There’s a Massive Untapped Market for Subscription Video Games

The last couple years have brought several conversations around the potential of video game streaming services. Not Twitch-like streaming, which is about broadcasts and sharing game play but having subscription-based access to video games you yourself are playing. As Sara Fischer at Axios recently summarized, all the major tech companies are in some phase of working or experimenting with the idea, seeing it as a major new revenue stream and a way to capitalize on the popularity of video games with young people in particular.

One big problem Fischer calls out is that video games tend to be something players consume quickly and just once, working through the story of the latest release and then waiting for the next chapter or installment, which may be a year or more out. They don’t do a lot of replaying, with the stickiest titles being open world games, especially those that feature multiplayer interaction. Here’s how she puts it:

One key difference between video games and entertainment programming is that with gaming, there isn’t as big a market for catalog content —material that people want to consume over and over even when it’s old (think “Friends” or “Seinfeld”).

It’s a good point, but it seems to overlook that there likely *is* a market for older games that can be played time and again. In fact I’d say a focusing on catalog titles – especially those from the first two or three console eras – is exactly what a subscription video game service should do.

Players who want to be part of the zeitgeist and live on the cutting edge of hot titles will probably always want to rush out and get the latest release, the one that has the most buzz and which is going to be a topic of conversation with friends and others online. They might always want to buy or download. A streaming game service would have to have *all* the computing power to handle the demand of so many people trying to play the same game in the first 48 hours it’s available. *All* the power.

On the other end, a more casual player who just wants to unwind with a game at the end of the day might be more willing to pay $9.99/month for access to a collection of older games that can chipped away at for an hour here and there. There’s even more potential appeal if that service is specifically built around older titles since it brings with it the nostalgia factor.

Someone (like myself) who has fond memories of playing “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” on N64 or “Dark Forces” on PC might be very interested in revisiting those games, but buying them outright on Steam seems like an extravagance. Spending $10 for one game is a lot and there are better uses for that if it’s something I’m going to then own outright.

Subscribing to a streaming platform that lets me jump in and play any game I like and bounce between games as my interest or mood dictates, though, is much more attractive. I can do a little bit of a racing game one afternoon, play a “Rebel Assault” mission another night and revisit a classic Spider-Man game some other time. There’s no pressure to finish one or the other in a set time period and, indeed, something like an older racing or adventure game doesn’t really have an ending, it’s just a question of what tracks and cars I choose to select in the moment.

That’s similar to how Netflix has become so popular, by just letting people choose what they want to watch at any given time. If you want to binge all of “Mad Men” in a month, go for it. If it takes you three days to watch Velvet Buzzsaw because life keeps interrupting you, it doesn’t matter.

For the tech companies competing to be first (or best) to market with a streaming video game platform, this kind of long-tail catalog approach doesn’t sound very sexy since it’s not going to be the launching pad for the next “Red Dead Redemption” or “Fortnite.” But there’s a lot of potential for appealing to the player who’s never going to be able to invest the 60-70 hours it takes to finish some of these games, at least not without spreading that time over four or five months because they have jobs to go to, school concerts to attend, significant others to spend time with and so on. A service geared toward them that lets them once more play some of their favorites from when they had free time, though, could be very attractive.

Google Wants to Manage the Open Web

One of the key revelations in the last week or so has been that technology companies are not necessarily our friends when it comes to the best interests of society as a whole. As someone pointed out, the oligarchy of Google, Facebook and Apple have taken on the roles of gatekeeper for each other, occasionally deplatforming apps and other tools or revoking some level of access to data when one of their number crosses some line that results in a wave of negative press.

That’s a problematic situation for the rest of us considering this is all happening in an inconsistent manner, is often accompanied by instances of hypocritical double standards and is utterly opaque, free from scrutiny by the larger public, including governmental agencies and regulators. We don’t know *why* a decision has been made, a process that may be driven less by altruistic impulses and more by a desire to defend one’s own products and property.

Allowing a handful of private companies to have unrestricted control of how information is shared through the web is a situation custom designed for abuse in a way that, because it’s all happening without oversight, we’ll never know about until it’s too late. If you don’t believe that, remember how much of the public has no idea Facebook is collecting data specifically to store for use by advertisers.

No less dangerous are efforts by Google to diminish the role of the URL in the web experience.

