Tuesday Afternoon Quarterback, June 28 2016

Here’s this week’s roundup of the stories that caught my eye or that I think are worth your attention this week. (For the record, I am not leaving the EU. No Bargxit for me.)

Brexit And Social Media

Passions have been running high regarding the British vote to leave the EU and what might have been motivating the “leave” supporters. I’ll check my opinions at the door on what this means or why people voted the way they did. (I am sure you’re very pleased not to have to read my political perspectives.)  But from a social media and digital perspective, there were a few aspects to the Brexit vote that warrant attention.

For starters, analysis indicates that social media activity in the weeks leading up to the vote leaned significantly in favor of the “Leave” side. There could be any number of explanations for this; given that this vote was positioned by many as a “revolt against the elites,” it could be that disaffected or angry people use social media more frequently to ‘find’ one another online, skipping over what they perceive as a biased media industry. It could be that the “Leave” faction believed it was in danger or losing in the days ahead of the election and made a much more aggressive push to engage and energize their voters via social platforms. Whatever the reason, the observation could provide an indicator of the likely result in the US election in November. Will Trump supporters be more active and engaged than Clinton supporters, or vice versa? Could that be a bellwether as to how the election may swing? Worth paying attention to in the run-up to the US election.

Much has been made of the spike in Google searches in the UK for “what is the EU” (TheNextWeb, 6/24), but this may not actually mean that many of the “Leave” voters didn’t know what they were voting for. People could have been looking for deeper expert analysis (although it would have been nice for them to start listening to the experts before the vote occurred); the searches might have been from people who didn’t vote or were too young to vote.

Meanwhile, VentureBeat reports that the Brexit vote could have serious impact on the UK’s position as the gaming industry leader in Europe.  It probably won’t have as big an impact on the consumer side as on the development side, say Venture Beat.

Continue reading “Tuesday Afternoon Quarterback, June 28 2016”

Tuesday Afternoon Quarterback: June 21, 2016

Here’s my weekly roundup of stories and news items in the digital space from the past week or so that I think are worth your attention. This week: it’s all about video. Well, most of it, anyway.

New Ways To Tap Into Video On Twitter (Twitter blog, 6/21)

As if there wasn’t enough evidence that video is the content vehicle of choice for digital platforms, Twitter has announced a bevy of new features designed to enable and promote more video sharing on its platform. Chief among the changes: you will soon be able to upload videos of 140 seconds instead of just a 30 second max. Another change: tapping on a video Tweet or Vine on your timeline will take users to a new, full-screen viewing experience. These changes are likely to benefit publishing outlets — a CNN or Wall Street Journal could upload entire news stories to Twitter — as well as brands looking to leverage Twitter’s audience and convey broader or deeper messages than the traditional 140 character limit allows. Vine, too, will be expanding beyond its previous six second limit. The final of Twitter’s announcements, Twitter Engage, is aimed at power users and influencers, making it more compelling these high value, high attraction users to stay on Twitter by making it easier for them to see their analytics, track other power users who are following them, see what’s being said about them, and cut out the noise from the mass public on the platform.  The big news today isn’t Engage; it’s the video features. One more sign that your brand ought to be devoting more resources to video production inside your communications or marketing program.

YouTube Is Introducing New Ways To Help Small Businesses Make Better Video Ads (AdWeek 6/15)

This is a significant move by YouTube to help small businesses compete for attention in an increasingly crowded market for online video. With the increasing importance of online video, small businesses that don’t have the financial or staff resources of a Fortune 1000 company can now produce high quality, well-edited video pieces that don’t make them look poorly resourced. Smart move by YouTube/Google that will likely be most welcome to SMBs.

Tumblr Launches Live Video Tools With A Little Help From Other Apps (Digiday, 6/21)

If you’re noticing a recurring theme this week, you should: Video rules. Unlike other platforms which built their own livestreaming capabilities or apps, Tumblr is outsourcing to third parties to make their live video work. But however they get there, the important thing is that Tumblr, too, is recognizing the influence and importance of live video in the digital environment of 2016. For right now, this is more for publishers like Mashable, MTV, and Refinery29… but it’s likely only a matter of time before we see Tumblr trying to monetize its live video via advertising.

