This Week Elsewhere – 3/30/18

Cinematic Slant

Cinematic Slant is where I write about movies, including the campaign recaps I’ve been doing since 2004 along with other news and opinions.

Outside In – Marketing Recap: There’s a darkness to the story that’s being sold here. Chris is obsessed, that much is clear, but it’s left unspoken whether that obsession turns violent or if he fades off in the landscape when it becomes clear his feelings will not be returned. As it is, what’s shown for the audience is a very personal story.

Lean on Pete – Marketing Recap: While there was decent buzz that came out of the festival appearances, this campaign does little to nothing to break into the mainstream audience. There’s a nice little story on display, but it’s the kind of thing that isn’t going to get anyone’s attention until it shows up as a streaming recommendation somewhere and they decide to half-watch it while doing something else.

And Now Five Vertigo Series to Adapt for TV: A while ago, in the wake of news that the Vertigo Comics series The Kitchen was being adapted into a feature film I came up with a list of five other Vertigo properties I thought would make compelling and popular movies. There were a handful I considered for that list but which I actually thought would work better on the small screen. And so, without further preamble and using the recent news that Astro City is being developed as a TV show, I present the five recent titles that would be *perfect* to adapt in a longer format, either as a limited or ongoing series.

Ready Player One – Marketing Recap: I can’t argue with the point that the movie is being sold as Spot The Reference to a great extent. I do think, though, that people who are calling that out are the same ones who are pouring over every Marvel Studios film looking for the easter eggs and clues that hint at future films or other characters. So it’s not that they have a problem with that tactic, it’s just not being done in a way that rewards them being more clever than anyone else. The campaign has evolved from one that laid out the foundations of the world the story takes place in to one that sold a fast-paced tech thrill ride. Ignore all the nods to Last Action Hero seen fleetingly on a theater marquee and the pitch isn’t that different from any other being made.

When Good Enough Is Good Enough: That “good enough” label is used essentially as a criticism. Netflix has been criticized for flooding the market with “adequate” material, crowding out other options ranging from streaming to theatrical. And the company is seen as being fine with “meh” instead of consistently shooting for greatness, as it sometimes does do. So…what’s the problem?

Love After Love – Marketing Recap: This isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, that’s for sure. The campaign isn’t very clear about the story or the characters and what there is often seems inaccessible and occasionally off-putting. But that’s part of the message, that this is difficult and should be dealt with as such. The rest of the performances are almost afterthoughts, this is MacDowell’s showcase through and through and she’s the strongest value proposition offered to the audience.

Yes, Movie Marketing is Tracking You: The Facebook/Cambridge news was huge because everyone either uses Facebook or is tracked by its ad network software on other sites. The implications and relevance were apparent to vast swaths of the population immediately. That news came just a couple weeks after a smaller-scale controversy momentarily rocked the movie industry and had it engaging in a debate over user tracking not unlike what’s happening now.

The Last Movie Star – Marketing Recap: What’s clear in the campaign is that this movie is being positioned as Reynold’s career summation statement, a final bow before leaving the stage. He may have another role or two in him, but the meta-context of an actor who hasn’t been a box-office draw for 20 years playing an actor who hasn’t been a box-office draw for a while can’t be missed.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Google Buys Tenor, So Let’s Drop the Facade

When it comes to GIF repositories there are two major players (putting Tumblr aside since that’s not it’s main purpose…though it kind of is): Giphy and Tenor. Both have worked over the last few years to position themselves as the ultimate warehouse for all your GIF needs, working with media companies to create corporate profiles a la YouTube channels, live-GIF awards shows and more. Tenor in particular has recently branched out into sponsored GIFs.

That company was recently acquired by Google, which stated the purchase was to make it easier to search and find just the right GIF you’re looking for. It plans to integrate Tenor’s library into products like Gboard and more. Not only does this give them a way to keep up with the new language of the internet it also gives them access to that sweet ad revenue Tenor was now pulling in.

Whatever the motivations, one thing is now indisputable: Google now owns a media company. By definition it then is a media company

Let’s be clear and admit that Google has always been a media company, at least back to the days when it bought YouTube, launched Google News and made other moves. The fig leaf it’s hidden behind was that neither of those products produced anything original, it just placed ads against the material other parties posted and/or organized and filtered that content so it could be found via search.

Tenor, like Giphy, makes things though. Neither company has been content to just be a distribution platform but has actively worked with other media companies to do all that live event coverage. It’s actively sought out brand partnerships and helped those brands create GIFs through branded content production studios.

