I Already Signed Up…

If your online reading habits are anything like mine, you’ve likely seen some variation on the below prompt at least a dozen times a day every day in the last two years.

The email newsletter “sign up” prompt is the new site interstitial. In fact about half the time it comes either before or after an interstitial ad, meaning my attempt to read the story I’ve clicked on is interrupted at least once, if not twice. Then, after I’ve said “no thank you” to the offer, there’s sometimes a second bite at the apple. “Are you sure you don’t want to receive free, awesome content?” reads the interstitial, necessitating another click from me to get to the story I’m interested in.

What’s supremely frustrating about this is that a lot of the time I’m coming to the story *from* an email newsletter. And the site knows this, because I can see the tracking code they appended to the URL in order to track click-throughs. So the technology is smart enough to know that in the last 30 days I looked at Avengers comics on Amazon and serve me retargeted ads but not smart enough to say “Woah…he’s already subscribed. Let’s not annoy him.”

Email newsletters have experienced a resurgence in the last three or four years. With social media happening so fast (Twitter), hiding so much behind an algorithm (Facebook, Instagram) or being so ephemeral (Snapchat), email is a different beast. As Wired put it in 2016, it’s slow. You can take your time with it and get to it on your own schedule. Because it’s private, not like the pages you’ve liked on Facebook, you can opt out whenever you’d like and it’s your own business.

There are a plethora of newsletters you can subscribe to on topics either broad or niche. Bigger publications will use MailChimp, SalesForce or ConstantContact or another enterprise vendor while countless individuals and smaller organizations have embraced no-frills alternatives such as TinyLetter. “Letters” is a big part of Medium’s offerings, with an email newsletter baked into its platform. Nuzzel lets anyone aggregate news easily into a daily email blast.

Marketers and publishers love the email revival because unlike just about any other distribution platform around these days it allows them to capture audience data and information. When I subscribe I’m usually offering my name and email at least, if not more. I’m giving that publication permission to reach me on a regular basis. While RSS and social media are also opt-in platforms, none combine the inherent invitation and the personal behavioral data email does. And none allow for the content segmentation email does, with different campaigns sent to different segments, either on a planned schedule or because of recent purchase or other activity.

That’s why so many sites in the last couple of years have ditched RSS in favor of going all-in on email newsletters. At some point I realized Digiday, the advertising industry news site, was no longer publishing to their RSS feed. When I visited the site I saw a feed wasn’t even offered any more. It wanted everyone to subscribe via email. Many “new media” sites including Axios and others have never embraced RSS, going the email route from the outset.

The problem with this is that email is still, like social media, somewhat of a filtered platform. I’ve tried a number of times to subscribe to Digiday’s daily newsletters but they’re getting lost in the network somewhere. Gmail, as good as it is at fighting spam, sometimes goes too far. Not only that, but its redesign from a couple years ago will segregate email newsletters to a separate tab that may not be checked as regularly as the primary inbox. Or they’re sending those newsletters to a wholly unique address they’ve created for such blasts.

There are a number of email newsletters I dig and continue to subscribe to even after nixing several about a year ago because it got to be too much for any of the reasons stated here as the motivation for why people opt-out of an email they’ve been receiving. If I had the option to do so, I’d move all that reading to Digg Reader, where I’ve established an efficient reading system and workflow. Lacking that, email is fine for the time being.

I just wish when I clicked from the email the site would recognize that and not ask me once again if I’d like to subscribe. You’ve already got me, now let me read in peace.

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

RT Or It Doesn’t Happen

To indulge in a popular Twitter form of commentary, I’m old enough to remember when begging for Retweets was simply, my dear, that was not done.

Now, though, my Timeline is awash in overt plays for Retweets. On any given day I see a half-dozen variations on the “Quote RT this with…” format. “…with the name of a movie you used to hate but now love.” “…with the last book you read but add ‘Harry Potter and the’ to the title.” So on and so on.

I can remember not that long ago when posts like that, or ones on Facebook encouraging fans to fill in a blank by leaving a comment, were seen as the worst form of engagement-bait. They were cheap ploys to appeal to people’s vanity, empty content with no intrinsic value.

