The Latest From Stock Photo Guy – January 2019

The latest in a series exploring all the potential realities and futures of my favorite recurring stock photo image.

The Cure For: I Don’t Know What To Write About

Here it’s not that he doesn’t know what to write about. It’s more that he finally has half a day to indulge his own writing, free from other commitments, and opened up the Evernote document he maintains titled “Story Ideas For Later.” He’s now overwhelmed with the options in front of him, unsure of which one is most engaging or has the most potential and is freaking out he’s going to waste an opportunity.

Is Writing Your Passion? Really?

Here he’s lamenting the tendency of editors and writers to use question marks in their headlines just to make some sort of point.

Have You Ever Regretted Becoming A Freelancer?

Here he’s regretting having become a freelancer. OK maybe not that but he’s certainly becoming frustrated at the current state of freelance writing job boards, which are littered with poor quality leads looking for the lowest possible amount they can pay for work that used to be handled by an in-house. He’s remembering that all the experience he’s accumulated over the years matters not at all when the only thing people are looking for is a ridiculously low per-word rate.

For those that are struggling to write….this may help.

The key is staring at your screen dramatically. Not even kidding.

What To Do When A Simple Writing Project Becomes Complicated

Here he’s remembering there’s no such thing as a simple writing assignment. Every one is unique, takes talent to execute and is bound to involve at least some amount of confusion and frustration.

How To Answer The ‘Are You Writing About Me’ Question

The key is to mumble “no” under your breath while avoiding eye contact and wondering which one of your colleagues would be willing to publish the piece under their name so you don’t look like a liar in two weeks.

“Brand Safe” Has Never Been a Thing

Last week AT&T made headlines when it was revealed it would once more be advertising on YouTube, something it hadn’t done in two years after discovering to its great dismay and shock that those ads might be appearing alongside offensive – or at least questionable – material. The company had decided that YouTube had addressed those concerns and assured it those ads would receive more favorable placement.

At the same time, those same concerns about content on Instagram aren’t dire enough to result in advertisers leaving that platform anytime soon as they still want to reach the audience there.

These conversations are the same ones that have been around since the early days of social publishing, as brands at one point were concerned about their Google Adwords ads showing up on offensive blog posts. There’s always been a fair amount of hand-wringing about online advertising and consumer-generated media. The fear is that if your ad shows up alongside some piece of neo-Nazi propaganda it might harm your band reputation.

It’s worth considering, though, just which platforms or media outlets may by any stretch of the imagination be called “brand safe.”

In the last few years we’ve seen a number of instances where advertisers have been pressured through boycotts to stop advertising on various Fox News shows featuring Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingarahm and others. Those shows regularly feature all sorts of white supremacist talking points, nationalist rhetoric and lots more of what could generally be considered hate speech. Many of those stoppages have been short-lived, though, with either the original advertiser returning or new ones coming in to fill the void.

While those are extreme examples there’s plenty on TV or radio that could be considered controversial or too edgy for brands to want to be any part of. Yet you rarely hear about that sort of concern being expressed. The reach and influence of those media platforms, just like Instagram is now, too great to spur companies to take actual action.

There’s always a fair amount of risk involved in any marketing. Sometimes that means your ad or other message is going to be seen during or along with content you may not wholly approve of. Two main differences are in place now, though.

First, it’s no longer just large companies producing the ad-supported media, even if they are still the ones providing the publishing platform. Advertisers aren’t placing their ads alongside YouTube’s video, for instance, they’re placing it against PepeICE4Evah’s video that’s hosted on YouTube, which is very different.

Second, the ability to pick and choose where and when ads are displayed is much more granular. YouTube and other platforms have introduced tools along advertisers to whitelist or exclude certain content or producers because of what they’ve put out in the past. So the advertiser has more control over the situation than they did when mass media was the only game in town.

Put together that means the amount of risk that brands even have to consider being comfortable has diminished to some extent. When it does become an issue, then, they are extremely sensitive to even the slightest threat, pulling ads from Fox, YouTube or whomever else as long as the math of “whose loyalty or trust will we gain” and “whose loyalty or trust will we lose” works out in their favor.

