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.

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.

Twitter Wants to Ease Tweetstorm Posting

According to reports based on screenshots sent to the social media editor of The Next Web, Twitter has a feature it hasn’t launched yet that could make composing Tweetstorms easier than it is now.

Tweetstorms, if you’re not familiar, are those long, drawn-out threads of updates from a single user on a single topic. The term was coined by NYU professor Jay Rosen as more and more people were posting strings of updates ranging from five to up to 30 posts in a row at a time. The functionality around them has evolved as well, as people discovered that if you kept replying to your previous post then the updates were indeed threaded into a single narrative.

Twitter obviously feels there’s some value to encouraging this sort of behavior. It keeps people engaged on the site as they keep posting and these threads often draw the attention of others. They’re also widely derided. The form factor is not great, either from a publishing or reading perspective. “Clunky” is somewhat of an understatement.

A Middle Ground

This is Twitter finding a middle-ground solution between the 140-character limit it’s known for and the long-form content people still want to post and which it’s reportedly tested several times over the years.

There are still problems, though. Twitter’s issues with how it handles links – as separate items, not embedded within text – as well as the appearance of uploaded images/video become all the more apparent within Tweetstorms. Links really do interrupt the reading experience and sometimes images will appear smaller than normal in one of the replies that makes up the thread. Whether or not those issues are addressed in this feature remain to be seen.

One additional problem is that if the feature works as reported, allowing someone to write out the whole thread and then post it as a series of updates, it doesn’t take into account the spontaneity that often inspires these spurts of activity. While these strings are usually somewhat annoying, only rewarding reading and exploration well after they’re done, news organizations also use them regularly to update live from where a story is breaking. That’s much more interesting, but it’s also not something that can be planned out in advance.

Encouraging Activity

When you think about it, Tweetstorms are to Twitter what Stories are to Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms: Collections of multiple updates around a single topic. Twitter’s Moments feature also fits this bill, but with the added ability to curate updates from other people. It’s another instance where Twitter basically does what other networks do (e.g. messaging) but in a clunkier manner and all within a single app.

Twitter wants to keep people on its network. In this case it’s not competing against Facebook, it’s trying to keep people from investigating WordPress or Tumblr for their long-form thoughts. I’ve yet to read a single Tweetstorm that wouldn’t be improved by being posted to a blog platform and with supporting links embedded in the text. But it’s what people are doing and Twitter isn’t in a position to look a gifthorse in the mouth when it comes to user activity and engagement.

Russian Manipulation of Facebook and Twitter Could Lead to Government Oversight

To date, the major social networks have fought as hard as they could to avoid any notion of being accountable to anyone but their chief executives and shareholders. That despite increasing weight in determining the direction of public discourse coupled with an unwillingness to explain how they go about targeting people with ads, what they use to determine how stories are shown and other practices. They’ve scoffed at the notion that they are media companies, insisting they are dumb platforms for people to share and see what they want even as they tout their ability to define audiences for advertisers.

Those days could be coming to an end. A report earlier this week revealed Facebook did indeed sell ads targeting American voters to organizations with ties to Russian “troll farms,” groups of people and bots designed to intentionally spread disinformation. As many people have pointed out, the budgets weren’t huge, but sufficient to target key swing districts. More pressing is the question of where these groups got the kind of audience information necessary to do such targeting.

Manipulating Democracy

A few months ago, after it was already widely accepted that “fake news” was used to sway last year’s election, Facebook announced it would implement fact-checking features, enlisting a few organizations to put a “disputed” tag on the suspicious news. Even that effort seems to be plagued by a lack of internal knowledge-sharing, hampered by Facebook’s unwillingness to show anyone how its system works.

It’s not just Facebook. Again, this isn’t surprising to anyone who regularly monitors social media activity but Twitter was utilized by bots and state actors to spread lies and other misinformation.

I’m having trouble coming up with a scenario that doesn’t involve more federal regulation of the social media industry in the next few years. If you read about the efforts in the early years of the 20th century to break up the monopolistic trusts of that time – oil, steel, railroad etc – you’ll see the situation then is strikingly similar to where we are now with online companies. Facebook and Google control a massive amount of the online advertising industry and, as the examples here show, do so with very little accountability even while yielding outsized influence.

That’s exactly the scenario U.S. Steel and other companies found themselves in over a century ago. Theodore Roosevelt and other progressives, along with their allies in the press, sought to expose more of their practices to the light of day, requiring they submit details about their financial situation and more to regulators.

Similarly, television broadcasters were required to commit to serving the public good in exchange for using the airwaves licensed from the government to make money via advertising. That came at a time when everyone realized television was gaining traction and becoming a powerful tool for shaping public discourse.

Change Won’t Come Organically

A recent op-ed in the MIT Technology Review points out that one reason Facebook feels no pressure to open any of its black boxes is that there’s so little marketplace pressure on it. There are few competitors at its scale, so it feels it can operate with impunity. If net neutrality concepts and rules are overturned that situation will only get worse as it will be able to afford to pay for quick access startup competitors can’t.

I’ll go farther than “this might happen” and say it should happen. Facebook, Google, and other companies should be held accountable to officials for their business practices. These networks may not want to be seen as media companies but that’s a lie that never passed the laugh test in the first place. Now we’ve seen not just in theory but in practice how much they can change the course of history via tools and algorithms that no one has audited or assessed for credibility and accuracy.

Someone needs to put checks and balances on Facebook and other companies. If the marketplace won’t – or can’t do so, then the government needs to step in. That’s the only other recourse available. There’s too much on the line – democracy, the fate of global ecosystems and more – for one company to wield this much power without being taken to task for how it is or isn’t serving the public good and make substantive, transparent changes when it fails in that goal.

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

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.

