Secret and the Risk of Chasing Shiny Objects

News broke the other day that Secret, the anonymous sharing app, would be or is or has (the details are fuzzy) shut down. The site was just a year old – a veritable newborn when measured anywhere outside of Silicon Valley. Suffering from a user exodus and what seems to be an unclear vision of what the app should be about, the founders and others decided to exit the game rather than continue on what appears to be seen as a losing battle.

We’re often asked how soon clients should jump into any of the new apps or social networks that launch on a regular basis. Secret’s fall from the mountain top of buzz, something it achieved by being an outlet for the tech world’s secrets, serves as a reminder that these startups can disappear at any moment. You can build a strategy, you can source content and establish a workflow, but tomorrow the rug could be pulled out because the company decided running the product no longer made sense, ran out of money or any other reason.

Even the most stable of these networks brands are using to reach people – sites like Facebook or Twitter – are essentially sand castles, only as stable as the people around them are careful and subject to the whims of nature or, in this case, market forces. That’s why we recommend not only being careful about jumping in, making sure it actually makes sense to establish a presence there, but also making sure one network isn’t seen as a single source of salvation (read: traffic) and therefore isn’t at risk of becoming a single point of failure.

It’s 2015 and I want a better RSS reader

I’ve said countless times that if a site doesn’t a working RSS feed it’s basically invisible to me. Not since 2005 when I was introduced to RSS and Bloglines – my first RSS reader – have I had a list of sites bookmarked in a browser that I go through to check for updates. Instead I use RSS to have all those updates brought to me in a way that allows me to see exactly what I want to at a time that’s convenient for me. First there was Bloglines, then I switched to Newsgator and then to Google Reader, where I stayed until mid-2013 when it was shut down. For a number of years I had two Google Reader setups going, one for “personal” reading and one for “work” reading so I could keep client-related news separate. Since its untimely death I’ve get that split going, using Digg Reader for personal news and Feedly for work monitoring.


10 years, five different options and I’ve yet to find an RSS reader that works like I want it to. But I have seen some of the features I want in my ideal RSS environment. And I think Automattic, the company that maintains WordPress (the software this site uses) is just the company to do it.

There’s a “Reader” attached to WordPress that I’ve tried out on a few different occasions but which is missing not only some of the core functionality but also some of the bonus features that I REALLY want in an RSS experience. It’s precisely this blank-slate state that makes me think it’s the perfect one to really blow out its offerings and create a product that brings in the best of the current web along with features that are nowhere to be found in the existing ecosystem.

Here’s what I’m looking for:

Unread Counts – Everyone else has this and has for the last decade. It’s a small thing but it’s important to see how far from the end you are. Hitting the “0” mark brings with it a lot of emotional satisfaction (at least for me) and is an essential element.

Folders – Again, everyone else allows you to organize your feeds in the manner you see fit, so adding this to WP Reader is a no-brainer, just bringing it to being competitive with other products.

Sharing – Digg just offers Twitter and Facebook (as well as Buffer) while Feedly adds on LinkedIn, Google+ and some other options. But I want this taken to the next level and have the ability to not just share but schedule those shares. So it’s not just “Post now” I want but “Post at X time” or, ideally, “queue for posting” at regular intervals automatically like you can on Tumblr. Speaking of which…

Publishing – I don’t just want to post to social networks, I want to publish to my blog, either WordPress or Tumblr, all within the RSS reader environment. In my mind this works be opening a drafting window with some sort of keyboard shortcut like SHIFT+P that lets me take the link from the post and begin drafting a post, share a quote or other action.

Link Blog – These used to be core features of RSS readers but now they seem to be a remnant of the time before Facebook or Twitter. Bur ask anyone who was a Google Reader user and they’ll say subscribing to someone’s Shared Items feed was one of the best features there. It surfaced all sorts of interesting things that wouldn’t normally appear in your feed and created a real sense of community. While I understand that usage might not be high, offering this would allow people to get those random serendipitous posts from others outside of Twitter or Facebook where they’re too often missed. It would be amazing if this were not only folded into a WordPress site’s main RSS feed (meaning no additional subscription is needed) but also tacked on to the site. So, for instance, if all the items I pushed to a link were available at or some such. Bonus points if there’s the ability to comment on someone’s shared item like you used to be able to do in Google Reader. Because that was awesome.