Facebook Makes It Clearer When An Instant Article Is An Advertorial (Marketingland, 6/17)

Beyond FTC disclosure requirements, there’s been another issue with brand Instant Articles; they’ve been largely far too promotional and full of marketing messages and feel sales-y.  Facebook acknowledged as much in their blog post announcing new tools for brands using Instant Articles. So the platform has done its part to help brands stop selling so hard and start providing users content that they actually care about. The onus is still on brands to remember: in a good branded story that users will care about, your brand is the sidekick and the user or someone like the user is the hero. Users have to be able to see themselves in the story or related to the character or the problem told and resolved; if they don’t or can’t, and see only marketing messages, they will tune out and ignore your content. Getting back to these new Facebook tools, businesses may be able to utilize them for branding and to visually distinguish their sponsored content from organic content — meaning that in theory, a brand won’t have to spend so much time branding itself in the actual content, and can focus more on the reader’s interests and needs.

Report: 87 Million People Will Use An Ad-Blocker In 2017 (Digiday, 6/21)

87 million people is up about 24% from 2016. Still think that “the way we’ve always done it” will work on digital platforms? It’s not that people resist brand content on digital platforms; they resist irrelevant, hard-sell content from brands that still think that the best way to reach an audience is by forcing product or brand messaging on them in an environment more designed and used for personal interactions. Ad blocking isn’t going away, no matter how much the advertising and marketing worlds wring their hands. As marketers, we have to be conscious of the experiences users are on social media to have, and find creative ways to make ourselves part of that experience rather than imposing messaging into it. Good, relevant digital content will not be blocked. Bad, brand-centric content will be.


Instagram Doubles Monthly Users To 500M In Two Years, Sees 300M Daily (TechCrunch, 6/21)

The numbers are impressive enough — and having 300 million people checking the platform daily is mouth-watering enough for marketers. Instagram users clearly value the platform and spend time on it. But the amount of content being shared on the platform is slowing and isn’t growing as fast as you might think for all those daily users. Could this mean that Instagram is slowly morphing into something like Twitter — more of a platform people go to review and digest others’ content rather than sharing their own? (If that’s an increasing trend, this would signal even more importance for established influencers whose content is readily consumed by the Instagram audience.) Could Snapchat be siphoning away content from Instagram? (Would this mean that user growth will begin to stagnate as it has for Twitter?) And will the slowing — or even a slight decline — in the amount of content being posted matter to advertisers as Instagram puts on its full court press to attract advertisers and marketers?

GhostBot From Burner Lets You Blow Off That Weirdo From Tinder Really Easily (The Next Web, 6/21)

On its face, this is a pretty funny story. But look deeper, and there’s a slight concern about bots just as they appear poised for explosive growth. The promise of bots is that they can automate individual interactions and potentially even change the relationship customers have with brands (Shel Holtz has posted frequently about this).  But if it’s this easy to create bots that are designed specifically to avoid genuine interaction, will that have an effect on how people perceive bots, on the level that consumers trust interactions with bots?  Might it be kind of like the effect of finding out a popular corporate executive’s blog is ghost-written by the communications team? For bots to live up to their potential, consumers and users have to trust that the bot will eventually get them where they want to go, or get them the information or resolution they’re looking for. Too many stories about bots written as an agent of misdirection or deception might well turn bots into an annoyance rather than a convenience — the 2020s version of voice prompt systems that were intended to automate customer service but instead so often frustrate consumers who just want to talk to a real person.

Tuesday Afternoon Quarterback: June 14, 2016

It would be understandable if you were distracted this week and weren’t paying much attention to digital stories, given the horror in Orlando over the weekend.  But here’s a handful of stories that had resonance in the digital space in the past few days that you might have missed.

Texas Lt. Governor Deletes Bible Tweet After Shooting (ABC News, 6/12)

Taking the politics out of it (I think we’re all happy to not have me ranting about politics) and assuming that Lt. Governor Patrick’s office is telling the truth, and that this was just an awful coincidence that this tweet was previously scheduled and unrelated to the Orlando incident… this is a dramatic and supremely unfortunate reminder for brands that the first thing a brand should do in times of emergency is check your scheduled tweets and posts. I’m not a huge fan of scheduling social content anyway, but I’ll readily concede that for many larger publishing programs it’s necessary for efficiency’s sake.