And there’s the key to this. No platform or outlet contains material that’s 100 percent safe to advertise against. This is all extremely situational, depending to a large extent on whether there are dollars to be gained or lost by taking one or another action in any given situation. When a platform is considered “brand safe” it means they have decided their corporate reputation will incur minimal damage, not that they necessarily approve of the content the ads appear within. It’s simply a pragmatic calculous being used, not an indication of brand values.

Those Systems Don’t Know Us, But Pretend To

I’ve certainly had experiences similar to what’s described in this much-shared story from a few months ago about the way the algorithms that push suggestions and notifications at us all day long are never exactly right but are also never exactly wrong. Spotify, for instance, continues to insist I’m going to enjoy Hall & Oates based on my other listening habits but, while I’ll certainly sing along when a song comes on the radio I don’t have any desire to explore the rest of their catalog.

The recommendations we see on Spotify, Pandora, Facebook, Twitter and every other modern media platform are based on tracking and categorizing. Each one either on its own or in conjunction with some subset of other players, collects all our activity and spits out what its algorithm believes is a solid prompt to put in front of us to encourage even more activity. They want us to keep engaging, locking us ever tighter into their systems, the better to sell ads that themselves are delivered based on our stated interests and previous activity.

What’s disturbing, though not necessarily surprising, is that nearly three-quarters of American internet users, according to Pew Research, don’t know that Facebook in particular is maintaining a list of their interests and activities in order to better target them with “relevant” ads. It’s not just the actions *on* Facebook that’s captured but what you do on a startling number of other websites as well. The reason it’s not shocking people don’t understand the depth of the metrics tracked is that most people don’t even know Facebook’s News Feed is filtered and not a firehose of updates.

One passage from Pew’s recent study jumped out at me:

A majority of users (59%) say these categories reflect their real-life interests, while 27% say they are not very or not at all accurate in describing them.

This gets to the heart of the problem. While overly-invasive tracking is certainly an issue that needs to be addressed on many levels, the whole system is based on a faulty premise; That what one does online is both wholly representative of who they are and that nothing ever changes.

Algorithms and AI don’t do nuance, so those systems aren’t going to know that while you might prefer Coffee Brand X, you also enjoy mixing it up with Coffee Brand Y once a week just because. They just know you’ve liked Coffee Brand X’s profile or page and so will serve you ads and recommendations based on that as if that’s the only possibly opinion you could have. Or they don’t understand that while you did like that page eight years ago, you’ve since learned about the horrible way they treat their workers and no longer drink their coffee.

The assumption that everything is locked in stone is part of the reason these platforms don’t offer any sort of reset button, an idea proposed a while ago by Kurt Wagner at Recode. Everyone’s interest and friends lists get messy over time, resulting in plenty of instances where you ask yourself “Wait, who is this person” when you see an update from them in your feed or come across them on your list of connections. A quick and easy way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh would make management so much easier, but it would also impact all that data that’s being accumulated on you, which would negatively impact how much they can charge for sponsored posts or placements. It’s always a good rule of thumb to remember that if an idea sounds like it would be good for users, it’s likely to be bad for the company and therefore won’t be implemented.

One of the primary reasons given by myself and others for why RSS never caught on with the masses is that education was difficult. Most people never quite understood how it worked or how they could use it and so it was shunted to the side as a niche technology, especially when social media began its ascendence.

Social media, though, has thrived *because* people have never been fully educated on how it worked. Every “#DeleteFacebook” uprising has been spurred by reports of how it has invaded and abused the privacy of those who use it, but none have ever amounted to much because that all sounds really complicated and the societal costs of removing one’s self from the network are too high.

Help isn’t coming from on high, either. The repeated appearances by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech media executives have shown time and again that lawmakers don’t understand how these systems work, or even how to ask the right questions about them. Nor do many in the media, which leads to situations where both parties are aghast in disbelief when someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez correctly points out how algorithms and AI are filled with bias problems.

This isn’t a situation that’s going to get better until there are more like Ocasio-Cortez who are both informed and in a position to effect meaningful change. All the campaigns to get people to ditch Facebook or stories of Spotify leaking personal data won’t amount to much because the public doesn’t know what that means for them. It’s the same thing we see with the climate change debate. Only when they’re held accountable in real meaningful ways will we see the actions of these companies improve.