So what changed? Is this the natural evolution of social media? The result of a generation of “experts” that’s followed my own and isn’t holding itself to the same standards we did? Am I just an old man who doesn’t like how the neighborhood is changing and so spends his days throwing firecrackers at the kids on the sidewalk?

It’s probably all of the above. Tactics change, I get that. That doesn’t make it any less head-scratching to see what was once considered to be common sense and a violation of best practices now so commonly used. Apparently it’s no longer beneath anyone to overtly seek empty engagement, which is a change in mindset I’ll have to adopt.

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

Tracking Ads to the Physical World Is The Next Threshold

As part of remarks made at a recent industry conference, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told anxious advertisers the company was working to not just provide better ad tools but also on ways to tie those ads to physical sales. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey made similar comments, promising better measurement for advertisers.

Facebook announced last year that integrated maps of physical stores into ads and then showed advertisers who acted as a result of those ads. What seems likely is that it and other companies will take this kind of tracking even further. Let’s put two facts together to see how they add up to something even more intrusive.

First, Facebook knows when you’re in a store to enough detail that it can not only show a relevant ad but show an ad that’s relevant to the *section* of the store you’re in at the moment.

Second, Facebook knows when you’ve been exposed to an ad, whether that’s on mobile or desktop.

Put those together and you have the ability to know when someone visited a store after seeing an ad and, with just a little tweaking, can likely tie that to exact purchases and revenue that can be used to…yes…target further ads. This solves the age old question of outdoor, TV and other advertising that lacked direct response, which is whether or not that billboard on I-55 actually lead to a Snickers bar purchase and when that happened.

Imagine the following: You see an ad on Thursday on Facebook (LinkedIn or Twitter or any of their associated audience networks that take ads to other sites) for a sale on jeans at Old Navy. Facebook knows you’ve seen that ad because you had to scroll past it to see your friends’ pictures from Aruba. You don’t take an action then but when you’re out on Saturday you stop into Old Navy and get not only some jeans but also a t-shirt and some socks. The location-tracking Facebook is capable of knows you were there and can report to Old Navy it took three days but you finally acted on that ad. That’s valuable enough.

Now if you provide some details that Old Navy enters into its CMS it has a list of the products you bought and the amount you spent. It wouldn’t take much to tie those details into Facebook’s database and create a comprehensive report showing you spent $67.43 on four items three days after seeing an ad and based on the items you both bought and looked at (remember, Facebook can apparently track you down to the square foot), serve you ads later on offering you more deals at Old Navy.

As ad revenue growth begins to level off at Facebook and ad volume hits the extent of audience patience, expect the ads it serves to be all that more intrusive, which means more tracking. Retargeting online shows that’s already in full swing there, now it’s likely to come to you via your real-world behavior as well.

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

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 9/15

  • Your regular reminder to be careful when it comes to working with social media influencers and popular YouTubers because they could turn out to be really really racist.
  • Bezos is panicking because Amazon’s original series aren’t big enough hits, cancelling some shows and ordering new ones that fit with a new vision.
  • A new study says 18-34 year olds spend over half the time they devote to video on time-shifted viewing to TV programs.
  • Snapchat is officially rolling out its program to enlist more college publications in Discover.
  • Engagement on Instagram videos is apparently growing significantly after traditionally lagging behind the easier-to-consumer/browse photos for years.
  • Influencers continue to abandon Snapchat due to the ability to make more money elsewhere, particularly Instagram and YouTube, and Snap’s lack of hand-holding and outreach to them.
  • Mobile is the only format that’s driving any growth in web traffic, though how that’s spread around (or not) isn’t helping apps.
  • Interesting stats from Pinterest on how women use the site to browse and shop for new styles and clothes.
  • Nope, tagging news as “fake” or “disputed” on Facebook doesn’t do much of anything and could, in fact, reinforce its appeal among certain close-minded groups.
  • Facebook Instant Articles will no longer be available via Messenger, a change that comes due to apparent lack of usage and interest.
  • Hard to argue with the points made here about how RSS is a much better news-reading system than social media.
  • Google is trying to appease publishers by ending its “first click” free trial policy, pitching the change as one that will result in rising subscriptions offsetting drops in ad revenue.
  • There’s a new purity test in place at Facebook that publishers hoping to make money on the network through ad sales have to pass in order to qualify.
  • Advertisers can now run cross-channel campaigns on Instagram Stories now that it’s been integrated into its Canvas program.
  • Changes in media consumption sometimes lead to subsequent changes in job titles.
  • It’s not that surprising – at least it shouldn’t be – that Facebook doesn’t lead to substantial revenue for publishers, who nonetheless have no plans to stop prioritizing Facebook as a primary distribution node.
  • A new study shows the sweet spot for influencer marketing ROI is somewhere just below the top celebrities, who charge too much, and the micro-influencers who are all the rage. The difficulty in finding just the right person is why both Microsoft and Google are working on software to find them accurately and efficiently.
  • Pinterest is touting crossing the 200 million member mark.
  • Snapchat’s integration with Bitmoji now allows users to include animated versions of their avatars in their Snaps.
  • Make sure you read this study concluding radio is failing at keeping up with current music because it can’t adapt at the rate artists are releasing new songs or full albums.
  • Spotify is struggling with its pivot to video, finding most success by seeding videos in popular playlists as opposed to creating a destination portal for shows.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing and Media News for 9/8/17