If you create content and own the means of distribution, you’re a media company. So here are my questions for Google now that it can no longer deny that label:

  • What Editorial Controls Are In Place Around Tenor Content?: Assuming Google will take the same deeply-flawed approach to content posted by others it takes to YouTube, how will it determine what is or isn’t appropriate? How will it deal with offensive material? What standards will it adhere to when it comes to partner content Tenor creates itself?
  • Will Tenor Content Be Given Preferential Placement in Search Results? If So, How Does That Mesh With the Goal To Provide the *Best* Results? With Tenor content being integrated into Google Images search (it already was, but let’s move past that) how will that content rank on SERPs? What happens when sponsored partner content that could lead to revenue isn’t the *best* result over a GIF hosted elsewhere?
  • What New Monetization Schemes Will Be Put In Place on Tenor? Tenor has already made inroads into sponsored GIFs. Will those efforts be expanded, with something like a GIF version of YouTube’s Partner Program coming soon? If so, the question of what terms of service creators will have to agree to needs to be asked as well.
  • How Will Tenor Compatibility With Social Networks Be Impacted? Tenor already integrates with Gboard but also has connections with Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack and other apps and social networks allowing its GIFs to be found and posted easily. Will those be maintained?

The idea of a company devoted to objective search also owning content platforms has never sat well with me. A general Google search for a video that yielded YouTube-hosted results were always suspect. Were they actually the best videos, or were they ranked more highly because they were on a Google-related property? Now we need to ask these same questions around GIFs.

Google doesn’t need any more reasons for us to question the quality of its search results because of changes it’s making motivated by self-interest. More than ever there needs to be some level of transparency in the search results it displays. That’s not just because of the Tenor acquisition but because of the problems around both Google and YouTube surfacing conspiracy theory videos and stories as “news,” the deal it recently signed to display results from select retailers at the top of “where can I buy X” searches and more.

It even extends to the company’s plans to essentially divide the internet in half, those that play by its “security and accessibility” rules and those that don’t. Overlooked is the fact that no one has granted it the power to unilaterally define the future of the internet or asked it to assume that role. At least no one outside of the company has done so.

If Google is going to be a media company – which is clearly is at this point, making editorial decisions motivated by what it feels users want and will respond to – it needs to answer some fundamental questions around its processes if it wants to maintain the trust it’s currently allocated in the minds of users.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

How Digital Media Can Help Us Bring Outdated Concepts Into the Present

As part of the publicity cycle for Ready Player One, director Steven Spielberg copped to a mistake. He admitted that digitally altering the guns held by law enforcement officials during a key moment of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial when the movie was released on DVD in 2002 was a bad idea. Those guns were changed into walkie-talkies because, he said at the time, he was newly uncomfortable with the idea of adults pointing guns at kids.

In a way, that decision was part of a bigger conversation we have every few years around whether or not we should still value elements of our cultural past even if, as the kids say, the messages contained therein haven’t exactly aged well. We see writ large whenever a middle school library somewhere attempts to remove all copies of “Huckleberry Finn” or “Catcher in the Rye.” Or when Netflix adds “Friends” and we all remember how the show frequently got big laughs from gay panic jokes.

Often when these conversations emerge there are only two options offered:

  1. Let’s remember that the attitudes conveyed were appropriate and acceptable for the time and need to be viewed as such, even if we can all agree that kind of thinking doesn’t fly today.
  2. Everything that doesn’t conform to our new enlightened worldview needs to be shunned as horribly inappropriate. Maybe we shouldn’t drop it down the memory hole, but we should definitely remove it from sight and judge anyone who still enjoys it.

There is a third, way, though, one that isn’t as extreme as the two above and which is available because of the flexibility of digital distribution.

When Netflix debuted its original show “13 Reasons Why” last year it received decent praise. It also came under a fair amount of criticism for the way it treated teen suicide – a serious topic and a national epidemic, especially because of the cyber-bullying kids are now subject to regularly – as a mere plot point. The company, which is heavily investing in original programming, could have written this one off and tucked it down in the catalog, hoping everyone forgot about it to avoid coming under continued fire.

Instead, it recently announced it would add warning videos with information on suicide to the beginnings of those videos.

It’s that third way that I hope more and more content owners and distributors latch on to and embrace. Instead of seeing removal from the historical record as a viable option, consider how to add current context to the material to cast it in a current light and explain that what we’re seeing is sometimes a time capsule from a different era.

Digital media provides the ability to add that context. These aren’t trigger warnings, these are explanations and discussion points for the audience to consider. If the stats change or new information comes to light, they’re easily updated so that viewers today see the most current data.

