Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 11/16/17

Hoopla, which offers movies and TV shows (as well as e-books, audiobooks and more) on behalf of local libraries, is launching apps for Amazon Fire TV and Apple TV.

Both Google and LinkedIn have launched new career search tools. Google has added information on companies including salary, job application choices and more to search results and made it easy to apply to positions you find. LinkedIn is using the power of its network to encourage people share career advice with seekers and new grads, who can find people to connect with and turn into mentors.

Kickstarter has launched Drip, a new model that expands beyond the single project to let people subscribe to their favorite creators on an ongoing basis. That’a a clear move against Patreon, which has roughly the same deal.

People are cutting the cord on traditional cable TV faster than ever, with twice as many doing so in the last quarter than made the move in the same period last year. They’re being replaced by skinny bundles delivered via over-the-top services.

The Trust Indicator is a joint venture of Facebook, Twitter, Google and Bing – along with Trust Project – that assigns verification to various news media outlets that signal it is in line with the best practices the organization has outlined. That’s good because a recent study has shown those news organizations are way out of their league when it comes to fighting disinformation online.

The FTC is cracking down on a company that has made up quotes from celebrities to sell shady supplements via ads that have run all over the internet, especially in those “Recommended Stories” units. It’s also taking a look at George Takei, who failed to disclose being paid by various news outlets to share their stories.

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.

Marketing Always Follows Consumer Trends

I was intrigued by the headline to this piece on Vice the other day that examined a few examples where music videos from popular artists seemed to closely resemble the kinds of photos posted by popular Instagram travel influencers. Not that those people are being copied overtly, but there are similarities in the approaches and the kinds of images shown.

It’s not surprising that artists and singers would look to the world of social media celebrities for inspiration. That’s a good indicator of what’s resonating with the audience. Those influencers are tastemakers and music videos have always reflected the larger media world around them, whether that meant including leggy models shot in high gloss black and white, experimental indie film, or narrative portraits of complicated characters. Videos are advertisements for the artists and their products and so, just as ad agencies are hiring influencers to help them navigate trends, so too their habits are being analyzed and copied to sell music.

What was more notable to me was the fact that, like the Chicago River in 1900, the flow has been reversed. It’s not artists and other more traditional celebrities providing the influence, it’s the everyday person with an Instagram or other social media account that’s influencing the culture.

I’m much less interested in what visuals or themes may have been lifted than the fact that it’s no longer the traditional media that’s doing the influencing. That’s a profound shift in the dynamic that’s been in place since, roughly, ever.

It’s true that many fashion and other lifestyle trends, along with definitions of what’s hip or not, have often percolated up from the general public before they’re fully captured by the media. So the idea that consumers are driving these areas isn’t wholly original. But that handoff has usually meant the move from a niche to mainstream awareness.

Whatever direction the trends are flowing, one thing remains constant: It’s brands and companies that have a vested interest in defining “cool” that still have much of the power and play a large role in determining what is or isn’t seen. In the old days, they would work magazine and other editors to include their products on “Must Buy” lists, have their fashions worn on movie premiere red carpets and otherwise have them seen by those with the power to change habits. The goals are still the same, it’s just the tactics now include working with social media influencers.

So music videos and other popular entertainment retain their position as the outlet for secondary explosions from the initial efforts. You send review product to an influential person, that product becomes part of a trend because of those efforts and then that’s reflected in the entertainment world.

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

(Featured image via Vice)

Can Corporate America Market Trust?

There’s a massive problem for corporate America and it’s that the majority of the rest of the country doesn’t like or trust it at all.

A new poll reveals that 62% of Americans don’t trust the companies making up the Fortune 500 and almost half believe those companies are taking the country in the wrong direction. While the nuances and details around which issues are most important vary based on political orientation, the overall theme is that people want companies to pay their workers a fair and livable wage, treat their workforce with respect and other important issues.

The study also reinforces a relatively recent trend, which is that people want the companies they do business with to have an ethos they agree with. 85% say they are willing to pay more if the company in question has a track record of honorable business practices and 79% say they’d take a pay cut to work for such businesses.

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here.

First, the freedom to make the kinds of values-based decisions, either on what to buy or where to work, comes from a place of privilege. Only if you are relatively comfortable financially can you say you’d be happy to either pay more or earn less based on the practices of any given business. If you’re just scraping by for any of a myriad of reasons, you do what you have to do in the moment, even if it means putting such values to the side for a period of time.