Here’s How Long Your Blog Posts and Articles Should Be

There have been a series of posts and articles in recent weeks that have claimed to offer writers advice on how long their own posts and articles need to be in order to be optimized for reading and sharing online.

It’s a topic that flares up from time to time, and there’s often a few nuggets of usefulness hidden here and there, something practical that can be implemented and employed in the service of writing better material.

The primary problem with such advice is that it, along with similar help offered by “experts,” seems scientifically designed to drive you insane.

Certainly freelance and corporate writers are often given strict guidelines to work within. A white paper might need to be 2,400 words and include three breakout sections of 300 words each. Or a blog post should be no more than 800 words because that’s the best length for the site design.

That’s all reasonable. Good writing, I’ve often said, lives within constraints. If you can’t work within limits, the problem is with you and not the rules put in front of you. Keep editing until you fall below that maximum word count the client has set out, or keep writing until you reach it.

If you’re on your own, though, do what feels natural. If you hit the end of what you’re trying to say and, upon review, find it works for you then that’s how long the piece should be. Or if you feel it meets the needs of the audience you’re trying to reach. Or if it is just done FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S GOOD AND HOLY IT JUST NEEDS TO BE DONE.

Optimizing formatting and length for search or other considerations is valuable, provided that’s what you’re trying to do. Otherwise, let the writing abide.

Here’s a challenge I sometimes engage in for my own purposes: For one week (or two, or three or whatever you feel is adequate) set a constraint on yourself that’s of your own making. It doesn’t have to be related to best practices or anything else. Simply for the sake of practice say that everything you write for X period of time will be 500 words exactly. Or you’ll use a Paragraph, Paragraph, Bullet Point, Paragraph format. Or you’ll add three sub headings to your post

Whatever you decide on, do it. Challenges like this keep writing skills sharp, so when a client comes along and says they need a post to look a certain way, you’re confident your can turn that around.

Even without such practical considerations, these kinds of challenges can be fun in their own right, opening up new possibilities for your writing. If nothing else, I’ve found doing so helps me become more aware of how others are formatting their work, so I see even more of the process behind the art.

More than anything, don’t let anyone tell you your writing *needs* to look a certain way. If we wanted to follow strict equations and rules we would have become accountants or scientists, not writers, in love with the sound of our own voice.

The Beatings Will Continue…

With resolution season upon us there are lots of opportunities for fresh starts. Some of those involve personal matters while others involve changes to be made in someone’s professional life. That’s only natural.

Still, it’s not hard to be taken aback at the way the business press is playing into the notion that individuals must subjugate themselves to their employers in order to remain at work. The headlines are breathtaking and all of a kind.

Do these things to become a model employee

How to Make Yourself Invaluable to a New Company

11 things you can do today to be more respected, productive, and impressive at work

9 ways to be a better employee in 2019

If you see a theme pervasive through all of those stories, it means you’re paying attention.

The workplace at the heart of all these and other guides envisions an environment that’s some mix of the brutal savannah, where animals vie for dominance and struggle for survival as predators circle around them, and a toddler beauty pageant where the difference between winning and losing could be as subtle as the shade of blue used in a contestant’s eyeliner. It’s everyone for themselves, and we’re all trying to shine more brightly than Frank or Carol because that’s what might make the difference when layoffs are announced.

They all hinge on the idea that it’s the sole responsibility of the employee to better themselves and increase their workplace standing. Conveniently left off the hook are managers and executives, though their influence is just as great if not greater than what any one person on their own might achieve.

It’s not that there’s no pressure on management to make things go smoothly, or that they play no role in determining productivity. It’s that their role is actually so much more influential on those issues than the power an individual, non-management employee has.

They don’t control the guidelines around remote work. They didn’t have a role in creating the office layout. They didn’t choose the software and hardware that’s used. They didn’t dole out seating assignments, or select healthcare plan options, or limit the number of times someone can take a personal phone call. Or set deadlines for projects that fail to take into account the reality of how long it will take.