Take Netflix’s pre-show additions a step farther and imagine something like Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We would know the original film was unaltered because its veracity has been authenticated through blockchain technology showing the original hash. Before the movie starts we’re presented with a message saying the film contains an instance of a white actor playing an Asian character, something that was common and uncontroversial – or at least acceptable – at the time. As the movie plays and scenes of Mickey Rooney in yellowface come up, a pop-up box appears asking if you’d like to learn more about this later. You click “Yes” and when the movie is over a set of links are sent to your device of choice that let you learn more about they studio made this decision, what Rooney said about it over the years and more.

I’m not naive enough to not be aware of the potential issues here. Again, the authenticity of the original film, book or show would have to be verifiable in some way. Ideally the supporting data points and links are provided by the community in a bias-free environment like what’s found on Wikipedia. Lacking either safeguard means media companies could scrub their corporate reputation of decades-old sins with relative impunity, changing the cultural record before our eyes.

That record is important. It’s vital. Who we were isn’t always pleasant to look at or examine, but it’s important to see both our sins and our virtues. Being honest about the lack of minority representation in film, for example, should drive us to do better in the future, but the first step is admitting there were problems. We can have a healthy debate about whether “Catcher in the Rye” or “Catch-22” are still relevant for teens as part of a curriculum, but we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand simply because the subject matter or approach is one we would no longer deem palatable.

There’s potential for digital media, then to offer the best of all worlds, preserving the unaltered text of the original work so it can be judged on its merits and serve as fodder for a healthy cultural debate while also providing the supporting material to put it in the appropriate context and further, not stifle, that debate and discussion.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Facebook Keeps Missing The Point

It’s kind of remarkable that this post got published. Facebook was reacting to reports from over the weekend of people finding their entire phone and chat histories were part of the data they were exporting from Facebook. They were shocked to find that years and years of non-Facebook usage was included. In the wake of the continuing Cambridge Analytica fallout, everyone was very receptive to another story about Facebook and data tracking.

The company’s response, though, was shockingly tone deaf, as most things coming out of Silicon Valley tech companies usually are. Facebook very clearly states that it is *not* pulling this data without the permission of the individual, that they have *agreed* to allow access to this behavior.

Yeah…not actually what we’re discussing here. That may have been the way the story was framed by some writers, but it’s not what we’re talking about.

It didn’t take long for everyone realize that the problem with the Cambridge Analytica situation wasn’t that the data had been stolen, or even necessarily that there had been a breach. Certainly the use of data in a way that violated Facebook’s terms of service for partner companies was troubling, but what really became crystal clear is just how much data companies have on us.

I’m not the first one to admit that I’ve willingly played my role in the data economy, willingly trading information about myself for access to social networks and other sites. I’ve clicked the “Agreed” box on terms and conditions without reading all 57 pages of legalese. That’s on me, a decision I’ve made freely.

What Facebook’s statement misses is that we realize they weren’t doing it secretly. It’s just that now we’ve been shown what’s behind the curtain and are no longer cool with the terms of engagement. We would like to renegotiate – or at least discuss – the contract between the public and those harvesting our data for purposes we’re not always going to be on board with.

Not everyone can embrace the #DeleteFacebook movement for one reason or another. That’s reality. It might be their only connection with their family, a way to access an important support community or because it’s necessary for their job. The reasons will be varied, but the result is they can’t do it.

There needs to be another way, then. And I maintain that simply rebalancing the power dynamic between those who want to collect our data and information will be enough to keep government regulation, which more and more people are in favor of, to a minimum. If the U.S. were to adopt something like the General Data Protection Rule that’s about to go into effect in Europe people could opt-in to specific activities instead of being subject to a blanket agreement saying all data is on the table. If they don’t mind personalized ads themselves but don’t want to be part of vaguely defined research, they should have that option. There are other, smarter people who have reasonable solutions to this.

In short, as Dave Winer and others have said, this is *our* data and the structures of the online world need to be realigned to put the power back in the hands of the public. We should know how it’s being used, be able to export it and take it elsewhere easily and make changes when we see fit.

Let’s also be clear: This is not a problem that’s unique to Facebook or any social tech company. The public has a right to know how the information collected on us through retail loyalty cards is being used. Or how research companies are tracking us as we walk through stores, museums or other public locations. It extends to government as well.

For Facebook, a good first step would be to full understand the conversation that’s happening and acknowledge the nuance between “I didn’t know this was happening” and “I just discovered this secret thing was happening.” The company is understandably feeling pressured because of the scrutiny being applied to it resulting from the Cambridge Analytica situation and may have rushed this one out quickly after coming under fire for a delayed response after the CA revelations.