That initiative is, of course, presented as being in the best interests of the average online user. A Google exec points out that URLs can be used by malicious actors to distribute spyware, spread disinformation and inflict other damage. Those are all legitimate concerns, of course, even if it conveniently ignores the role Google itself has played in the latter through YouTube recommendations that often descend quickly into Alt-Right propaganda.

Reducing the amount of visibility people have into what they’re consuming and experiencing is never the answer, even if it’s completely in-line with the kind of control these technology companies want to have over people’s online lives. Google, in this case, wants to put itself in the position of labeling what is or isn’t safe and trustworthy, seemingly with no recourse for someone who disagrees or whose site has been labeled as dangerous, if it’s not blocked completely.

The paternalistic mindset required to see basic URL literacy as “advanced knowledge of how the internet works” is astounding. URLs are the foundation of the web and largely have been, though they have admittedly changed and evolved over the years. Still, they allow the average user to see where they are on the web and made decisions for themselves.

Reigning in bad actors is a laudable goal and people too often fall for fake sites made to look like CNN.com or something. But just like street signs allow you to see where you are in a city, URLs allow you to get a sense of location and make decisions based on unbiased information.

The danger here is that much like corporations and private donors have relabeled building addresses as “One [Corporation Name] Plaza” and renamed streets after influential individuals, the web will actually become harder to navigate if URLs are removed from the equation.

As usual, this campaign by Google can’t be fully evaluated or considered in and of itself. Instead it has to be viewed in the context of both corporate consolidation and the recent rollback of net neutrality safeguards. Both of those combine to create an environment where fewer companies have more control over our media diets and other aspects of our daily lives while allowing fewer independent voices to break through the filter. That effort, funded largely by groups with a vested interest in its removal, has had to date none of the benefits the FCC and its patrons promised it would but will likely have many of the downsides, including creating tiered online experiences controlled by wireless providers and other companies.

So imagine running a Google search in Chrome, which currently has 71 percent of the browser market, and finding that certain sites are placed in a “trusted sources” section. That’s not bad, right? Except how did they get there? Are they the result of a paid relationship like what powers retail recommendations? Or are they actually based on some kind of objective truth and deliberation?

Without some transparency into the process we’ll never know, instead finding ourselves in an environment where the big are becoming bigger because they can afford the kind of deals smaller startups and challengers can’t. But because we’re being told to keep quiet, the adults are here to protect us we have no way to challenge the decisions being made, supposedly, on our behalf.

Google Rebrands Feed, Retains All Its Problems

Last year Google introduced Feed, a personalized feed of news and updates appearing below the main search bar within the Google mobile app. I took issue with that at the time, specifically calling out how it was another example of a company feeling it knew better than the individual what someone might be interested in or *should* see. People could mark stories they did or didn’t feel were actually relevant, but that’s about it.

Since that was added to the app I don’t think I’ve used it as all and suspect that pulling in that feed of updates and stories is why it takes longer than I would expect for the app to load to the point where I can actually use the search functionality. It’s made what should be a lightweight experience that’s optimized for search into a very heavy one that keeps trying to tell me I should be doing more.

google discoverFeed has now been rebranded as Discover, because all mobile news/update apps are now required to have a section with that title. A bit of new functionality has been added as well, mostly to better collect information on user preferences and guide them on their search experience. Still there, though, is the presumption that what someone does online, specifically within the app, is the best indication of what someone is interested in.

You can guess where I’m going with this.

I continue to not fully understand why these sorts of algorithmic feeds of updates and news are a better user experience than RSS feeds.

Part of the pitch behind this and every other feed like it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and similar apps is that users can train the AI that powers what’s displayed by voting stories up or down. Don’t want to see that story about politics? Just say so. Want to see more about music? You can tell the app and it will learn.

The great part of RSS is that it’s the exact same amount of work on the part of the reader, but without the active sending of information to a tech company, information that will likely be used in the near future to display better targeted ads to you. You opt in to the feeds of the sites, blogs or keyword news searches you want to read and when something is no longer relevant for you, you can unsubscribe from it.

The problem, as I’ve pointed out in the past, is that RSS is a “dumb” technology. In point of fact it was designed to be just that so it could work across browsers, platforms and so on. It just works, without a lot of corporate interference. That means it’s tough to monetize, though.

Which is surprising since there’s a massive amount of information about me that could be found in or derived from my RSS usage. The sites I subscribe to, the kinds of stories I save for reading later, the ones that generate enough interest to click through to view immediately…it’s all there. But it’s not proprietary, so no one wants to use it.