But when news of a crisis or tragedy breaks — whether a mass shooting or terrorist incident, a plane crash, or some other situation in which there is loss of life — the first reaction of brand publishers has to be to check the schedule of posts. The brand publisher can use their judgment as to whether a post or tweet seems insensitive, and should consider holding all publishing while the story is still playing out. You never want to get caught in a situation where your brand inadvertently publishes something that comes off as tone-deaf, insensitive, or worse yet upsets people, while a national or international tragedy is playing out. As Peter Shankman has said many times, no brand has ever gone broke because they shut up for 24 hours. So when something like Orlando happens, the smartest thing to do is check your schedules and go on a publishing hold for a day or so.

Microsoft Buys LinkedIn For $26.2 Billion (New York Times, 6/13)

On its face, this is a good move for both organizations. The integration possibilities are certainly intriguing; if Outlook and LinkedIn profiles are connected, for example, the integration of direct email with professional backgrounds — not to mention material a prospect or contact has published on LinkedIn — could be a gold mine for salespeople. And for Microsoft, the possibility of using LinkedIn as a distribution channel for its software systems has to be exciting. LinkedIn gets financing and exposure to potentially tens of millions of new users.  I wouldn’t have thought the platform would go for as much as it did — $26 billion seems a little higher than I might have expected — but this move makes sense for both companies, if they get the integration right.

As Snapchat’s Ad Biz Expands, It’s Pressing For Shorter Ads (Marketingland, 6/13)

Snapchat continues to walk a very fine line between trying to monetize via advertising, and annoying or alienating its user base with too much ad content. 10 second ads get skipped often, apparently. Shorter ads mean it’s less likely that people will swipe up to skip the ad, I suppose, but I can’t see advertisers being all that happy at shortening their messages and content even further to suit a finicky platform and its very resistant user base.

Snapchat To Grow 27% This Year, Surpassing Rivals (eMarketer, 6/8)

True, eMarketer is defining “user” a little differently than many platforms define it (eMarketer defines a user as someone who logs into an account at least once a month consistently over a calendar year).  But it’s still interesting to see Snapchat’s rapid growth compared to other networks — and that it has more regular users now (at least by this estimation) than Pinterest or Twitter. One thing for consideration for brands: one factor in Snapchat’s popularity is its focus on one to one interaction between users — the same aspect driving the growth of messenger apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. It may be an area for brands to explore across multiple platforms: how to get back to one to one communication (or the appearance of one to one, anyway) in order to drive engagement and interaction from consumers.

Facebook’s New Ads Will Track Which Stores You Visit (Recode, 6/14)

This is a fascinating new effort to do something digital marketers have long wished was more precise: tying online ads to offline activity. Because while online sales continue to grow, physical in-store purchases still represented 92% of all retail sales in Q1 2016.  By being able to demonstrate that online ads drive foot traffic and even in-store sales, Facebook would be taking a quantum leap in providing value to retail brands and would clearly stand out among social platforms.

Facebook’s New Support Tool For Suicide Prevention Rolls Out Globally (The Next Web, 6/14)

This story is close to my heart as someone who is deeply concerned with mental illness issues. I applaud Facebook’s effort here to help users help those in their network who might be in danger or in need of help. There’s no real application or lesson for brands, but individual brand reps and all marketers should take note anyway, just in case there is ever anyone in your network who need help.

Twitter Aims To Keep The Trolls At Bay With Improved Block Feature (The Next Web, 6/14)

While I still wish social platforms could be more active in patrolling the posts and content their users publish (and taking action against those engaged in bullying, trolling, or threats), this is a good consolation move by Twitter — improving the block feature so that not only do you not see the tweets of someone you’ve blocked, but they don’t see yours either. Perhaps this will cut down a little bit on trolling and bullying on Twitter.







Tuesday Afternoon Quarterback: May 31, 2016

It was a long holiday weekend here in the States, meaning that not too much went on in the days leading up to the weekend and over its course. Still, there were a few stories worth noting over the past seven days or so. Here’s your afternoon quarterback report.

Pew Research: 62% Of US Adults Get News From Social Media (Marketingland, 5/27)

This isn’t really a surprise when viewed in aggregate; anecdotally we all know in our bones that social media has become increasingly important as a news source (which has people looking more cynically at how Facebook’s “trending topics” are calculated, for example). But the big surprise to me here is just how much of a gain Facebook has made since the last time Pew did this survey in 2013. Facebook has grown as a source; in 2013, 47% of Facebook users said they get news from Facebook; in 2016, that number went all the way to 66%. That they’ve achieved this as an algorithmic service without a dominant “real-time” engine is intriguing. (Also intriguing is the fact that Facebook still finishes only second to Reddit, which isn’t always thought of by the mass sense as a breaking news source. 70% of Reddit users report getting news from Reddit.)