The lack of emotion and understanding in that statement almost makes it seem there were no non-techs involved in drafting it, which is a bad idea when your corporate reputation is taking such a hit. At this moment in time Facebook – and all tech companies – need to be very careful about their public pronouncements. There’s more and more call for the upending of the bro culture that has held fast in tech for so long, one that has overlooked potential problems because the team involved had only one point of view.

Having a jerk in the room, someone who is willing to take the most annoying stance on an idea to test its feasibility, is a good idea. What it seems is needed now is a Chief Empathy Officer, someone who is specifically tasked with considering the feelings and needs of others and who has veto power over important product and marketing programs. Such a role might upset some apple carts, but it’s going to help. Not only would some bad product ideas be squashed early on but statements like the one Facebook released around activity tracking could be made much, much more appropriate.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Who Is This Stock Photo Guy?

I see this photo everywhere. It pops up in my RSS reader at least once or twice a week.

stock photo guy

Sometimes the blog post using it is about writing or being a writer. Sometimes it’s about productivity. Sometimes it’s about workplace issues of some sort or another.

Most stock photos are pretty generic. If a picture says a thousand words, the majority of stock photos are good for only 25 or 30. You can get what the photographer was going for quickly and easily. Subtext is not common.

But I’ve seen this so much I’ve begun genuinely wondering who this guy is and what his backstory is. Here’s the message the photo seems to be trying to convey:

A young developer at a startup with an open floor plan has taken his laptop, which is low on power, to one of the cafeteria-like booths it offers in its open floor plan office for when workers want to get away from their desks in order to fix a problem that’s frustrating him.

How am I putting that together?

  • He’s clearly no older than 30 and is probably closer to 25.
  • Laptop stickers for two different versions of HTML, Github and other tech-related resources.
  • The booths are colorful but clearly seperated, indicating a workspace that is usually open but where some personal time is still needed.
  • The guy’s casual wardrobe indicates there’s a relaxed dress code if there is one at all, which I’m associating with a tech company, probably a newer one.
  • He’s rubbing his head and looking wide-eyed at his computer, obviously trying to crack some problem that’s plaguing him.
  • His laptop is plugged in. Based on my experience, developers and designers don’t bring their power cords with them unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Those are assumptions based on my own personal experience and worldview. There are plenty of alternatives, of course.

He could be using his friend’s laptop at a Noodles & Co. to update his resume and just found out his significant other broke up with him because she changed her Facebook relationship status.

He could be a writer working out of a coworking space who just misspelled “mythology” for the fourth time in a row and is wondering whether they’re hiring at Peet’s because this clearly isn’t working out.

He could be reading news of a new iPhone coming out soon and is mad because he just upgraded two months ago.

You could write any number of stories about this or really any other photo. You can assign the person any number of motives or personality traits based on his posture and expression. You can put him in any number of situations based on his environment and the items he’s interacting with. The possibilities are plentiful.

If you wanted to you could concoct a whole life for this individual that’s lead to this moment and forecast what his future holds, using any number of potential choices to create endless possible outcomes.

For me, it’s become a game. Every time I see this photo pop up I’m going to imagine a whole different set of circumstances for him. If people are going to keep using it, I’m going to have some fun with it.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Content For Your Audience

This post from UnionMetrics isn’t the first I’ve seen that has offered advice on how to tailor your content for the various algorithms and recommendations in play across the web or how to stay abreast of changes to those systems and remain nimble enough to change. It’s just the latest example of an online genre meant to be helpful and provide guidance in uncertain times, when your finely-crafted content marketing plan can fall apart because of a few lines of code committed by someone in Menlo Park, CA.

Those sorts of algorithm and recommendation system changes certainly keep social media content marketers on their toes. As frustrating as they are, they keep us busy and employed because someone has to keep up with what’s happening and provide insights to those who aren’t plugged in. Adjustments need to be made constantly to tactics, strategies and goals based on what’s reasonable in the new reality that month.

To that end, professionals in the field need to make it a priority to stay on top of new developments. I’ve long talked about “The Newsweek Effect.” In short it’s when a new social network or other bit of news finally bubbles up from the niche blogs and early adopters to warrant coverage in the mainstream press. At that point, the social media marketer gets an email from a C-level exec or VP asking what it is they just read about. By then, a professional worth his or her salt should already have a perspective on it and be able to speak intelligently about why it should or shouldn’t be adopted.