Discover is Google’s latest attempt to do anything but support the RSS format. Fast Flip, Currents and other now-shuttered apps have all tried in various ways to display the news. And of course there’s the late, lamented Google Reader and the company’s continued sidelining of Feedburner.

The problem is that RSS puts the power in the hands of the reader, not the company, and that’s something the tech industry doesn’t understand and seemingly won’t tolerate.

Technology Companies Think We’re Too Dumb to Have Control

I do most all of my writing and management within Google Drive. That’s where I write most all of my blog posts, where the spreadsheets that include my editorial calendars are stores and where I keep presentation decks for reference later. It’s a great tool, especially in how it allows for offline editing that’s backed up the next time you connect to the internet and how Docs integrates with WordPress for easy publishing.

That being said, it’s also extraordinarily frustrating because it exemplifies how technology companies feel users are too irresponsible or ill-informed to be given anything more than cursory control over the management experience.

See, I want to be able to keep a few key documents at the top of the list of files, preferably even adding them to the “Quick Access” row of files the system feels I open frequently. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s not the most useful to me. Instead I’d love to make that a row of files I use as templates or even a collection of folders with important material. Or maybe I could just do something as simple as sort the main page by “Starred” documents. Or get the list of folders out of the main list on the Drive front page.

None of that is possible, though, because it’s not anything the designers and developers think is the ideal user experience or some such. Either these use cases didn’t occur to them or they had a reason for not allowing for that level of flexibility. Whatever the reason, it’s frustrating because it means I have to trade a non-optimal and sometimes exasperating experience for convenience.

This is by no means the only instance of tech companies thinking they know best or, as is often the case, putting profit motives above the user experience.

For instance, Instagram says no, the reverse-chronological feed isn’t coming back because it sees higher engagement with the curated feed. That’s fine and they’re within their rights to make that call, but what if someone simply wants to make a different choice?

Or how about how Twitter keeps trying to create alternatives to its main timeline? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told the Twitter app I’m not interested in the “In Case You Missed It” collection of Tweets it thinks are relevant to me for any number of reasons? Personally, I come to Twitter to see what the current conversation is, not to revisit what someone posted seven hours ago. I’m an intelligent adult who’s been using the service for 11+ years, I know what I’m getting. Stop introducing new features that automatically curate events or signal breaking news and educate people on Lists work, then introduce TweetDeck-like columns on the mobile app.

It’s not that I don’t think companies should be able to create the products and feature sets they want. It’s that I resent the insistence that I and everyone else fall in line with what they’ve decided is the optimal experience instead of allowing for flexibility on the user end. Even if only eight percent of people take advantage of that flexibility, it’s likely it would cost little to make it available and maintain it.

I, and others like me, are square pegs so stop trying to fit us into round holes. I just want to be able to organize things in a way that makes sense to me, not be bound to the limited ideas of others.

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

Data Isn’t Knowledge

There’s an ad campaign from Google I’ve seen quite a bit lately, mostly via Captivate’s in-elevator video package, promoting Google Cloud. The ad is tied to March Madness, showing basketball players on the court and asking if you know certain stats about the team and its players. It’s not aimed at fans but is geared toward decision-makers and execs.

The ad bugs me as both a marketer and a copywriter. That’s because here’s the tagline for the campaign:

Know what your data knows.

I understand what the sentiment behind the copy is: That you should be able to access the data you have in a way that allows you to make informed decisions. If you are collecting a wide array of pertinent metrics you should be able to dig into those numbers and gain insights that ultimately benefit your business.

Numbers are, with very few exceptions, not knowledge though. That alchemy requires a kind of analysis and comprehension of what the numbers mean and represent.

A simple example of what I’m talking about is just money. If I type “$23.42” the number itself doesn’t mean anything, even if it’s one value in a spreadsheet column full of other numbers.

The insight, the knowledge, comes when I see “$23.42” and understand its place in a larger dataset as the mean dollar value of my online shoppers in Naperville, IL., a market I’ve done no advertising in but which is outperforming 12 of the 15 markets where I’m spending a ton on ads.

My data didn’t “know” that. My data offered that up to me but it was my putting that number in the context of other factors – including some that aren’t quantifiable – that created the insight and knowledge necessary to make a decision.

I understand that we’ve all been sold the “big data” narrative for the last several years, something that’s only become more pervasive as artificial intelligence is increasingly used in data analysis. Even the best AI, though, won’t be able to provide the same context as an experienced human manager who filters the data through her own knowledge. More troubling is the potential that AI could discount certain things it deems irrelevant but which are actually vitally important, leading to exactly the wrong decision being made.