That’s my feature wish list. So why do I think Automattic is the right company to take RSS into the future? Because there’s nothing about the company that makes me think its priorities don’t lie with the community. Not that Digg or Feedly aren’t doing great things by offering good products, but by creating a Reader that’s open-source and maintained by the community regardless of corporate whims it can ensure those of us for whom RSS serves as the core of our functionality will have it around for as long as we’re tied to it.

The Fan/Corporate Art Double Standard

Despite having not written Movie Marketing Madness in over two years I still pay quite a bit of attention to what studios are doing to sell their movies to the public.  More generally, I’ve watched what kinds of things are getting the attention of the movie press, be they official assets or fan creations.

What I’ve noticed is that reactions are based largely on what the source is. The same piece of artwork could be released by both the studio and by fans, but if it’s from the former it will be a “meh” effort while if it comes from the latter it will be “mindblowingly awesome.” While I think there’s a legitimate case to be made for expecting more out of professionals there are also two other factors at work:

First, fans are simply more inclined to champion other fans. On the one hand this is good and essentially how it should be on a democratized web. “Surfacing the awesome things that wouldn’t normally be seen” was one of the big mantras of the early web, so yay. On the other hand, though, it’s quite clear many times that some artwork is being given a pass – or at least a more generous reception – based simply on its origin. I often see mediocre work celebrated as truly amazing and have no recourse but to assume that it’s being labeled as such just because it comes from “a fan.”

In part this is because even after all this time there’s the assumption that just because someone doesn’t work in the industry they’re “just a fan.” That assumption, though, doesn’t hold water now any more than it did in 2005 (or 1985…or 1955…or any other time) and in fact you would think we’d all be more hip to how people can have talents outside their vocation. I call this “The Myth of the Amateur” in that people believe anyone who, for instance, doesn’t make their living from being an artist is an amateur whose skills are to be marveled at as if a zebra suddenly started singing Italian opera.

This is, of course, nonsense. Anyone can have a multitude of talents that have nothing to do with the one area where they’re making their money. Treating such talents as if they are so mystically amazing because that’s not their job is condescending and irrational and usually a sign that the person providing the praise has but one single talent, not a multitude.

The second reason for the disconnect is that fan art – which comes unencumbered by the “process” that accompanies corporately-produced assets – is free from the constraints of contracts, style guides and other considerations. The freedom that’s on display usually makes whatever committee-produced materials are released pale by comparison. So fan creations have raised the bar on creative expression, a bar that studio-produced material can’t usually clear because they need to make sure the title treatment is using X font and that everyone who’s contractually obligated to have a credit in a certain position is accounted for.

What results is a disconnect in how things are perceived and reacted to. Movie posters are what comes to mind most readily but there are examples in just about every industry’s marketing, at least those industries that are fan-facing and deal with something creative.  And that’s both condescending to the wonderful talents who haven’t found a job in the industry they may – MAY – prefer to work in (as if taking a job just because it’s a job never occurred to some people) and demeaning to the talents who turn out the best work they can with the constraints the job they DO have.

It has probably never occurred to some of the people whose sites comment on these sorts of things that there’s a double standard in place. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Let’s ramp down the “ZOMGBBQ” reactions to every kind of cool piece of fan art and let’s judge corporately-produced artwork for what it is, a product of the constraints put around it.

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 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.

PNConnect Weekly Reading 4/9/15

PNConnect Weekly Reading 4/9/15: Screenshorts, Instagram Updates and Much More « PNConnect | Digital Marketing Services from Porter Novelli.

Here’s this week’s PNConnect Weekly Reading. Enjoy.

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.


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.