Second, that reality doesn’t negate the first point, which is that many people simply don’t trust corporations to make good and responsible choices. That’s a universal feeling and one that’s actually more likely to be felt by those who are not in a position to change things. Whether you work in a job where safety and other issues are part of your reality or are reading about them in the media, this feeling is largely not dependent on your actual situation.

Finally, it can’t escape notice that these results are coming at a time when corporate America seems to be enjoying favored child status even more so than usual in the political arena. Whether it’s regulations that are altered or removed shortly after CEOs meet with cabinet officials, tax cuts that overwhelmingly favor the rich and powerful corporate owners over the people who work for those companies or buy their products or the nationwide wave of union-busting governors, it’s certainly not a time when “worker protection” is at the top of anyone’s list of priorities.

That means, though, that there’s an opportunity for individual companies to step up and take their own action independent of whatever trends are sweeping through governments at any level. They can signal loudly and clearly that they are increasing worker protections. That they are going to continue adhering to strict environmental guidelines. That they are going to take steps to make health insurance more affordable for employees. That they’re going to change their production practices to source material more ethically.

This isn’t new. Consumers have been signaling their desire to do business with companies with values similar to their own for years. Nielsen reported on it in 2014 and examples go back even earlier. People expect companies to act and have stances on political and social issues.

There seems to be potential in long-term thinking that goes beyond the next quarter’s profit margin to build a successful business that has lasting consumer loyalty based on ideological and societal responsibility. It’s surprising to see more businesses aren’t stepping up to act on that trend using it as a marketing differentiator to attract workers and customers who are obviously waiting for an opportunity.

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

How Social Networks Cater to Influencers and Creators

When Vine was shuttered last year, a large portion of the blame was assigned to the company’s inability or unwillingness to listen to the community of creators and foster their loyalty. Stories surfaced soon after it was shut down that a number of the top creators on the app reached out to Twitter to talk about what it could do to keep them active on the platform, including opening up a payment system to help them produce content that would continue attracting an audience of loyal fans.

It might seem odd that a bunch “nobodies” would essentially hold out their hands and ask for money in addition to preferential treatment from a large company in order to remain loyal. You might think they need the platform more than the platform needs any individual user, or even a handful of popular people.

That’s not the situation social networks find themselves in in 2017, though. The dynamic is instead one that favors the individual influencer and puts the power in their hands, meaning the companies that control these social distribution platforms are dependent on a small number of “influencers” to maintain whatever status they have as being hip and popular or help them reach that level.

It’s this situation that is at least in part behind the news that Snap, which just reported some troubling numbers about growth in the Snapchat user base, is not only considering a substantial redesign of the app to ease onboarding but also paying top creators to keep using it. Snapchat does not want to follow Vine into the great beyond and is willing to write checks to keep people happy.

Influencer Marketing in 2017

According to a study released in December of 2016 by content agency Linqia, 86% of marketers were already engaged in some sort of influencer marketing effort and 48% reported plans to expand those budgets in 2017, the latest in a series of spending increases.

So why is influencer marketing so hot right now?

According to a MediaKix study last year, people are spending almost two hours a day on social media. And social media is increasingly being split into two feeds: 1) The organic feed of updates from friends and family and 2) The paid ads from media companies and other brands that interrupt the stream of updates from the first category.

The reasons for brand updates being given less preferential treatment in the various algorithm-based feeds are many, but the result is that the content marketing programs companies spent years building up aren’t seeing the return on investment they did, say, five years ago. That combined with the rise of ad blockers online and on mobile and it’s clear that people don’t want to be marketed to and the distribution platforms currently dominating the media world wants you to pay to reach people.

That’s coincided to a large extent with the rise of the social media influencer, an individual who attracts a large following on a social platform through unique, original and (usually) wholly creative content. It can be beauty tips, it can be video game reviews, it can be technology updates. It can be on literally any topic.

So, in order to have their marketing messages seen by a highly influential audience, brand marketers turn to those influencers. There are no end of niche agencies that manage databases of influences of all kinds and are more than happy to do the research for a brand and then make the connection, for a substantial fee. The ROI may still be questionable, but the reach is impressive. Ad agencies are even adding influencers to their teams to try and tap into their insights about the audience and what attracts them.