There are valuable insights to be extracted from raw data, but those insights come from people. The data doesn’t “know” anything, it just presents. Yes, “Know what your data knows” is a catchy tagline because of the symmetry. A more accurate statement would have been something like “Better data, better decisions.”

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

Google Buys Tenor, So Let’s Drop the Facade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal:

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

Media

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing / Advertising

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

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

Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Still Trust Google?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Takes – Marketing and Media News for 3/20/18

It’s hard to top a story like that involving Cambridge Analytics and Facebook. There are all sorts of things going on here, but these seem to be the key points:

Cambridge had a contract with a Russian oil company (many of which are controlled to some extent by government officials) that seemed oddly interested in how to target U.S. voters. Those conversations were happening at the same time CA was working to cultivate largely Republican candidates in the lead up to the 2016 election cycle.

The response by Facebook over the weekend as this was developing was all over the place and almost universally terrible from a crisis comms point of view and was at least in part to blame for how the company’s stock price plummeted Monday morning. Even up to the time of this writing, the company has pointed the finger everywhere – including threatening media outlets – but at itself while Zuckerberg and other leadership have been kept out of public view, which is exactly the wrong move to make.

  • While it was quick to suspend CA, it also understated the problem by just focusing on those who had downloaded the firm’s app, not the 10s of millions of people who had their data mined as a result of that usage. The onus is also put on the user, not the company, which continues a long streak of avoiding anything approaching accountability.
  • Facebook suspended the account of a former employee that revealed some of the information CA collected, which kind of seems like they’re blaming the messenger for their bad actions.
  • It initially positioned this as a “leak” of information to Cambridge Analytica but that’s not strictly accurate. It’s at best (from FB’s point of view) an inappropriate use of data that was collected and at worst a totally appropriate use of data that was collected since audience demographic targeting is 100% what it (Facebook) does.
  • There’s also evidence it either knew CA still had the data it had claimed to delete or simply didn’t follow up or ask for proof it had done so. So either it’s complicit or irresponsible and I’m not sure which is more trouble. It will be auditing Cambridge to see if there’s any data still lying around, but at this point that seems unlikely.
  • Cambridge, meanwhile, is squirming, at one point Tweeting that “advertising is not coercive” which is rich coming from a firm that claims to be able to create targeted messaging to change behavior/attitudes. Also, that’s the entire premise of advertising, so…yeah, you’re not being honest there. If that’s their position they owe a lot of clients their money back.
  • The various “this just happened the one time” excuses don’t really mesh with new evidence it was testing messaging that wound up being suspiciously similar to Trump campaign themes two years before he announced his candidacy. Or with the fact that Facebok and CA were sharing Trump campaign office space a year after the “breach” occurred.
  • All this has lead to actual and threatened investigations by governments on both sides of the Atlantic as Facebook will testify before a House committee, the FTC wants to take a look and more.

Media

Jesus, where to start with the bloodbath last week. Just as the dust was settling on iHeartMedia’s bankruptcy, the Chicago Tribune laid off even more reporters and editors as it continues talking about pivoting into curated something and I don’t even know what because I’m not convinced the whole tronc thing isn’t a ponzi scheme of some sort. And as completely expected, Meredith has begun cutting hundreds of sales and editorial positions now that the ink on its acquisition of Time, Inc. is dry. And it’s looking to sell a bunch of high-profile titles as well, though I’m not clear who the market might be.

Don’t worry about the tronc team, though. They’re just fine, having received massive raises and bonuses *after* the layoffs mentioned above. And chairman Michael Ferro has left the building, a move that suspiciously came just hours before a report on his sexual misconduct involving multiple women was published.

On the brighter side of Chicago media, The Tribe reached its fundraising goal to provide more local journalism.

Oh but hey, Google Ventures has $12m to throw at TheSkimm.

Decent piece here on the logical and rhetorical knots you have to twist yourself into just to do something as seemingly simple as cover the President of the United States.

The AT&T/Time Warner merger is about to enter the court system and things are about to get interesting. I’m not sure measuring it against other conglomerates and making sure the parties can compete is a factor to consider. Right now we’re in the corporate consolidation phase of the media industry but I’m really looking forward to when we start breaking up these massive companies because they’re bad for everyone and everything. While I agree marketplace realities need to be part of the thinking,

Publishers find people are willing to part with some personal data in exchange for access and so are putting registration walls in place because they’re more attractive than paywalls.