A lot of the advice offered in those “be a better employee” articles is good and worth considering. Almost all of it, though, requires managers and supervisors to be supportive and accommodating, allowing workers to do what they are seeking to do. A lot of it, too, stems from the notion that workers have the time to pop into meetings they weren’t invited to, take work off their manager’s plates and so on. That may not actually be in line with reality.

Productivity is the responsibility of all parties within an organization, starting at the top. Those in charge need to put systems and processes in place that facilitate that productivity, with employees making the best of what’s offered to them.

Maybe We Let People Buy What They Like

The debate about what people should or shouldn’t be able to purchase using food stamps or other assistance programs has been raging for decades. Ronald Reagan famously used the “Welfare Queen” example (since debunked) to say that public safety net programs were being abused and should therefore be eliminated. Less drastically, politicians have tried to chip away at such programs by restricting what such funds can and can’t be used for.

Few items have generated such controversy as soda and soft drinks. A recent op-ed labeled the use of federal and state funds on such drinks a “subsidy” for the soda industry, propping up those companies on the backs of low-income people who then develop health issues because they drink them.

It’s not a bad argument, but it overlooks or ignores a few realities about the working poor.

First, caffeine and sugar are great stimulants, providing a much-needed energy boost that can be super-helpful as low-cost stimulants. If you’re working one or more part-time jobs you might need a little something to keep you going between shifts because you might not be getting a decent night’s sleep all the time. And even if you are, you might be on your feet 14 hours a day and just need some sugar-induced assistance.

Second, soda and other sugary treats might be the one luxury a family affords itself. They may not be able to afford going out for ice cream every Saturday night, but buying a 2-liter of Coke could be something everyone looks forward to.

Most of all, the argument that somehow soda, candy or other foods with high-calorie counts and low nutritional value shouldn’t be available to those on food assistance and similar programs skips right past the part where it’s questionable as to whether they should be available to anyone at any income level.

Consider that the op-ed mentions how those who consume too much soda run the risk of winding up with any of a variety of health issues that they then seek medical treatment for. The taxpayer is then being charged twice, once to subsidize the purchase and then, through Medicaid or other programs, for the treatment of problems resulting from the purchase.

Strike that. It’s actually three times the taxpayer is on the hook. They also provided subsidies to the farmer who grew the corn that was turned into sugar to make the drinks.

At the heart of that argument is that the soda and other treats are bad for you. In order to accept the conclusion that taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for someone to buy soda that’s then going to give someone diabetes that will have to be treated through taxpayer-funded health coverage, logically you have to start at the premise that soda is bad for you.

The question then becomes not “Why are people allowed to buy it using tax-funded assistance programs?” but “Why are companies allowed to produce it using tax-funded assistance programs?” Take that even further and you can ask “Why are taxpayers asked to foot the bill for medical treatment and not the company that made the product that caused the problem?”

In other words, what if we stopped talking about the responsibility of the individual on welfare and started talking about the company on the receiving end of corporate welfare?

Suddenly this is a very different policy issue, one that has implications for a variety of food and other industries. And the likely reason those aren’t the questions being asked or perspectives being taken is the same one for most instances of political disconnectedness: Money.

For the last two years there have been conversations in the media about why every story about something Pres. Trump does that’s offensive to non-whites almost solely includes interviews and commentary from whites. That’s broadened into conversations about newsroom inclusiveness on other topics including technology and more.

Similar conversations need to happen regarding financial coverage. Not everything can just include some quotes from financial experts and gurus. Even the most well-meaning economist is still likely to address issues from the perspective of the well-off. As a recent Vice post pointed out, most money advice offered by such experts is useless because it requires the kind of long-term thinking you just can’t do when you’re living paycheck to paycheck.

The same philosophy holds true for when finance moves from being personal into the realm of public policy.

The perspective of the press can be broadened by bringing in more people who are able to speak from experience about the kinds of issues faced by the working poor, those who are struggling to maintain their increasingly-tenuous position in the middle class and others.

That kind of perspective might have pointed out some of the issues raised above as well as additional ones that are outside my experience. It’s one that would be useful to have not just in media, of course, but also within the halls of power where such topics are discussed and decided, the ramifications of which are felt not by them but by those without much, if any, power themselves.

How Prepared Are Marketers for Deepfakes?