Buying Platform Loyalty

One of the big issues with influencer marketing is that the ground always seems to be shifting. Because these influencers make a living on their image of being hip and cool, they want to be on the platforms that are seen as hip and cool. What those platforms are, though, changes over time. Platforms jockey for position, often by working to attract talent away from other platforms, including by paying them to make that switch.

Here’s how some of today’s top social platforms are offering money and features to influencers to keep them happy and creative and away from other apps and networks.

youtube app iconYouTube doesn’t pay creators directly but it has revamped its Creators Site after it acquired FameBit, a creator/brand connection company. It also added functionality to the Studio app to make creation and publishing videos easier. That being said, it hasn’t been transparent about changes to content and advertising policies, leaving many creators concerned over sudden drops in revenue.

Instagram_Logo1Instagram does not pay top users to keep using it, but it may not need to. It was identified last year as one of the top two platforms for influencers and one of the two, including YouTube, influencers said they were most likely to leave Snapchat to focus on, an exodus powered by the ease of making money on Instagram. Influencers posting branded content have tools available that allow them to easily disclose those paid relationships.

facebook logo 2Facebook is the only platform more popular than Instagram among influencers, Facebook has worked hard to keep influencers happy as well as the brands that pay them, and pay Facebook. This past March it expanded the availability of branded content to more Pages and Profiles. So influencers who post paid content can tag that company as a form of disclosure. It also added a feature that allows brands to pay to boost an influencer’s post directly, without the brand page having to share it in its own post first.

twitter app iconTwitter has a multi-faceted relationship with influencers and creators. While it certainly dropped the ball when it came to Vine, it has made other moves that show it gets how important a good relationship with that community is. It has touted the effectiveness of influencer marketing on the network and owns Niche, an agency that facilitates connections between brands and those influencers, so it has a vested interest in this category growing. Late last year it opened up revenue sharing for video creators and has been experimenting with ways for fans to pay top Periscope creators through engagement.

musically app iconMusical.ly, just sold to a Chinese tech company last week for a reported $800 million, quite the price tag for an app that didn’t exist three years ago. Like Periscope, fans can “gift” creators actual payments. Brands have been working with top creators on that platform for a while now and is said to be exploring other monetization efforts that would benefit both the company and the influencers eager to reach its teen audience.

pinterest app iconPinterest was identified as one of the top apps for female influencers, who were finding more success there due to the demographics of that network. Recognizing that it had a group of talented “pinners” who could help brands create engaging content it brought those creators into the Pin Collective it launched in October of 2016. That system allows marketers to work directly with influencers, who are paid for their efforts.

medium app iconMedium has pivoted its business model more times than you can count in the last few years, most recently introducing the Partner Program – first to just a few and recently to everyone – that lets users put select posts behind a membership paywall. Unlike a previous incarnation, that membership is not publication specific but for the whole site, with publishers getting a cut based on the engagement of each post they restrict access to.

Brands Pay Multiple Times

The cost of actually working with an influencer goes beyond what that individual may charge to reach his or her audience. Roughly 70% of brands say they repurpose influencer content and 36% report doing so via paid ads. So the actual cost of influencer campaigns includes some combination of the following:

  • In-house cycles spent developing the creative brief
  • Paying a relationship agencies to find the “right” influencer for a campaign
  • Paying the influencer’s core branded content fee
  • Paying for repurposing that content in ads either on social networks or in other media

It obviously remains to be seen whether or not Snapchat can change its trajectory. Since it IPOd earlier this year the stakes are higher than ever for it to succeed, but it needs to not only get past the “I don’t get it” problem that has many delete the app shortly after trying it out and to increase its attractiveness among influential creators. Snapchat Discover allows select media brands to not only create unique content but to sell ads against that content, with the revenue split with Snap. It seems the company could be pondering something similar for influencers.

Money only buys loyalty for as long 1) The spigot keeps flowing and 2) Someone else doesn’t offer a better deal. That means there’s a very small window for Snap to get in on this game and leverage its position to achieve any sort of success.

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

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 11/14/17

A new study shows that headlines of 90 to 99 characters have the highest click-through-rate, but that runs counter to best practices for search engine optimization and other platforms, so who the hell knows, just do what’s working for you, man.

There seem to be flaws with this study on how the timing of news released on Twitter can influence conversations, but it’s an interesting premise and one that seems worthy of further exploration.