Business streaming news service Cheddar has a new round of funding and may have some expansion plans it will put that money toward.

Marketing / Advertising

The death of advertising, now in its 15th year.

[extreme WOPR voice] Would you like to play an advertisement?

Twitter has suspended another batch of Tweet-stealing accounts, this time going after bigger game, including some Verified users, albeit in some cases only after they were asked by the press why they were still around.

Ads for cryptocurrencies could also be banned by Twitter if reports of plans that company has prove to be true.

More data on how consumers are increasingly expecting brands to share their societal values and are willing to spend more to have that connection. Young consumers – who are driven more by ideology than pragmatic needs that come later in life – are more willing to abandon a brand after a scandal or because of a rift in belief systems.

Both Facebook and Pinterest have debuted new ad products aimed at retailers.

It’s good news that Google and Facebook will capture less of the online ad market next year, diminishing the power of the duopoly they’ve created, but the fall isn’t that great and I’m not sure Amazon taking some of the difference is a step in the right direction.

Macy’s is planning to weaponize its workforce, turning them all into social media fashion influencers via an internal program.

Social Media

Anchor has expanded the tools it offers to create shareable videos based on the podcasts published to the app/site.

You’ll excuse me if I don’t agree that anyone but industry pundits and professional hand-wringers think anyone is dealing with the “reckoning” of social media not living up to its utopian promise. Most daily users are, I think, doing just fine, Clark and aren’t bothered by all this to any great extent.

One of the (many) things that’s become clear in the last year or so is that Facebook Groups have been used by extremist groups and organizations to spread their hate and radicalize new members. Keeping that kind of activity out is a full time job for even the best well-intentioned admins and not everyone is well-intentioned. They quickly become the worst kind of forum as new members and those belonging to any kind of minority are harassed into leaving. So it’s worth remembering that in the wake of various News Feed changes Facebook was emphasizing Groups as an alternative for publishers looking for engagement as recently as January.

So let’s all have a good laugh at how amidst all this Facebook is still trying to attract influential creators with a subscription support model that’s akin to what Patreon offers. It’s hard to imagine, though, who’s going to sign up for this given what a toxic and inhospitable place the site has suddenly become.

Technology

Reading about the expansion of Google Lens I can’t help but think the reason something like Jelly failed is because we were all waiting for tech like this to emerge. The idea is the same, in that it wants to help people figure out what an object they’re looking at is. But the approach is very different, with actual people powering Jelly.

There are about three dozen states across the country which are working on some form of net neutrality law at the state level. My biggest concern is that Republican lawmakers and regulators – usually strict Federalists who hold states’ rights up as the highest ideal – will move to squash these efforts as they’re enacted, likely citing interstate commerce as the rationalization.

A new shopping product from Google would have partner retailers place products directly within search results and allow Google to share a cut of the revenue. This seems wrongheaded in all kinds of ways. Why, given all the concern over how Google is partly responsible for damaging the media industry, would you want to replicate that model for the retail industry? As usual, Google is positioning this as making search results more useful for people but the inherent conflict of interest in this – it makes money from some purchases and not others – brings any search results returned suspect. Who is it artificially promoting and who is it artificially suppressing? Very problematic.

Important to note how male-centric WeWork’s environment and mindset is and that there are other groups that need coworking spaces as well.

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.

Quick Takes – Marketing and Media News for 2/13/18

I don’t have much to add to it but if you haven’t read this piece at Buzzfeed about the very real dangers we face from technology that allows reality to be manipulated in scary ways, you need to do so right damn now.

Similarly, Wired has a report on the upheaval within Facebook in the last two years as the site as it’s struggled with an identity now that “help people connect” isn’t enough of a goal and those in charge are actually being asked what good or bad purpose it solves and what it plans to do about the latter.

Media

Disney’s streaming OTT plans have begun to come into focus and it’s more or less exactly what you would expect. There’s an emphasis on Star Wars as well as updates or new twists on established Disney properties like Lady & The Tramp and more. The question of what this means for the studio’s stake in Hulu is also answered as it will become the outlet for any R-rated or adult fare while the branded service remains all-ages friendly.

Along those same lines, Viacom will be launching its own branded streaming service with its own titles. In the same earnings call the company made it clear it has plans to turn around the ailing fortunes of Paramount, which has struggled as it sold off a number of films, had others flop and more. Also, the reactions to Viacom purchasing the VidCon conference are…yeah, just what I thought.