Also surprising to me: only 59% of Twitter users report getting news via that platform. Given its nature and how many news organizations are very present there, I am surprised that number is so low — and has grown at less than half the rate Facebook has.


(image via Marketingland)

But the biggest lost opportunity lies with YouTube. With video becoming such a dominant form factor over the past three years, conventional wisdom might have been that a video-driven platform like YouTube would have seen significant growth as a news source. The fact that it hasn’t happened could be chalked up to any number of factors: publishers not using the channel in real-time (using it instead for evergreen content), a user interface that isn’t conducive to looking for or discovering “breaking” video or information, publishers putting their video on their own sites instead of YouTube, or just the rapid rise and extensive reach of Facebook. Whatever the reason, it feels to me like a perhaps permanently lost opportunity for YouTube to capture a more real-time audience.

Publishers’ Facebook Videos Are Shared 7 Times More Than Links (Digiday, 5/31)

In case you are one of the holdouts whose brand or organization hasn’t yet allocated resources or creative talent toward video content development, here’s a report that videos generate seven times the engagement than links alone generate. And since engagement is that all-important factor and a key metric for measuring content performance, publishing the kind of content that drives that much more engagement seems pretty central to a winning digital strategy.

Report: Usage of mobile ad blockers jumped 90 percent last year to 419 million (Digiday, 5/31)

The industry will probably respond with the same urgent warnings issued for months about how ad blockers are an unethical threat to the free web and an infringement on free expression. This would be a classic case of killing the messenger. Instead, we in marketing and advertising need to take a good, hard look at why people choose to block ads — what is it about our content and how we deliver it that people hate so much? — and applying the creativity we’re so proud of ourselves for having to trying to find new, less intrusive, less off-putting ways to reach consumers. Fighting the ad-blockers would only reinforce the image of a bloated, out-of-touch industry circling the wagons to protect its old model because it’s unable to adapt to a new environment.

Meanwhile, as an individual brand, you should be thinking less about what you want to push or promote, and more about what your audience is interested in or needs, and how you can play into their interests rather than trying to make them interested in your message. Remember, your brand should be the sidekick in your stories, and your audience should be the hero.

Periscope Has A New Plan To Fight Back Against Internet Trolls (Recode, 5/31)

This is, to me, the most personally interesting story of the week. On its face, it shows a greater sense of responsibility than I believe most of the other social platforms have demonstrated when it comes to abusive commentary or bullying behavior from its users. They’re launching an active effort to combat problematic behavior, versus the slow-moving, passive responses common to most other platforms. And as I generally think that trolls have largely ruined the internet — and carried the banner of incivility and bullying behavior into the real world — there is a big part of me that is cheering this move and saluting Periscope for trying to make its environment safer, more inclusive, and more welcoming than other platforms have been.

(I’ll say again for the record: it takes a weak coward of a person to hide behind the anonymity of the web and be vulgar, abusive or cruel, or to engage in bullying or threatening behavior online — whether done by an individual or as part of a coordinated group activity a la Anonymous or the community on 4chan.)

The problem I can see is that Periscope may well be fighting bullying by enabling or encouraging vigilante justice to shoot it down. True, that’s obviously not their intent; what they mean to do is to empower their community to police itself. Here’s how the system is supposed to work. Reporting an abusive or vulgar comment triggers what Periscope  has identified as a “flash jury” of other users watching the same stream.

Periscope will ask this flash jury, which consists of five other random users, if they also consider the comment abusive or offensive. If the majority agrees with you, the commenter will be placed in a one minute time-out with commenting disabled. Repeat offenders will be muted for good.

But I could see situations popping up where coordinated group activity gets users muted or placed in time-out for less than abusive behavior. In a stream discussing Gamergate, for example, if a woman is discussing the treatment of women in the gaming community and the trolls don’t like what she has to say, what’s to stop one of them from reporting her as abusive and five more to jump in and agree, effectively censoring her contribution? How about political discussions? In our currently very polarized climate, it’s easy to see a group of Trump supporters banding together to shout down a #NeverTrump person as “abusive” and censoring them out of a conversation; it’s equally easy to anticipate nastiness between, say, Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton fans.