Pinterest has official launched board sections to help people better organize the material they share on that network. And it’s rolled out QR-like codes businesses can add to packages and other material that quickly create shoppable pins, the latest example of the QR code concept being a solid one, even if the initial execution didn’t take off.

There are a number of reasons outlined here as to why Musical.ly may have sold to a giant Chinese company for a reported $800 million, but the point is that this site didn’t exist three years ago and there’s arguably still a lot of potential that remains unlocked.

Mattress company Caspar becomes the latest business to launch its own unbranded print lifestyle magazine.

YouTube has heard the recent round of criticism about the inappropriate nature of many videos that appear at first glance to be aimed at kids and announced moves to try and clean up the problem.

After an unsuccessful rollout of an events-specific app, Facebook is trying again with Local, a new app that offers a single source of local recommendations and reviews from those you know. It also merged Stories with Messenger Day to make posting Stories across channels a bit easier.

Interesting stats here on the top publishing platforms, including how WordPress not only dominates in general but does so specifically in business usage.

I get what Amazon is doing with its reported plans (which it has disputed) to offer a free, ad-supported video service, but I’m failing to see how that can be described as a Netflix competitor, which is what many headlines have done. Meanwhile FullScreen is shutting down its streaming video subscription service, citing the high costs of keeping it going and the fact that the money might be better invested in other areas. And Philo announced it’s launching a subscription service that will, at least initially, only include entertainment content.

Advertisers on Snapchat can now link their Sponsored Lenses and Geofilters to their websites to increase conversion rates and extract more value from those ads.

ESPN is the latest media company to announce big Snapchat plans, launching twice-daily SportsCenter shows on the app.

Artists on YouTube can now add links to Ticketmaster events like concerts to their video descriptions to ease conversions.

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

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 11/9/17

Instagram has made its branded content tagging tools available to more creators with high levels of engagement to make sure everyone is complying with required disclosure around paid relationships. Making that disclosure easier also has the benefit of encouraging more people to use Instagram for their content.

Brand marketers are beginning to work with influential and popular account creators on Musical.ly, something the company’s management is encouraging and facilitating.

Website owners can now embed Facebook Messenger chat functionality on their sites to encourage everyone to use that platform for customer services conversations.

So cool that it seems the future of business depends on how friendly any given company is to the current administration. That’s exactly how both free-market capitalism and democracy are supposed to work, right?

Slow clap for Sen. Al Franken for calling out the closed-system monopolies being created by the big social technology companies like Google and Facebook, which are acting recklessly and irresponsibly given the influence they have over the information presented to the electorate.

Oh, and the fact that Facebook and other companies collect metric tons of data you may not even be aware of to build a profile of you and make various forms of recommendations to you.

If Instagram thought it was going to avoid conversations about how its platform is used to spread political disinformation, nah.

I love this example of The Washington Post participating in conversations on Reddit in helpful and non-promotional ways that are authentic to the platform, not ham-handed and terrible.

One of the cooler product integrations I’ve seen of late, as LinkedIn and Microsoft (which owns LinkedIn) have created Resume Assistant to quickly and easily create resumes based on your profile and keep it updated.

Millennials don’t have a ton of disposable income, even during the years when other generations have been at the peak of their spending power and most susceptible to marketing messages. Crushing student debt and a poor job market will do that. They’re more choosy with where they spend what money they have, focusing on both bargains and companies they view as responsible and ethical socially.

Revenue sharing is the hot new way social networks are buying the loyalty of top creators.

Twitter has launched Promote Mode, a simple system that costs a flat fee of $99 a month for small business and individual brands to promote their profiles without jumping through a lot of hoops.

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

How Will 280 Characters Change Your Content Program?

What changes are you making to account for 280 characters?

As you’ve no doubt read by now, Twitter has raised its default character limit for everyone (more or less) from 140 to a whopping 280. The change has raised some serious questions about whether or not Twitter understands its unique value proposition in the online world and also lead to countless jokes involving the character count.

twitter app iconAs with most things, this is a tempest in a teapot, something that people are shocked and amused by for a while before it becomes the norm and we all move on with our lives. Yes, there was value in having a tight character limit, which includes any links added to the update, but we’ll all move on. The appearance of longer updates in our timelines, now somewhat off and anachronistic, will soon be commonplace.