Digital media jobs in a number of sectors are growing in the Los Angeles area. That’s great for them, but not so great for anyone not there.

Given the anger directed at the media – anger that’s been fueled by powerful people who are unaccustomed to being held to account – it’s hard to argue that some sort of journalist protection law is necessary, thought its necessity doesn’t make the reality any less disappointing.

M.G. Siegler has some outstanding thoughts on why the movie theater-going experience is terrible. Notably, he hits a point I’ve made a couple times: The theater chains and the studios basically only want us to go to the theater for blockbusters, but when those blockbusters are terrible or simply fail to catch on, there’s literally no other model they’re willing and able to fall back on.

Content Marketing

Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed has said his company will pull back advertising from sites like Facebook and YouTube if they don’t do more to protect children and make other safety changes. I’d like to believe this but don’t see a hard line being drawn here as shareholders won’t long stand for the company not reaching that kind of audience. My cynical side says this is a lot of rhetoric that’s meant to get headlines but won’t amount to very much. That being said, the biggest – the only – thing that will affect real change is if the social network companies start feeling a pinch in their wallets.

Of course that may not matter at all because Facebook is more reliant on small advertisers than big ones.

David Cohn at Adweek has a really interesting piece on how Tumblr has fallen out of the spotlight when it comes to the attention received by advertisers and brand publishers, something that he ties to the platform’s mishandling by Yahoo after that purchase. The one caveat I would add is that while user growth isn’t expected to be massive and the marketing industry isn’t counting on it any longer there still *is* a vibrant community there that actually may get stronger without the interference of advertisers, one that’s much more about support than a toxic environment like reddit and others.

Social Media

Medium has tweaked its homepage, but it’s still not the RSS-like “here’s everything that’s new from the people/topics you follow” experience I really want, just more of the “recommended for you” approach.

Someone needs to start a single-serve site displaying whether or not Logan Paul is or isn’t suspended from YouTube’s monetization program. As of last Friday the status would have been “Suspended.” Along those lines, the video-sharing site has outlined the new rules for creators and the access they have to preferred partner status.

Facebook is testing a downvote button but just for comment moderation because “make the rest of the internet just like Digg 1.0 or reddit” was apparently someone’s idea of how things should go. It’s also changing the way it calculates post reach to only include when a post has been loaded on someone’s screen, not just when someone *could* have seen it. And there’s a new section coming specifically devoted to breaking news videos along with a new “Lists” post type which should make those “…your first eight concerts” memes that much more irritating.

The redesign of Snapchat – much-anticipated and heralded as the key to the platform finally catching on with older people – is so far doing a fantastic job of honking off the younger users who have made it so popular to date.

New numbers from eMarketer report that Facebook is losing young – under 25 – users faster than expected and the problem is only going to accelerate. As the story says, these numbers may not be 100% accurate but even if reality isn’t quite that bad, the *perception* that the site is quickly shedding hip, young users could mean advertisers start to abandon it.

Technology

Urrmmm…The live news app being added to Apple TVs isn’t really that, it’s just a portal to the apps for various media brands and it still requires you to have a cable subscription to access.

One element I haven’t seen completely explored in the news Amazon is testing its own delivery service is that it essentially used USPS, UPS and other services as a testing ground for over a decade, learning what worked and what didn’t before going out on its own.

Gen X and Millennial investors are tech-savvy themselves and are looking for financial advisors who use social media, apps and more as well.

A good op-ed in Variety about how those who rely on copyright protections for their livelihood and career desperately need the rules regarding infringement – specifically how it relates to the tech companies that serve as pathways to content – to be rewritten as part of a renegotiated NAFTA.

Virtual reality devices are still too expensive for people – particularly kids – to own themselves and so are flocking to VR arcades to get the immersive experience they expect. In case you’re not old like me, this is exactly the same reason kids went to video game arcades in the 70s and 80s, because the Atari 2600 we had at home wasn’t nearly as cool as the big games available elsewhere. Once PlayStation and Xbox brought higher game quality home, you didn’t need arcades. So as VR technology gets cheaper, expect the same pattern to unfold.

AMP Stories is a new format that’s been introduced by Google, allowing publishers to put together nifty little packages around a single topic, monetizing those stories with interstitial or other ads, though there still seem to be other issues needing to be worked or figured out. “AMP for Email” will let you do more all without leaving the Gmail environment because it’s now a universal belief among tech companies that letting people leave at all is a bad thing.

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.