I’m all for trying to shut down trolling and abusive online behavior, and I do think Periscope deserves a ton of credit for taking a proactive step here. I just think this solution could too easily lend itself to additional abuse. The solution may have to lie with the platforms themselves taking a more active role in policing their communities rather than leaving it to the user base to determine what is abuse and what is merely disagreement.


What Brands Should Be Learning From Chewbacca Mom

By now, everyone’s seen it — or at least heard of it. Texas mom Candace Payne shopped for a Chewbacca mask at Kohl’s, and streamed herself on Facebook Live trying it on. Her giddy, joyful reaction struck a chord even with people who had no idea who she was, and the video has been viewed about 150 million times — making it the most viewed video in Facebook history.

Payne, not previously an internet celebrity or influencer of note, has in the days since received thousands of dollars in merchandise and gift cards from Kohl’s, got to visit Facebook headquarters, and has even done an appearance on James Corden’s “Late Late Show,” driving Corden and director J.J. Abrams to work.

The sudden internet popularity of Payne, by all accounts just your “average mom,” and the marketing manna from heaven reaped by Kohl’s , should result in hundreds of copycat would-be digital influencers uploading their own Live videos of their shopping experiences and manufacturing their own giddiness over their product of choice in hopes of attracting brand attention. It will lead to a dozen social media and digital guru pundits writing posts about how Chewbacca Mom’s video was Facebook Live’s  moment of “arrival, a signal like SXSW 2007 was for Twitter that the platform is about to reach critical mass and mass adoption. (Prepare for the wave of guru posts proclaiming that brands not already on Facebook Live are already behind.)

It will also likely drive brands from all over to try to replicate the video’s success, showing off just how happy their products make the average user, and desperately trying to achieve the kind of “viral” success that marketers dream about.

If that happens, then everyone involved would have totally missed the point, and will get it wrong.

It wasn’t the Chewbacca mask that made this video successful. It wasn’t even about Payne’s obvious glee at the toy. What made this video work and strike such a chord with so many people boils down to two things:

  1. It was spontaneous and genuine. There was nothing promotional, nothing slick, nothing planned about it. It was obviously just capturing a moment in time, a real one at that — one marketers hadn’t assembled or contrived.
  2. It connected with people on an emotional level. It wasn’t about product, or the personality/notoriety of the spokesperson. It was just a human being feeling a relatable emotion.

People gravitate to stories they can relate to, feel emotion with, see themselves in. This is why, when it’s done well, storytelling works as a branding concept. When a brand is smart enough — and confident enough — to portray itself not as the hero of a story but as the sidekick to the true hero (the viewer or reader), the viewer relates and can feel along. When we can see or feel along with the story, we not only pay attention; we remember.

And Candace Payne’s unadulterated joy was something people could feel along with — after all, as the Washington Post pointed out, laughter is contagious. Even if they didn’t share her Star Wars “geekdom,” let’s face it: we’re all geeks about something (my personal geek-outs are baseball, The Prisoner, and all things Walt Disney World). We could all relate to being that happy about something small that just made our day because it tapped our giddy place.

That’s why “Chewbacca Mom” struck a chord and went “viral” — because it worked on that emotional level.  Brand marketers shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that it was about a particular product, or about having an “average” person show off the product, or even that its success was about the breakthrough power of Facebook Live. The moment wasn’t scripted, which means it’s pretty much by nature not replicable. Trying to contrive or revisit it wouldn’t have nearly the effect.

Instead of looking at what was done or what the subject of the content was, or trying to find their own “every day hero” to be the next viral sensation, brands should be looking at why Chewbacca Mom worked — be looking for ways to draw viewers and readers emotionally to them, and be thinking about how to make their digital content more genuine and less contrived. That is the lesson we should all be learning from Chewbacca Mom.


Twitter Gets The Message

Bloomberg telegraphed it a couple of weeks ago, and today Twitter made it official: the platform is no longer counting @names, links, photos, GIFs, and videos against its 140-character limit. (And hooray! — we can now dispense with putting a period in front of an @name response so that everyone can see it — one of the dumber conventions of any social media platform.)

This frees up the platform for better and more effective use of interactive and visual content — welcome news to most Twitter users but especially to brands and commercial users of the service, which often find themselves wanting for more space to provide context around some of the content they share. This move will probably also relax branding managers who cringed at the idea of using common Twitter abbreviations in a branded post (say it together with me: “that’s off brand”).