Brand publishers have long been among those pushing most fervently for more room in updates because, well, they have important messaging points to be pushing out. I can vouch for how hard it can be to summarize certain complicated issues, particularly those involving partner companies, sensitive talent and other factors, into 115 characters (again, leaving room for the link). Only slightly more problematic is needing to explain to others after the fact why you couldn’t do so.

Change In Features = Change in Behavior

One consistent in social media over the years is that each changed or added feature on a network leads to changes in the behavior of those using it. Every tweak Facebook makes to its user experience results in something new. Twitter’s shift from stars to hearts as a form of engagement was roundly criticized by almost everyone but resulted in increased usage of the feature, despite its drawbacks.

While outside commentators (including myself) love to wag our fingers and believe our own usage habits are nearly universal, deriding every change that’s introduced, it’s rare these companies aren’t careful and deliberate in rolling out new features. They’re using their own data and guidance to figure out what to offer more of or change to lean into current behavior or nudge people in the direction that’s good for the company. They know what they’re doing.

(Notably, the one area where tech companies often wind up reversing course after introducing something new is in the areas of privacy and safety. They know what users want, with that glaring exception. There’s more to say about how these companies are so driven by data that they lack empathy, but that’s another topic for another time.)

Changes In Behavior = Changes In Measurement

measurement-1476913_960_720Because of the widespread use of social media in marketing, both organic and paid, all these changes in feature offerings result in changes in some aspect of program management. The use of images on Twitter became a lot more pervasive as native uploads were offered and later expanded to a four-picture gallery. Offering that functionality to third-party platforms like Hootsuite and others did so even more. Facebook has done everything it can to encourage companies to do adopt new features like photo or video posts, usually by punishing posts not in line with its priorities by sinking them in the News Feed.

Whatever the case, a change in user behavior necessitates adjustments in program tracking. Most third-party analytics services such as SimplyMeasured break out types of updates on different platforms so you can see how your photo posts did compared to how your video posts performed. If you’re truly dedicated, you can divide your Facebook engagement reporting by the different Reactions emojis, though that’s a manual process and not one facilitated through native Insights reporting.

All of these changes in audience behavior contain potential insights for the content marketing manager that can help guide the program going forward. It’s important to track what’s important both to you and the audience and make the necessary adjustments.

Tracking 280

The smart content program manager spent much of the last two days doing two things:

  1. Benchmarking current Twitter engagement stats so you know what current state looks like
  2. Rolling out the plans for 280-character updates you put together last month when Twitter announced it was toying around with the change. (Because you did do that, right?)

November, then, should be a time of experimentation. Updates should be a mix of those under and over 140 and include the usual mix of media. So do some 137 character updates with a photo and some with just a link. Do some with 215 characters with a gallery and some with a video. Mix and match all the potential elements. Ignore your metrics for now. Don’t look at any numbers. Just be tracking all these combinations in your editorial calendar.

Then when you’re compiling your November program metrics in the first week of December, break this out in your reporting. Show what worked and what didn’t. Where did engagement fall below your benchmark and where did it exceed that number? Where is there ambiguity that requires further testing and adjustment?

Use Your Numbers, Not Hysteria

There are likely a fair number of social media consultants and pundits who are screeching at the top of their lungs that every company needs to show how savvy it is by publishing nothing but 280-character updates right now. But what if that’s not what your audience wants or will react well to? What if, in six months, we find that industry-wide shorter updates continue to see higher engagement rates?

It’s totally cool to have a bit of fun with the expanded freedom now available. But remember that these are probably going to be fake numbers. What now gets 2,000 likes because it’s funny and unique might only garner 400 in a couple months when this is all commonplace. Always use the reactions and preferences of your audience, not the squealing of consultants, to find your way forward.

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

Snap Scrambles To Keep Momentum

Snapchat has to start delivering if it wants to continue being seen as hot tech.

Yesterday was a rough day for Snap, the parent company of Snapchat. For the third quarter in a row it reported it failed to meet analyst expectations on a number of fronts. User growth was the slowest it’s been since early 2012, with just 4.5 million people joining the messaging service. And the introduction of automated, auction-based advertising is driving prices down, especially when compared to the fixed pricing that is in place when a company works through Snap’s own sales team. To add insult to injury, it admitted that Spectacles, rolled out earlier this year to much fanfare and sold exclusively through pop-up vending machines, were a dud and that it’s cost almost $40 million to store devices that were either never sold or which have had their orders canceled.