What I’ve also found, though, is that tailoring your content strategy to every change in the algorithm is a fool’s errand. You send your entire day/week/month/year chasing a rabbit that’s always just two feet out of reach. As soon as you adjust to what’s in place now there’s something new requiring your attention. Last week you had your graphics department creating social images with a “Like for Option 1, comment for Option 2” call to action. Now you need to explain to them that the images need to have “Type ‘yes’ below to agree.”

It never ends.

So stop.

No seriously, stop.

Don’t be fooled by anyone who presents tactics designed to game the algorithms in place on social networks as “best practices.” They’re not. They’re cheap plays to an indifferent machine that will never buy your product or sign up for your newsletter.

Post for your audience instead.

That’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s one that bears repeating. Don’t adjust your tactics or strategies based on what’s going to work within a recommendation engine. Use your own statistics – what gets engagement, what drives the most click-throughs – to guide your strategy. Those are the people you actually want to be appealing to, so do that.

There’s much more long-term success that’s possible by actually using your audience for insights on what the audience will like than using some algorithm-optimization checklist to do so.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that social media content shouldn’t be optimized in some very basic and recommended ways. Make sure you’re using key terms in your copy, that you’re using a well-formatted image, that your link works and so on. All of that is *essential.*

I’m just saying that if you have to make a choice between what the algorithm would prefer and what has been proven to get a good reaction from your human audience, choose the latter. That group is much less fickle and won’t turn on a dime, leaving you in the dust. Use your own metrics, not those offered by one of the many CMS companies, to determine when the best time to post is, what the ideal format and style is and everything else.

The important thing to do, then, is be ready to explain yourself. When an exec who’s not part of the daily program asks why you’re doing this and not that (or worse, if they bring in a “consultant” selling snake oil who asks the same questions) have the data. Know what your rationale and reasoning is and make the case.

Having documents like program frameworks and style guides will help with this greatly. If you’ve already received buy-in on a set of principles and an overall approach then you have something to point to. Those are your maps, the navigational stars orienting your journey toward its destination. They’re living documents that can and should be updated as appropriate, but making changes should be difficult, not done as a knee-jerk reaction to any one moment.

Again, there’s nothing new that I’m proposing here. It’s just important to remember that your job as a marketer is not to appease the ever-changing algorithm but to reach a human audience. The former is one way to achieve the latter, but not the only one.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

This Week Elsewhere – 3/23/18

Cinematic Slant

Cinematic Slant is where I write about movies, including the campaign recaps I’ve been doing since 2004 along with other news and opinions.

Game Over, Man – Marketing Recap: I get that “not really trying” is kind of the whole point of the schtick from these guys and others of their comedic generation, but it’s not working and doesn’t make this movie look funny at all.

The New Avengers: Infinity War Trailer and Enduring Human Spirit: If you’ve watched both this and the first trailer, you know that Thanos seems to smack heroes around like it’s nothing. Iron Man, even in full Hulkbuster-type armor, is dismissed seemingly out of hand, as if he’s a gnat being swatted away. Cap, though, he resists. He keeps going. He simply refuses to be beaten down. To coin a phrase, he could do this all day.

Pacific Rim: Uprising – Marketing Recap: If the movie has more of an emotional, character-based core than what’s shown here (which is possible with DeKnight) I’ll be glad. The campaign mounted by Universal and Legendary, though, is as generic and bloated as the first one wasn’t. Aside from the moments where it overtly evokes the characters and events of the original there’s no emotional hook to grasp here.

Soundtracks Could Be Uniquely Positioned To Succeed: For the last couple months movie soundtracks – especially those for The Greatest Showman and Black Panther – have been dominating the album charts. That, as the THR story points out, is just the latest example of a trend that’s also included collections for Coco, the Fifty Shades movies and a number of others.

Isle of Dogs – Marketing Recap: I like the cross-cultural approach that is consistent throughout the campaign, which lends it a unique message and identify for the audience to latch on to. My main problem then is the lack of supporting material. This feels like a fully-fleshed out world Anderson is visiting and so not providing any sort of backstory or profiles feels like a misstep to me.

Studios Using Voice, Not Characters, in Marketing Movies on Social Media: On a couple different occasions, studios have begun playing with the voice of their online marketing more than trying to appear as if they exist within the movie’s physical world. Two examples jump out at me that offer what I think are fun approaches so social publishing.

Unsane – Marketing Recap: What this campaign does really well is sell the idea of terror happening within confined spaces, whether that’s a physical space like an institution’s room or the space of one’s own mind. That’s what it really has going for it, that everything happens in a very small area that increases the tension since if you can’t see danger in front of you it’s right behind you.