Something Jack Dorsey said in his interview with the New York Times struck home with me as really wise.

When people try to cram their thoughts into a 140-character tweet, “then you’re just thinking a lot about Twitter instead of what you’re saying. We shouldn’t make you think about Twitter,” Mr. Dorsey said.

There’s a lesson in there for everyone in social and digital, from individual users to brands. We spend too much time thinking about the platform — whether Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, or anything else — and not enough time thinking about what we’re saying. For too many brands, the platform supersedes the story or narrative. Too often brand digital managers worry about their “Facebook plan” or their “Instagram strategy,” without thinking about what their broader narrative is or how consistent a story they’re telling across all their platforms.

Dorsey has it 100% right — we shouldn’t be thinking about the platform as users, and as content producers we should be thinking of what we’re saying first, then turn to how we use each platform’s strengths or unique features to best say it.

Today’s announcement will make it a bit easier for brand digital managers to do this. The question is just whether brands will take Dorsey’s comments to heart, or will see these changes only in terms of the number of characters they have available to them on Twitter.





Monday Afternoon Quarterback: May 23, 2016

It’s a busy world out there. If you haven’t had time to catch up on all the digital doings of the past month, here’s a quick Monday Afternoon Quarterback review of some of the past week or so’s more notable stories.

Snapchat Is Considering An Algorithm (Digiday, 5/18)

Snapchat is reported to be considering an algorithmic approach to presenting content, joining pretty much all the major social channels in adopting algorithms. This means it’s time to drop the fiction of unpaid organic reach in social media. Like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram before it, Snapchat would be placing a filter between brands and the audiences we’re trying to reach. Users might cheer this or feel it’s a good way to keep these channels “safe” for the conversations they want to have with their friends… but it’s another example of why digital marketing is getting tougher for brands. This stands to benefit “influencers” on Snapchat (similar to how influencers on other platforms have had their importance to brands increase on other algorithmic platforms) — though there are signs that brands are getting tired of ceding their customer reach to “influencers,” and that discontent with the current model, if not total revolt, is brewing.

85% Of Facebook Viewing Is Done Without Sound (Digiday, 5/17)

How many brands are cognizant of this pattern, and tailor their Facebook video content appropriately? When such an overwhelming percentage of videos on Facebook are viewed without sound, brands would do well to account for that reality as they create their videos. More interesting to me is that, by accommodating and encouraging silent video, Facebook appears to be using this as a wedge to drive more video creation specifically for its own platform. Most YouTube views don’t happen silently; sound is a bigger part of the YouTube experience. Emphasizing silent video makes brands develop video content more specifically intended for Facebook rather than other platforms. It’s subtle, but I don’t doubt that it’s intentional.

YouTube Rolling Out In-App Messaging (TheNextWeb, 5/11)

YouTube is testing a messaging service that would live natively within the mobile YouTube app and allow users to share embedded videos within the chat window. Not only does this make sharing videos easier on mobile, which is increasingly how people access the Internet and platforms like YouTube, but it brings sharing YouTube videos into a form factor (chat/IM) that increasing numbers of users are most familiar with. Smart move by YouTube.

43% Of Social Media Users Don’t Know Where The Stories They Read Originally Appeared (Digiday, 5/13)

New research indicates that up to 43% of social media users do not know where the content they read on social platforms originated. This is something of a horror movie for publishers, who are under increasing pressure to publish and promote their stories directly on Facebook and other platforms — but in the hopes of driving some of those 1.5 billion users to the publishers’ platforms.

If almost half of the users don’t even realize the origin of the stories they’re reading, it confirms every publisher’s worst fear: that Facebook and other social platforms have basically usurped their audiences, and publishers have increasingly become mere content providers to the social platforms. As the article points out, brands that stand to suffer the least are the ones already well established with strong branding on platforms, as users will seek out their content.

Google’s Building Its Own VR Headset (Marketingland, 5/19)

Google had previously announced its Daydream ecosystem, which will be open to any manufacturer to develop to. But as it turns out, they’re also developing their own headset and controller. If anyone doubted how serious Google is about virtual reality, let those misconceptions be hereby dispelled.

Kohl’s Smartly Taps Into Chewbacca Mom (Digiday, 5/23)

A lot of brands wouldn’t know how to effectively take advantage of a tangential connection to a viral video. Kohl’s does, however. They showed up Saturday to the Chewbacca Mom’s house with a few gifts in tow.  