You can’t blame Scarlett Johansson for feeling the fight against deepfake porn featuring her face isn’t worth the effort. She has faith most people know it isn’t actually her in those videos and knows that attempts at legal action would likely be as effective as shooting arrows at a cloud.

If you’re not familiar with what deepfakes are, you owe it to yourself to become educated. Put simply, machine learning is used to alter a video in a way that makes it appear completely real, often featuring someone saying something they’ve never said or appearing somewhere they’ve never been. Think about Robert Zemeckis having Lyndon B. Johnson interact with Forrest Gump, but a thousand times more convincing and easily alterable.

Such videos have been heralded as a threat to the integrity of the U.S. election process as well as to governments around the world. It’s one thing, after all, to share an altered image purporting to show Hillary Clinton holding up a sign saying “I DID BNGAZI 4 DA LULZ” and another to share a video where she seems to be offering her confession to personally killing American ambassadors.

The threat presented by deepfakes to the marketing industry is slightly less important but no less real.

Imagine you’re a makeup company who has recently signed a new celebrity spokesperson for a campaign that’s about to launch. Everything is running on all eight cylinders and the campaign’s debut is a week away. Suddenly you get an alert there’s a video featuring that celebrity that’s climbing the YouTube charts that has them endorsing your competitor at a recent publicity event. Or even worse, they’re shown to be encouraging people to attack others outside of churches and other institutions.

Make the hypothetical even more personal for the company and imagine a video of the CEO openly espousing some sort of terrible position on a social issue, or “admitting” that the product being sold is inferior or harmful.

What comes next? You know this isn’t real, but 3,000,000 views inside of 24 hours is not something you can just ignore. A response has to be made, though you know that efforts to combat misinformation often fall flat, achieving only a fraction of the reach and impact of the original, based largely on how such information is often propagated by bots, trolls and other bad faith actors who aim solely to sow the seeds of discord.

In many ways this is a case of Crisis Comms, where you need to be prepared for the worst possible eventuality. But it goes even deeper because this isn’t just about something that’s gone wrong or some campaign that’s been received poorly, or even an executive who experienced a gaffe while a mic was open.

Based on the fact I’ve seen zero conversations about this and have been unable to find anything about it through search, my sense is that marketers have not yet caught on to the dangers deepfakes pose to the brands they’re responsible for. A belief that such videos will be confined to the political realm is naive, though, as they will inevitably leak over just as every other harmful technology has.

There are tactics marketing professionals will have to engage in to minimize the damage these videos will do, including stepping up monitoring and developing specific messaging to counter what’s published. More than anything, they will have to convince the audience of consumers and press that anything that can’t be verified as authentic isn’t to be trusted.

That’s going to take some doing and still won’t be enough to undo all the damage that’s inflicted to corporate reputations. Marketers need to be prepared, or they’re doing everyone a disservice.

Take the Pressure Off Social Responses

More terrible data pushing the terrible notion that brands engaging in marketing efforts via social media should feel the need to respond to each and every comment directed at them. This time it comes via a survey of U.S. adults, gauging what they feel is an appropriate response rate. Unsurprisingly, most people feel such responses should come in less than a day, if not within a couple hours.

That’s fine, but it’s also nonsense.

As with most such surveys and reports, it appears to start out from a faulty premise. Namely, that every person mentioning a brand online *wants* to hear back with a response. That’s simply not the case.

Simply consider this: Most of the advice you might have read about how a 100% response rate within 24 hours of an individual’s comment comes from one of two sources. Either it’s from a company selling a social media monitoring and customer engagement software solution or someone selling their consulting service. Both have a vested interest in guilting a company into feeling they’re not doing enough.

In reality, the best guidance is the same that’s applied when you come across one of those “here are the best times/days to publish on social media” pieces. Namely, do what works best for your own company/industry and for your own audience.

Here’s a quick, admittedly abbreviated, checklist to work down as you’re deciding how (or if) to scale up your social content team to more fully respond to consumer comments and posts:

1: What’s the tone? Are people saying anything constructive? In 98 percent of cases, people who are just dragging a brand for the lulz don’t want – or deserve – a response. Nothing you say will change their thinking or attitude. They just want to burn you. On the other hand, someone who seems to be coming at you, even if they’re saying something negative, from a place of good faith is worth your time.