In response CEO Evan Spiegel said the company was making a number of adjustments:

First, it’s going to begin opening its wallet for creators who are using the platform to incentivize continued usage and would add more monetization options in the near future. Additional production features may also be forthcoming. That could be helpful since a recent study found influencers were cooling on the platform and going where there’s more money.

Second, it’s going to undertake a redesign effort to make the app easier to understand and use. Details on what that might entail were not offered – and may not yet be decided – but any substantive change runs the risk of being more generally acceptable while alienating the core user base.

Shades of Twitter

If this all seems vaguely reminiscent of the conversations we’ve had around Twitter in the last few years, you’re not wrong. Twitter has struggled for a while to define its unique value proposition and answer the core question of “Now what?” that’s asked by new users. It’s balanced the need to smooth out the on-ramp with not upsetting the power users of the network.

Those efforts have been hit and miss. Changes to the app navigation, the introduction of Moments, the shift to an engagement-driven Timeline, even yesterday’s roll-out of 280-character updates, have been greeted warmly by some and derided by others. Only in this most recent quarter does their story seem to be turning around as daily active user growth, ad revenue and other numbers all begin to solidly move in the right direction.

What’s At Stake

Snap reported Snapchat has 178 million total daily users at the end of last quarter. While it might not be as high as investors and others would hope for, it’s not insubstantial. Even more than the sheer numbers, it’s the app’s popularity among teens and young adults that makes it so popular. 47% of teens told Piper Jaffray it was their favorite app. Almost 60% percent of those who use it are under 25 years old. It’s used these stats to attract the attention of media companies, encouraging them to create original productions as well as buy Sponsored Lenses and other ad products.

Snapchat has also firmly positioned itself as the chief innovator in the social tech industry. The Stories format it introduced years ago has gone on to be copied or mimicked by almost all competitors, sometimes with unintended consequences. Likewise for face filters and other photo manipulation tools. It’s experimented with AR and other boundary-pushing features.

What’s Next?

Yes, Snap has to prove it not only has appeal for those over 25 – and that it’s easy to use without needing to bring in a Millennial consultant for assistance – but that it’s viable as a long-term business. Even Silicon Valley will only tolerate so much experimentation, no matter how cool it is, before a company has to produce tangible results.

That reported redesign will be a major test, not just for users’ tolerance for change but for how much investors feel they were sold a bill of goods when the company IPOd back in February, though it’s not as if the numbers were all that great at that point either.

In short, so far Snapchat has been attractive to investors, advertisers and media producers because of the promise of what it could be, not necessarily because of what it is. Eventually, we’re going to have to get to the point where it delivers on that promise.

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

What Is User-Inspired Content?

Brands helping tell people’s story for them

A couple weeks ago I came across a phrase I’d previously been unfamiliar with: User-inspired content.

I was kind of shocked at the phrase. “User-generated content” has been in usage for over a decade in the online marketing world to describe the material that’s produced by everyday people online, those unaffiliated with brands or agencies. This material was held up by marketers as very important because it showed the talent of the people actually buying products, talent that grew over time as the tools of creation were improved. A whole cottage industry was born as agencies and others integrated UGC into official marketing campaigns and brands were advised to respond to blog posts, social media comments and more feedback.

Eventually everyone figured out (some far later than others) that you couldn’t just grab photos from Flickr and put it in your national print ad campaign without consent. At least not without being sued for doing so. The emergence early on of the Creative Commons license helped with this, allowing creators to clearly signal whether their work could be used for commercial purposes and what credits had to be included if it was. Even so, brands would occasionally have their hand slapped by a photographer, video creator or other individuals who showed they had essentially stolen their work for their marketing.

In other words, even if some marketer didn’t actually reappropriate an actual photo, video or other bits of content outright, they were still on the hook if they had clearly copied what someone had already done.

Enter Inspiration

User-inspired content, then, seems to be not on using content other people have produced but telling marketing stories that are centered around the actual users of a product or service. So instead of asking Stacy if you can use her video in your campaign you can use Stacy and tell her story yourself.

That shift in tactics means the marketer herself is in control of the process and not subject to whatever Stacy (or whomever) has created already. Tamper with the UGC too much and you lose the authenticity. Create your own ad and you have to claim to authenticity. But use your official platform to tell Stacy’s story and you get to still retain some semblance of the rough-and-tumble UGC world while still exercising oversight over the content. The presumption seems to be that it’s the best of both worlds.

