fill in the Timelines of the people who don’t build their own. And even if a “top news” recap does skew more toward actual news, these are the accounts who are likely to be included in that recap. Finally, they’re going to be huge users of Twitter’s native video capabilities, particularly if (as rumored) it includes auto-play, which brands love and the audience loathes.

It remains to be seen how this will all play out, obviously. But now Twitter is on the record with where they’re heading in 2015. How all this will impact brand publishers can only be guessed at right now. There are certainly potential upsides (more exposure though the display of “important” updates) and downsides (if your posts stink they may not be deemed important *enough*), but the devil will be in the details. More certainly to come.

Facebook’s new News Feed controls don’t go nearly far enough

newsfeedcontrols11Facebook has announced to much fanfare that, in its words, it’s giving people more control over what they see in their News Feed.

To do that Facebook will show people a summary of the pages and people they most frequently seen posts from and give them the option to Unfollow with a single tap. The thinking here obviously is that a person or page may show up too often than is really necessary for that individual, dominating the News Feed and crowding out other posts that may be of more interest.

Along those same lines, there are more controls for giving feedback on an individual story/post as people can now hide the post and then opt to see less from that page or person overall without going all the way and unfollowing, though that too is an option.

This actually ties into another recent story. During a recent Q&A (on Facebook, of course) Mark Zuckerberg addressed the fact that organic reach is diminishing for brand publishers. And just like others from Facebook have said before, he put the blame on the fact that there’s more being published there and so everyone is competing for attention in the News Feed. Here’s the quote, via INC:

“Post content your customers want to see,” he said. “We optimize the newsfeed to create the best experience for our users, not to help businesses reach as many people as possible.”

But Mark…that’s exactly what brands signed up for years ago.

See, brands of all stripes were sold massive reach for their stories back when Facebook opened up to them. All of a sudden they could connect with their fans in a unique and interactive way. And Facebook did everything it could to encourage them to build up their networks as large as possible.

Why was this a big deal? Because at the time the idea of connecting directly with consumers was fairly novel and full of promise. Options were pretty limited to email or direct mail, so the idea that for no charge (other than investing in an content publishing infrastructure) a company could speak to 10,000…100,000…3,000,000 fans was pretty groundbreaking. Since then, though, the ground has steadily shifted. Brands have seen reach slowly (and sometimes quickly) decline, often taking new fan acquisition with it.

So now we’re in a position where two things are in play:

  1. People still aren’t in complete control of their News Feed. While this gives them some feeling of control, it’s really just rearranging functionality that already exists. What strikes me though is that this is all about negative feedback. There’s no feature that says “Show more/all from this Page/Person,” which would have been nice and would have *really* added some controls for people to take advantage of.
  2. Brands and other publishers are being told to again double-down on Facebook (including the recent appeal to give them content to host on Facebook’s own servers) but are being told at the same time it’s kind of not worth their while because there’s a lot of competition they’ll have to fight through in order to get people’s attention.

I still think Facebook needs to give up more of the iron grip it continues to maintain around what people see. Right now I can choose between Top Stories (the algorithm-based feed) or Most Recent, which in theory shows me everything. But, aside from the negative actions mentioned above, there’s little people can do on a page by page basis. It would be nice to see them introduce something that let me rank pages I liked, so a 5 ranking would show me everything and a 1 would show me only what Facebook deems worthy.

Or – and this is just me being nuts – how about it go back to the original promise of unrestricted reach to the audience who have taken the positive action to associate with a page/brand? I know there’s not much money in that for Facebook but it’s what we all originally signed on for. And if it had started out with the ground rules it has in place today it’s hard to believe it would have become the preferred tool it is now.

Local media is in trouble, but only from a certain point of view

Alana Semuels at The Atlantic paints a somewhat grim picture for professional local – or what we used to call “hyper-local” media. The story is pretty much what you would expect given the last few years in the media world: Layoffs of staff at local outlets, big companies unwilling to invest in resources and entrepreneurs having trouble getting funding for their passion projects. It’s enough to make you pretty discouraged that the local online media market has any hope in a world where Buzzfeed and its ilk are dominating the social publishing space. And big time failures like Patch and others aren’t helping.

Obi-Wan-KenobiBut here’s a radical thought: Maybe the reality is that no, there’s no money in local media. And maybe that’s alright.

Travel back with me now to 15 some years ago when blogging was just starting to reach the mainstream. One of the first areas of promise identified by media watchers at the time was hyper-local. While news organizations of all sizes (at the time) had local reporters, self-publishing by the masses – by the people in the neighborhood – seemed like a great idea. Every problem could be solved by these independent voices who would shine a public light on them. These people knew the community and weren’t beholden to column inches and other considerations, so they could cover a topic as much as they deemed fit. And business models weren’t important because people would either do it just for their love of the community or, if they needed a few bucks they could always rely on Google AdSense income.

That utopia has only kinda sorta come to pass, though. Or at least the vision got altered in some way. It’s not necessarily that it never came to pass – I’m guessing you can find a decent personal blog for most major towns and villages in the U.S. – but it got subsumed by the larger media companies who thought they could operate these kinds of sites at scale and bring in not just the few dollars AdSense might generate but serious income through local advertising. Most of these operations are now over and done with, having failed through some combination of crappy content generated by lousy writers being paid a pittance and the inability to actually sell local advertising, a result of not having locally-based sales teams.

It’s possible, though, that local news coverage of the kind we’re talking about here will never be a viable business, either as a stand-alone enterprise or as a division of a larger company. But there’s nothing that says in order to succeed a hyper-local news blog needs to be generating massive revenue, be flush with investment cash or be part of a larger media company. They *can* be sure, but they don’t need to be.

I think the expectation that in order to be successful it needs to meet one or more of the above criteria is false and is simply a construct of the larger media-industry narrative. In a good story the money goes somewhere. So if it’s not being funneled through one of those filters then (sad trombone noise) it’s a failure. But it’s only a failure if there’s some sort of goal to make Aurora East Side News (which I should really start) into a going concern that allows me to quit my day job and become a full time journalist of some sort. If I’m doing Aurora East Side News (which I should really start) simply as a passion project because I want to raise awareness of certain things and am able to do so around the other commitments in my life, then whether I get 35 or 3,500 visitors a day it doesn’t really matter. Certainly a little check is nice and welcome, but it’s not the goal. The news is the goal.

19th Ward News, a site by Scott Smith about his neighborhood (which he says is taking a break while he migrates from Tumblr to WordPress) is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Nothing about this screams “I’m angling for a Knight Foundation Grant so I can retire.” Instead it looks like someone who just wants to talk about the good, bad and weird side of their neighborhood. It’s done for the love of community – physical community – conversation and information. That’s the kind of goal many of us started out with and it’s just as worthy an aspiration as someone who thinks their blog about movie marketing is going to land them a full time gig writing for Variety.

So it’s not that the goals need to change: Let people do what they want to do for whatever reason they want to do it. It’s that the perception of the worthiness of those goals in the eyes of industry watchers and commentators – myself included to an extent – need to be adjusted so that every venture *needs* to be about what the commentator thinks it needs to be about.