Facebook’s Music Royalties Offer Has a Catch

Facebook has reportedly reached out to the major music labels with an offer to pay for the music people are using in the videos they’re increasingly uploading to the network, videos which often feature music they haven’t cleared the licensing for. Video is, of course, incredibly important to Facebook these days and it doesn’t want to either stop people from sharing or wait the years necessary to develop a copyright identification system that would designate royalties to be paid.

In other words, Facebook is paying off record labels because it’s too hard for everyone to go after the end user and too costly, both in terms of time and dollars, to educate people on copyright law and what does or doesn’t constitute fair usage.

This might seem like a nice, elegant solution for Facebook, which certainly has the money to make this kind of offer. It’s essentially covering for its ignorant user base so no one gets sued, just as YouTube has done.

There’s only one problem: Just like every other company, Facebook doesn’t like to spend money. So it’s going to look for ways to recoup what’s sure to be a significant expense given the licensing battles fought by YouTube, Spotify, Pandora and others. And how does Facebook make money? Advertising.

That’s right, the advertising that already not only already intrudes on the Facebook experience – made worse by the introduction of full-sound autoplay video – and follows you around the rest of the web via its Audience Network will become more intrusive. That’s doubly so because ad revenue is expected to fall in coming quarters, which will put pressure on the company to increase their efforts in one of two ways: Frequency or depth.

Nothing comes for free in this world, and that’s especially true when dealing with Facebook or other social networks. Facebook paying labels for music rights is just another way of putting the end user deeper in hoc, a debt it pays off by selling more ads based on increasingly-detailed insights into how they are, where they go and what they like.

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

Report: Facebook Engagement Keeps Dropping

A new study by Buzzsumo reports that Facebook engagement for brands and publishers continues to decline, dropping 20% so far this year. The usual reasons are cited as reasons contributing to this continued trend, including the fact that there are more posts vying for attention and changes to the News Feed algorithm.

The one kind of post that continues to perform better than others is video, a format Facebook has encouraged more brands and publishers to embrace in the last couple years and which has been given preferential treatment in the News Feed. It’s a big part of the “pivot to video” trend many publishers have joined in the last year or so.

What should be disconcerting to content marketing professionals about this decline is that it comes at a time when promotional ad budgets on Facebook meant to increase reach and combat organic News Feed suppression are still rising. So publishers are spending more money on ads, but that’s not even stopping the organic bleeding, just slowing it somewhat. Now they’ll bleed out in 12 months, not seven, which isn’t much of an improvement.

Also keep in mind that those publishers who are spending money on Facebook ads to increase reach are doing so in the hopes that people will click through to the site/story, which will help their own ad revenue. That means publishers are in the following situation:

  • Brands are advertising on Facebook instead of on media sites because the reach is better.
  • Facebook has suppressed the organic reach of publishers, resulting in less engagement and fewer click-throughs.
  • Publishers are spending their own advertising budgets on Facebook ads to increase reach and counter that suppression.
  • Publishers are still seeing engagement and reach drop.

The only winner here is Facebook, who gets advertising money from both brands and publishers.

It can’t be sustainable for publishers to keep spending money on Facebook ads when the ROI of those ads continues to fall. Then again, with News Feed throttling resulting in less organic exposure, it would seem to be unsustainable to keep using Facebook as a distribution platform at all.

At some point there’s going to be a reckoning. I’m not sure what it will look like, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be pretty. Either publishers will stand up to Facebook in a meaningful way, painting the company as not only a threat to the press but to a thriving democracy or Facebook will succeed in killing independent media companies and become the de facto version of the internet it’s long wanted to be.

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.

Quick Takes: Content Marketing News for 9/1/17

  • Facebook has confirmed it won’t take a cut of the subscriptions it’s going to help publishers sell, though I feel like “yet” needs to be added to each one of these promises.
  • As my friend Jeremy Pepper pointed out, Snapchat’s sudden overtures to influencers seems driven by a tanking stock price and slowing user growth, both of which the company is trying to shore up.
  • Eventually we’re going to hit a point where so much of what’s posted on Facebook are based on memory prompts that nothing new will ever be shared, just an endless cycle of revisiting posts made between 2007 and 2016.
  • There are all sorts of options people can choose from but marketers still prefer email as a message delivery platform and people in general feel likewise, though they do have some suggestions for improvements.
  • Nice move by Giphy adding GIF view counts for its official Artist and Partner channels, giving managers of those programs some numbers to be used to prove program effectiveness.
  • Truly the end days are upon us as Buzzfeed finally casts aside its moral superiority and accepts banner ads because it wants to make more money.
  • WhatsApp is the latest to offer verified account badges to select business accounts, which comes with special features and functionality.
  • A bunch of new features have been added to Tumblr’s mobile app that increase the style people can apply to posts and weblogs.
  • A new logo and layout are just two of the changes YouTube has made to freshen up the look and functionality of the site.
  • Instagram has introduced new tools for branded content that ease disclosure by the creators and give sponsoring brands more insights in the performance of those posts.
  • Highly recommend this piece on how YouTube evolved from being simply a utility for hosting videos into a feed-centric discovery platform.
  • Founder Ev Williams talks about Medium’s recent business model shifts and how he sees the site in terms of supporting quality writing.
  • Anchor has introduced even more editing features and explains how the team worked to create the best possible product.
  • You can new view Instagram Stories on the web.
  • After some push back from users after a recent redesign, Flipboard is reinstating some key content navigation functionality
  • Facebook is rolling out its new Watch video hub to all U.S. users and of course there’s already a desire by publishers to sell advertisers on sponsored videos.
  • To combat and head-off the spread of fake or misleading news on the platform, Snapchat has a team of journalists that review stories it curates for accuracy.