The Kitty Pryde Movie I Want to See: I’m more interested in a screen version of Kitty that’s as interesting as the one presented in Excalibur or “Astonishing,” a young hero who’s driven not out of rage or desire for revenge or even a sense of obligation. Instead she just wants to be a hero and help people. It’s pure and exciting and could make for a really powerful story.

Don’t Use the “B” Word In Your Movie Movie Marketing: Perhaps Heller has been following recent box-office trends and finding people are shying away from anything bearings of a few big moments that don’t adequately encapsulate a life in a compelling way. the “biopic” label for one reason or another. There are lots of potential explanations, from an end-of-year glut based on Awards Season to many seeming to hit the same point over and over to many being mere outlines.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The Cost and Value of New Customers

If you’ve worked in marketing, advertising or any related field for more than about 72 hours you’ll have been part of at least one conversation where the phrase “return on investment” was used. Without belaboring the obvious, ROI is Amount Spent On Marketing MINUS Value of Action or Acquisition. If you spend $100 on an ad campaign and can track $1,000 in new or incremental spending to that campaign, your ROI is $900.

I’ve been thinking about ROI a lot in light of the news that broke a week or so ago after a set of numbers was leaked by someone of how Amazon tracks Prime Video subscriber value. Keep in mind these numbers did not come *from* Amazon and the company has refused to comment on their veracity. For the sake of this discussion I’m going to assume they’re at least directionally accurate.

Putting aside how Amazon uses Prime Video as a foot in the door for new members who it hopes will then use Prime to buy other goods, the leaked documents offer insights into what standards it uses to gauge the success of its original programming. Quite simply, a show’s value is dependent on the number of new Prime subscribers it attracts. Some of the math is a little fuzzy, but using the example offered in the Reuters article, “The Main in The High Castle,” here’s how it breaks down:

  1. Production and Marketing Cost: $72,000,000
  2. New Subscribers: 1,150,000
  3. Cost Per Subscriber: $63

Just using that last number – which is a perfect example of the kind of black-box calculation the leaked documents don’t offer insight into – and putting it against the $99 yearly Prime subscription fee, the ROI for “The Man in The High Castle” was $36. That’s the delta between the cost and the value per customer acquisition.

Amazon reportedly uses its proprietary formula solely on the first show a new subscriber watched after joining. That’s how it decides, at least in part, which shows to renew and which to let drop.

That’s a major flaw in the equation and one that is problematic given the growth of original programming on streaming services. Here are the questions that speak to the issues and problems I have:

  • Understanding that the line has to be drawn somewhere, how much should the longer-term value of a new subscriber be attributed to the show? If “Marvelous” brought in fewer new subscribers but they spent more in aggregate over the next six months on other goods offered by Amazon, shouldn’t that be a factor?
  • “First show watched” is useful for gauging how effective a marketing campaign is, but how much is the size of the campaign accounted for in the calculation? The first season of “High Castle,” based on what I’ve seen in the trade press, received a much larger marketing push than “Revolt,” so how does that math work? $10 spent to bring in $20 has the same ROI *ratio* as spending $1 to bring in $2, even if the dollar figures are the drastically different.
  • How much (if at all) are “other shows watched” given credit for retention if not acquisition? “High Castle” might have brought in scads of new subscribers, but has that audience stuck around in part because of other programming?

We might never know the anwsers to these and other questions, but they’re worth asking. Amazon, like Netflix, doesn’t offer viewership numbers willingly because it doesn’t have to. In part that’s because these shows aren’t ad-supported (though Amazon’s business model makes that statement iffy at best) and so don’t need to show anyone what it is they’re buying into.

If those questions aren’t being addressed internally within Amazon as part of its decision-making process, then those decisions are being made largely in a vacuum. At least they’re being made without considering a sufficiently broad range of data points. It leaves the fate of shows that have more niche appeal – those that are never going to draw more than small audience – in the balance as the company hopes a $500 million bet on a “Lord of the Rings” show pays off. That has the security executives like being based on an existing property and having a largely white, male audience.

Are those viewers going to do anything else, though? Will they re-up with Prime after they finish watching that one show? Or will they cancel as soon as they’re finished binging, offering no subsequent value to the company as a whole?