Aside from one or two mentions from several years ago the most recent conversations around user-inspired content comes from Expertcity, an agency that matches brands with experts and influencers to help guide their decisions and choices. CEO Kevin Knight spoke on the topic at a recent WOMMA event and wrote a sponsored post on Digiday on the topic.

The Next Evolution of Influencers

The industry’s current fascination with “influencers,” either macro– or micro-, was the direct result of the attention paid to user-generated content. Eventually those who were best at producing such material amassed sizable followings, aided by their presence on the radars of marketing managers who fed them products to review and news to break. That market is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future.

Facebook and other platforms have made it easier for brands to get the maximum value out of those campaigns, letting them pay to boost an influencer’s own post without having to create one of their own, while also putting more structures in place to clearly identify which influencer posts come as a result of a paid relationship.

User-inspired marketing seems to cut out the middleman in that equation. Influencers, or something close to that definition, are still important but instead of working with brands to create their own content, they are co-opted by the brand into corporately-managed messages.

Here’s the evolutionary track laid out more clearly:

  1. User-generated marketing: Cool picture, Tim, can we use it on our website?
  2. Influencer marketing: Here’s a brief and a review unit, Tim, you create your own video.
  3. User-inspired marketing: We love your story, Tim, and would like to use it in our campaign.

The through-line in that history is that corporate and other marketers are looking to regain some of the control in the messaging. UGC was often messy and came with a lot of complications. Influencer marketing means your message is secondary to the talent staying on-brand for their audience. UIC, though puts the brand marketer back in the driver’s seat.

What’s Old Is New Again

This isn’t so much an evolution to something wholly new but a return to something that’s been in regular use by the marketing and advertising industries for decades: The testimonial. Through that tactic, user stories have been used on TV, in print and in other media as part of the marketing mix for almost as long as there’s been an industry.

That people were more likely to believe someone’s personal story is the reason traveling salesman, both legitimate and otherwise, would put a cohort in the crowd to “spontaneously” begin sharing their experience. They were the “shill.”

Right now this concept seems to be fairly limited in its reach. I’m anticipating hearing more about it if it catches on as a way for brand marketers to once more own the production and distribution of the consumer message, particularly if it comes without the hefty price tag often attached to influencer marketing campaigns.

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

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 11/7/18

Interesting findings here that longer headlines on branded content have higher click-through rates. Perhaps because they’re more effective at quickly drawing the reader into the story?

Google is deprecating old RSS feeds from Google News next month, taking a convoluted approach that involves discarding the old but offering new feeds without setting up redirects or other accommodations for those subscribed.

Polls are the new big thing as Facebook follows Instagram with a feature allowing people to post polls using GIFs across desktop and mobile platforms.

Twitter has responded to the constant calls for better enforcement of its terms of service by clarifying the rules around what will get your account suspended or banned. Actual application of those guidelines continues to be spotty, though.

Hard to argue with the conclusion that the DNAinfo/Gothamist situation show that not only will local news not scale to the level needed for large companies to view it as successful (even if it is in the black financially) but it’s also too vital to leave in the hands of profit-motivated individuals or entities. Even national news is under fire from advertisers who are considered coverage of unpleasant issues hurts ratings and are threatening to pull their ads if it doesn’t change.

All brands will have access to Sponsored Messages on Facebook Messenger later this year. Yay?

More people are worried any regulations of tech companies resulting from the current focus on foreign manipulation of democracy through social media will go too far. I have to laugh at the comment about needing to expand our worldview beyond the self-selected media bubble it’s easy to create given our president almost daily reacts to one cable almost exclusively.

It’s kind of hard to fathom the implications of a potential Disney acquisition of 21st Century Fox. Putting aside the control over IP, the consolidation of control over a bigger percentage of media production and distribution – specifically news dissemination – is frightening, especially given the recent example noted above.

Even beyond what it produces itself, such a combined entity has potential repercussions for the press. Disney reportedly shut out the Los Angeles Times from press screenings as punishment for a negative report on its theme park business, a dangerous stifling of the free press. In response four critics associations announced Disney films would not be eligible for their annual awards as long as the policy is in place, seemingly creating enough public pressure that just today Disney relented and lifted the ban.

Twitter has rolled out 280-character updates to its entire user base, meaning…well…nothing, really.

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