  • An eMarketer study shows over one-third of teens, especially girls, don’t think they could go even one day without their mobile devices.
  • Publishers have a lot of problems to deal with if they want to increase video load times, but little incentive to do so because it’s all those ads that are causing them.
  • Older audiences are more open to the brand advertising that’s becoming a big part of the Snapchat experience than younger audiences.
  • The size of Facebook’s code on the average website is enough of an issue, but what it does and how many other similarly-huge chunks of code are also present create some issues.
  • YouTube has introduced new live-streaming functionality that’s specifically designed to accommodate e-sports broadcasts.
  • LinkedIn has launched its own Audience Network to extend the reach of ads to other sites.
  • Musical.ly seems to be having issues cashing in on its success, particularly among teen girls, due in large part to the lack of a dedicated sales team and sky-high ad rates that turn buyers off.
  • YouTube is both the social platform teens use most often according a Forrester study and the one they feel is too overloaded with ads.
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is planning on spending up to $1 billion on the production of original video content next year.
  • The FTC has settled with a couple of high-profile video game influencers over failure to disclose they owned a company it turns out they owned.

What Issues About the Content Marketing Job Concern Me?

(Note: This is based on one of the prompts from Robert S. Kaplan’s book What You’re Really Meant to Do.)

There are issues with the content marketing industry, many of which I’ve discussed openly here or elsewhere previously and so won’t reiterate or otherwise list. You work in any field for any significant length of time and you’re going to have some strong opinions about certain aspects of it and certain people who are a part of it. This is still a fun and interesting area and I don’t want to bad-mouth it or anything. Constructive criticism is useful and welcome though, right?

There is one thing that continues to concern me that doesn’t seem to be going away and it’s this: There are no time limits.

Over the last 10 years I’ve spent countless nights up and working on editorial calendars and blog posts and everything else well past when I should have turned in. But because social media and blog posts can be published 24 hours a day, people think you’re going to be available to answer their questions 24 hours a day. Or that you’ll be available to make changes.

If there’s one advantage to freelancing it’s that at least the billing is more accurate now. In agency life, because we billed most clients on a retainer and not for actual hours burned, a lot of those late-night hours went unbilled. While I still got paid (which was great) it looked bad when I was only billing 80 hours a month but reporting that I actually spent 130 on work for a client. Now if I work it, I’m billing it.

Plus, I’m more able to draw some boundaries around my availability now. I’m not beholden to a reporting hierarchy and can set some expectations with clients about when I am or am not on-call. That may not be hard and fast but it’s better than the “we’re paying you, you better respond within 20 minutes even if it’s 11 pm.” attitude that’s all-too pervasive in the agency environment.