It’s not clear – at least not based on this one report – anyone’s actually asking those questions while they focus on the only the hook, not the rest of the line they have in the water.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Quick Takes – Marketing and Media News for 3/22/18

More on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal:

  • At a time when the EPA and other governmental agencies are following conservative directions to strip power from regulatory agencies (if not dismantle them outright) it seems unlikely calls for a digital protection agency or updates to copyright law will be heeded. If politicians don’t believe their needed for banks, why would they see a need regarding tech?
  • CEO Mark Zuckerberg was neither seen nor heard for almost a week before his first statement , accompanied by another official Facebook post, that reads as remarkably tone-deaf, basically saying “we’ve already covered this.” That may be true, but the outrage is happening *now* about what was even possible then. The failure to address that is astounding.
  • Following that he did the media rounds, apologizing, sounding contrite and even saying he’s open to testify before regulators “if it makes sense,” but nowhere in what I saw did he address that there was very little out of the ordinary from Facebook’s point of view that happened here. While CA did keep more data than they should have, it was collected within the bounds of what FB allowed. *That* is what needs to be addressed.


It’s a fair point that Hollywood is embracing the 50+ crowd with a string of reboots on TV and older-skewing films in theaters. But while some of these feature more ethnically-inclusive casts, we’re drawing from a cultural period that was still dominated by white people and that’s just not reality – or even what’s proven to be popular on either media – recently.

Media companies would be just as ill-advised to put their fates in the hands of Google with that company’s new “Subscribe With Google” feature as they were to line up for Facebook Instant Articles. If not now, these tech companies will want to shut down the kind of reporting being done on them (see efforts by Facebook to kill the Cambridge Analytica story at The Guardian and The New York Times), at which point they will adjust the spigot under their control accordingly.

Meredith is laying off 1,000 former Time, Inc staffers across a number of publications in addition to the 200 it let go last week, in part to make those publications more attractive to potential buyers.

The future of radio is…not great. Between corporate bankruptcies, falling ad revenue and declining listenership, radio stations don’t seem to have a whole lot of track in front of them. That’s also because those companies and stations have failed to evolve to meet consumer preferences and it might be too late to start.

This is an essential reminder of the vital role the press plays in the informing of the public. If you don’t have someone who starts from a place of skepticism, you can’t be sure the information you’re consuming is accurate or truthful. This is why independent outlets are important in an age when a few big companies are gobbling up more and more of the media landscape and subsequently stifling critical reporting. It’s also just as important for members of the press to start from a place of skepticism and not buy in to the hype handed to them by publicists.

Marketing / Advertising

If you’re not going to pay for YouTube’s music streaming service it’s going to increase the number of ads to the point where you finally submit. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is similar to the “play heavy metal outside Saddam’s compound until he surrenders” approach taken during the first Iraq War.

Artificial intelligence may be able to surface a lot of numbers and metrics important to marketers but it can’t tell you what’s important about those numbers, which is problematic.

Social Media

Two new features from YouTube in the last couple days. “Director” is geared toward small businesses who may be hesitant to create video ads by pairing them (after they’ve committed to spending at least $350 in advertising) with someone to film and edit the ad for them at no additional cost. I’m super-curious about the behind-the-scenes arrangements here, since I would imagine YouTube maintains a directory of freelancers or contractors to do this work and then pays them itself. At the same time it’s rolled out a webcam feature that allows you to go live with a video directly from your desktop browser, which is is a clear shot at other platforms that have emphasized live video recently.

While everyone has been focused on the problem of fake followers on Twitter and Russians on Facebook, fake views on YouTube continue to be a serious problem as it games the recommendation system, usually for profit but sometimes for even less moral reasons.

You can now add filters and text to your LinkedIn videos. I’d question whether or not this is a smart move for the network given its more professional connotations but I suspect younger members for whom this kind of feature is standard on other platforms simply expect it and would turn away were it not offered.

If you buy movie tickets on Facebook via Fandango or Atom Tickets you get $2 off. The deal is available through either a unique page or on the pages of select movies. My hunch (based on scads of precedent) is that the $2 discount won’t last long but is a subsidy being paid by Facebook to entice behavior to the point where it doesn’t need to.

Hashtags and @ usernames are now live links in Instagram bios. Oh, and the photo-sharing app is partially reverting back to something kinda sorta close maybe to a chronological feed to quell user dispeasure.


If you ever wanted to draw white lines in the air around you, that’s exactly what Google’s new “Just a Line” AR app will let you do.

It’s good that we’re scrutinizing the tech behind self-driving cars in the wake of a pedestrian death. I just wish the same standards would be applied to the whole infrastructure model that puts massive cars of all types just inches away from people on foot or on bikes. Oh, and guns.