2: Who are they? There’s so much intentional terribleness on social media it’s often hard to find the signal in the noise. The rise of bots and disinformation farms has only made problems worse and it’s not clear companies are adequately staffed or informed to deal with them, outsourcing much of that work and worry to the same CMS vendors mentioned above. It’s only worth engaging with those who are verifiably real people.

3: What are the next three parts of the conversation? Strategic thinking is an essential, if often undervalued, aspect of corporate communications. It’s necessary when developing engagement/response strategies and tactics, though. Before diving into a conversation, and assuming it’s even a conversation the person on the other end wants to have, consider for a moment what the next three steps of that conversation are going to be. What does it seem the person wants out of the back-and-forth and are you ready to deliver it? More importantly, are you ready to be the one who hangs up the figurative phone if things take a turn.

That last one is essential. As ready as brand managers need to be to engage in a conversation, they also need to be ready to end it. Someone always has to be the one to walk away, and in many cases that will be the person who’s operating on behalf of the brand account. So is everyone on the team empowered to make that call?

If, as the lead on a brand social content program, you’re comfortable holding yourself and your team to a 100 percent comment response standard, go for it. For most, though, it’s going to be an unreasonable goal that, even if it were achievable, isn’t going to do much more than incremental good for the brand image in the eye of the public. And when you inevitably fall short of it you will have set a poor precedent for the program, not to mention set yourself up to answer uncomfortable questions from stakeholders.

Don’t buy the hype and don’t give in to the pressure established by those looking to sell their wares and services.

Creatives Let Athletes Own All the Good Feelings

You always hear about how runners and other athletes get that “high” or “rush” from how all that activity gets the blood moving and endorphins pumping. They tell people who aren’t athletic that these feelings are totally worth it, that they’re what makes all the training and work worthwhile.

Creative types, those of us for whom work involves making passive aggressive comments on Twitter while we wait for inspiration to strike, don’t get those kinds of descriptive words and phrases. We’re told that what we’re doing is “wasting time” or “not going outside for three days” or “endlessly twirling that damn pencil like it’s going to write something itself.”

Those people have never experienced the kinds of emotions that are common to creatives.

For instance, there’s the euphoria of finishing an 800-word blog post. Of course that’s usually followed by terror and shame when, despite your three rounds of editing, you discover five glaring typos immediately upon publishing.

Or there’s the glowing sense of accomplishment when you think back on the progress you made on your book. Of course that’s usually followed by the feelings of being an untalented hack when you think of the seven other ways everything on the page could have been phrased.

OK, so maybe there’s a reason athletes get all the best sensations and feelings. Sure, there may be evaluations of a performance just passed that informs the planning for the next event.

At least they’re not forced to live with a physical representation of their lack of talent. They don’t have to attempt to build on a foundation that, when it’s revisited the following day, seems tenuous at best despite seeming solid when it was being poured.

And it’s not sitting out there in perpetuity, ready to mock you when you pull it back up a couple years later. A poor athletic performance can be explained away by a sore ankle, a twisted thumb, the sun in someone’s eyes or another perfectly valid reason that puts them at a disadvantage, able to offer a rationale for what happened and why they weren’t able to perform at their best.

When a writer, in particular, looks back at a piece that no longer holds up in their estimation (or someone else’s), the only possible explanation is that their talent simply didn’t show up that day. They just weren’t good.

There’s got to be a phrase equivalent to “runner’s high” for that, but it’s escaping me. It’s alright, though, I’m still pretty happy with this post and am sure I will be three days from now if I look back at it. That’s how this usually turns out.

In the meantime, creatives, let’s take back some of those good feelings. We own the words, not them, and can use them how we want. And we will, as soon as we figure out how and move past the crushing sense of failure coupled with the belief we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop when someone realizes we’re a fraud.

Selling Glass

You can read my full recap of the marketing campaign for Glass at The Hollywood Reporter.

Based on the popularity of Split and the renewed buzz around Shyamalan the movie is tracking for an opening of about $60 million to $70 million, which would allow it to easily win the weekend and provide Universal with a sizable January release. The film received mixed reviews and stands at 40 percent on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s how the studio marketed the film.