Platforms like Instagram and Snapchat that don’t allow for scheduled posting have only made this problem worse. I can queue up Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and blog posts, but those other two are still very immediate. And everyone knows this. The agency world is so cutthroat, with everyone competing on service and price, that saying “No” or daring to sleep can cause a client to question their current situation. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of those phone calls, you know how unpleasant they can be.

There’s no easy solution here. It will take a systemic pushback against unreasonable expectations to affect any real change to this this issue. And for every one person that does there will be three ready to pounce and promise 24-hour coverage, no problem. It is a problem, though, one that needs to be addressed.

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

Social Ads Not Converting, But Is That Their Only Value?

A new study is throwing cold water on the advertising dollars being allocated for Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and elsewhere. In short, it reports only a small percentage of social network users have ever made a purchase in response to an ad shown on those networks.

Unfortunately the study falls victim to the same sort of thinking as all the various analyses that seek to assign a dollar value to each Tweet and otherwise get ROI completely wrong.

Basically, if we assume the study is correct, anywhere from 1 (Snapchat) to 16 (Facebook) out of everyone 100 people who saw an ad actually converted into a buyer in response to that ad. Yeah, that sounds less than great, except for Facebook, which any retailer would sacrifice their mother for.

But the study doesn’t look at the cumulative value of consistent messages over time. So the ad didn’t directly convert someone, but did the fifth Tweet they saw later in the week finally convince them to make a purchase either online or in a store? That kind of consumer-tracking and message influence isn’t accounted for.

That’s one of the reasons I believe in content programs adopting consistent publishing cadences because exposure to all those messages adds up over time. This post may not move the needle, but the cumulative impact of a month’s worth of posts might. Even if it, to use the Snapchat example, that big-picture analysis only increased it from 1% to 3%, that’s a significant improvement given the scale.

Social ads may have the potential to more immediately convert a viewer into a buyer than, say, highway billboards. But it seems the actual consumption and usage of those ads by the audience isn’t all that different. Perhaps we need to stop treating them as such.

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

Sprout Social Quantifies the Call-Out Culture

Sprout Social is out with a new report on what it calls “Call-Out Culture,” the tendency of people these days to use social media to use social media platforms to air their complaints, bad experiences and other grievances involving brands. As always, there are a number of interesting points made throughout the report but a couple large-scale takeaways jumped out at me.

Call-Outs Revolve Around Frustration or Anger

The reasons people take to social media – which they do more than any avenue other than in-person customer service – to air their grievances or issues is because they see it as a public service of sorts. They want to call attention to something, espy bialy some form of a bad experience they had that they want to warn others of. That’s important because the number one reaction by other consumers to what someone posts is that they’re glad they saw it while they were researching a company or product prior to purchase. Mostly those negative call-outs are being done for just that purpose, to warn others, while smaller percentages are seeking refunds or discounts as a result.

There are a few charts in the report regarding consumer reactions to various kinds of brand responses to those complaints. Negative responses will lead to further negative action while positive action can turn things around and encourage more positive follow-ups from the consumer, though that’s not guaranteed.

Of course what’s left out of that is what constitutes a “good” response. That, in my experience, can run the gamut from the simple acknowledgment of someone’s point of view and issue to demands the company makes drastic changes to a product or business model. Some of those are wholly unreasonable but still may be lumped in with the “poor” response consumers think they’ve gotten.

Consumer Brands Feel the Burn

Unsurprisingly, consumer goods brands are the ones that feel the brunt of consumer social commentary. That category is both the most complained about and the one that’s seen as the most in-need of improvements to its social customer service efforts.

Those are, though, also the same companies that have the biggest challenges of scale to surmount. Those companies sell hundreds of products to millions of customers every day, so a social customer service effort that could handle that worldwide would be massive, the size of a large PR agency and still likely not tackle everything. This is something that’s often overlooked by hard-core adherents to the “every Twitter mention/Facebook comment *needs* a response, mostly because those consultants aren’t the ones who stick around to actually build that response workflow.

We Live In Public

It’s still fascinating to me that complaining publicly about a product or experience is, seemingly, the go-to tactic for so many people. I’m guilty of doing so from time to time, but almost always go back to delete that post because I feel bad shortly after doing so. Or I wind up apologizing for my public trash-talking, as I did one early morning after a bad experience with an airline. I posted my frustrations on Twitter and got a response from the brand, which is a credit to them. But I realized I didn’t need to do that, that doing so was kind of rude, and apologized.