Trying to solve for the bias and favoritism that are rampant in human judgement by replacing them with an algorithm that’s cold and merciless, failing to make any sort of full-featured evaluation of individual needs is not an improvement. Particularly when it comes to something like law enforcement or healthcare. Expect these stories to become more frequent as companies seek to maximize profits and reduce expenses, including staff. Assuming, of course, that the media brands owned or controlled by those same companies allow the stories to be told.

I get why they’re doing it, but woof, this may not be the best time for Slack to roll out a feature that allows channel owners to download all public *and private* messages without notifying members.

Want even more recommendations? Check out my Pocket Shared Items.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Can We Still Trust Google?

Announced to great fanfare recently, the Google News Initiative was positioned by the company as a single umbrella for all its various publisher-centric programs and efforts. It would bring together things like AMP Project, Google News Lab and more while also containing a new program aimed at combating the rise of misinformation online, partnering with various groups and organizations to both weed out “fake news” and improve digital literacy. The three pillars of the Google News Initiative as outlined in the announcement blog post are:

  • Elevate and strengthen quality journalism
  • Evolve business models to drive sustainable growth
  • Empower news organizations through technological innovation

All worthwhile goals, to be sure. Quality journalism needs to be supported, something Google is also working to do though lately the support newspapers receive from readers doesn’t impact their fate as much as how heavily they’ve been weighed down in private equity debt by owners who aren’t journalists but investors. And while media organizations were slow to adopt new technology many have sped up, including building out their own publishing platform.

The guiding principle for the Google News Initiative is essentially stated in the opening line of the blog post: “People come to Google looking for information they can trust.”

Yes. That’s true. This new overarching program seems like a good step in that direction and seems to come in response to several realities or incidents. Google has long had a contentious relationship with media organizations, who have claimed for over a decade that Google News in particular stole readers, who just read the headline and extract and never clicked through to the story, depriving them of ad revenue. Both itself and corporate sibling YouTube have come under fire for a tendency to surface not only false information but also outright conspiracy theories as “news” around crises.

Programs like this may come as close as Google comes to admitting it needs to build in not just technological systems to produce accurate results but that it has an editorial responsibility to contribute meaningfully to the public discourse. That’s something YouTube has failed to do as it looks to farm out fact-checking to Wikipedia without any apparent support for the site or its masses of unpaid volunteer contributors and editors.

The problem is that the “…looking for information they can trust” ideal is being undercut by other developments within the same company.

First: Google is working with select retailers to artificially surface results from those websites when people search for products, taking a cut of the revenue from those sales in exchange for higher rankings.

Second: Google seems to want to turn the internet into a two-tiered environment with one being given preferential positioning because they’ve implemented AMP and one with every other site.

Third: It’s testing a feature where celebrities and other notable personalities can leave short, Twitter-like posts directly within search results refuting what they believe to be misinformation.

All three – just the most recent examples – are laudable in and of themselves. It’s hard to argue with quick product availability, mobile-optimized websites and correcting rumors.

All three, though, violate what I believe to be first principles of not only Google but the web as a whole. Specifically, that the most prominent results should reflect authority bestowed upon them by the community. As soon as you open up *any* search results to being questioned for their veracity because of the vested self-interest of the gatekeeper, you allow *all* search results to be questioned for the same reason.

In other words, the fundamental trust people have put in Google search results is being undermined by Google itself because it believes it knows what’s best or has found a new way to generate revenue.

I understand why Google may have evaluated and embarked on all three programs. Instagram, Pinterest and other social networks are focusing more and more on shoppable ads, where people can buy a product with just a few clicks without ever leaving the network and it needs to compete. Plus, voice assistants and smart speakers as well as site-specific search are eating into general, web-wide search activity. New features from Facebook and Snapchat are geared directly at celebrities, allowing them to respond to and interact with fans.

The company needs – and should be allowed to – compete against those features.

It can’t, though, simultaneously work to increase the quality of discourse on one hand while operating with its own interests clearly in mind on the other. What happens when a sponsored shopping result from Target for a product conflicts with breaking news about how that product may be responsible for making people ill? How about when a story about a musician being accused of two decades of sexual harassment and abuse is countered by a search-native post from that musician claiming the accusations are baseless when they’re clearly not?

At the moment we’re (rightly) focused on the problems plaguing Facebook, which is now clearly exposed not as a social network but the world’s most sophisticated datamining operation.

A similar level of scrutiny should be applied to Google for what it’s doing to shape the public conscious. As it slowly begins to correct the oversights and missteps of the last decade and mend its relationship with news organizations it can’t also introduce mechanisms to prop up revenue or market share that work against the idea of providing accurate access to the whole of human knowledge.

Google may want to save journalism, but it may find that journalism is not a money-making enterprise.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.