That’s partly rooted in my personality, which is geared to suck it up and keep my thoughts to myself like a good German Lutheran. And it’s rooted partly in my own experience on the end of Tweetdeck, the one who’s trying to monitor comments, triage those in need of care and respond where appropriate. That can be draining, soul-sucking work since you’re indirectly being blamed for an experience you had nothing to do with. But it’s your work that will determine how the consumer responds and if you can salvage the relationship.

Before you take to Twitter to talk about some brand’s #epicfail, keep in mind that those are people who you’re talking about and to, not a faceless corporate entity. That may change the calculus when determining what or what not to voice your frustrations over.

The Value of Professional Social Media Management

“Chris, didn’t you work in web design or something?”

“No, social media marketing.” 

“Oh cool…want to start an Instagram account?”

That was the conversation that lead to my starting a photo feed for the store I’ve been working at for the last several months. Since I fired it up I’ve tried to post regularly and put into practice everything I’ve learned over the last decade of content marketing program management, even if it is just for a single local store and not a worldwide consumer brand.

Over the last few days, though, I haven’t posted anything. That’s because I feel it would have been insensitive to do so while a huge chunk of Texas is underwater and preparing for a recovery process that could take months if not years. I’ll ramp it up again in the near future, but there’s a crisis happening and so I’m going to take a break.

My decision is based on those years of experience. It’s based on seeing one brand after another called out for continuing on with business as usual while people were suffering. The account isn’t huge, but even if no one were to take us to task to the extent that we become a cautionary tale in Adweek it’s the right thing to do.

The experience and insights that culminated in my making this decision are mine. I worked hard to accumulate those instincts. When social media management is simply one of the tasks you assign a part-time office manager, you don’t get that. But that’s who’s being given the reins if many of the job postings I come across are any indication.

They may do a fine job and the profiles will be managed without headache. If so, great. But when a crisis, either internal or external, comes along, you’re going to want someone whose experience extends beyond their own personal use of Facebook.

Netflix Refines Its Conversion Funnel

A lot of people have been linking to this Wired story about “The Defenders” and how Netflix is using it as a way to gauge the effectiveness of various recommendation paths to the show. You know, those thumbnails at the bottom of your screen or other prompts that offer suggestions on what you might enjoy next.

That’s really interesting and there are some fascinating details in there about how Netflix segments the audience and uses the data it gathers about your viewing habits to tailor all manner of recommendations. One thought jumped out at me as I was reading it, though:

This is just conversion path optimization.

Spend any amount of time dealing with online marketing and you’ll encounter a situation where you need to define the ideal conversion path for your customer. That path needs to be defined but then measured, analyzed and tested to see where customers might be falling off. Whether you’re dealing with email, social media or anything else online, a purchase or other conversion is the goal of at least some percentage of your program.

That’s exactly what’s going on here. The difference is that Netflix already knows a lot about you and is able to customize the path to what it feels to be your preferences. Most conversion campaigns will have some of that data but not nearly to the granular, everyday usage level that Netflix does.

This kind of customization, considering it’s coming from an entertainment company like Netflix, has the potential to greatly influence the tastes and preferences of a vast swath of society. It basically decides what tastes or preferences to reinforce and which to ignore, making the decision for the viewer, who doesn’t have to put much effort into the process beyond clicking a button.

If that sounds like a feedback loop, you’re not wholly wrong. Netflix will continue to spend cash on original series and movies based on data showing what its customers want, refining that production process based on results. A recent study made a lot of headlines claiming young people haven’t watched many classic films, particularly those made before the 1970s. That just happens to coincide closely with Netflix’s catalog of films, which only sports a couple dozen black and white features.

What Netflix is doing with “The Defenders” isn’t all that different from the A/B testing any other company does, giving different audience segments different experiences to see which works best. It’s just that Netflix has a lot more data to work with – just as Facebook does when determining which posts and ads to display – and the ability to even more finely personalize that experience over time.

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