Representatives from Kohl’s met up with Payne at her house on Saturday, where they gave her a bunch of free Star Wars toys, more Chewbacca masks and $2,500 worth of Kohl’s gift cards.”

Kohl’s uploaded the video of their gift to Facebook, where it got more than 30 million views.

Kohl’s could have tried to use the publicity to promote their products, or by trying to shift the spotlight from Candace Payne to themselves. They would have failed miserably, but they could have. Instead, they recognized something I’ve said in presentations: brands are not the stars of any good show; rather we are the sidekicks. Kohl’s saw that Candace was the star of this show, and just did their best to be part of her joy and ongoing story.  In doing so, they generated positive feeling and good will from an online community that is enamored of Candace Payne, not of Kohl’s. By being part of her story instead of pushing their own, Kohl’s kept the tide of good feelings going and made themselves part of it. Yeah, it sounds pretty basic… but we all know a lot of brands would have fumbled this.

The X-Men Learn The Dangers Of Intruding On The Experience Users Want (Digiday, 5/23)

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Snapchat has millions of users within the target demographic of the new X-Mean movie, Snapchat wants brands to more actively explore reaching audiences on its platform, and Snapchat has debuted a lens takeover just in time for the movie promotion. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. You might have been able to predict this, but Snapchat users didn’t really want their experience interfered with by branding and corporate content. They’re reacting badly. (Sure, not everybody hates it — I am sure there are some users who are all over the lens takeover — but it’s still pronounced enough a negative reaction to draw media attention.)

I don’t fault Twentieth Century Fox here — they took advantage of a tool offered to them. I kind of wonder instead if Snapchat’s in such a hurry to monetize that they’re forgetting about their core audience’s desires, and have built features that allow brands to push ourselves on the user more than trying to become part of their desired experience. It’s a lesson brands should remember on any platform: users aren’t there to interact with you, they are there to connect with their friends. Any activation we develop that makes us part of their experience had better be unobtrusive, and should make the brand secondary to the user’s desired experience on the platform.

Video Ad Spending Is Rising Fast (eMarketer, 5/23)

Some brands still haven’t upped their budgets for video content creation. Some brands also may be looking at doing daily Friendster updates too. But seriously folks, even if the industry hasn’t quite figured out good metrics yet (I do not count 3 seconds as a “view,” no matter what Facebook says — and just rendering a video on a screen shouldn’t count either, Snapchat!), you need to be focusing more resources and budget on developing video content.


(image via eMarketer)

Is Twitter Dropping Character Counts For Photos And Links (Finally)?

Bloomberg is reporting that Twitter is FINALLY about to drop media and links from its character count. This would/will free up another 20-25 characters for many brand tweets — good news for content marketers and brands, because it gives us additional flexibility in explaining context or providing details on what we’re sharing. It also means we’ll see a lot less of those annoying abbrvtns ppl used 2 use.

Facebook’s Trending Issue

By now, everyone’s seen the story: anonymous sources told Gizmodo that Facebook’s news curators suppress “conservative” stories or perspectives; Facebook denied the charges, but then released its 28 pages of editorial guidelines for Trending Topics which revealed that human editors perhaps impact the Trending feature more than people generally realized; Mark Zuckerberg ended up calling a summit for conservative media figures at Facebook headquarters to try and quell the concerns.

My thoughts on this story range from the cynical to contemplative.

First, regarding the accusations of bias, it’s important to recall that accusations and complaint of “liberal media bias” are a mainstay of conservative political narrative. Media bias against their perspectives is one of its core beliefs, and is often part of the way conservative media figures sell themselves to their audience — as the trustworthy alternative to ‘liberal media.’ Given Facebook’s increasing role as a source of news for its hundreds of millions of US users, it’s not totally surprising to see the trope surface regarding Facebook as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not happening, but the accusation is very much consistent with how conservatives tend to view, and talk about, other media platforms. 

I have wondered, as I’ve watched the story play out, if the whole thing isn’t a smart — if cynical — effort to manipulate the Trending section in favor of conservative stories. There’s a sports analogy that kept occurring to me: Like a coach in the NBA, NHL, the World Cup, or MLB who complains about the refereeing in a playoff game after the game ends, those complaints aren’t always about the calls gone wrong or the game that’s already played and over. Instead, the complaint is as much about getting in the heads of the refs and trying to influence calls in the next game. It’s a psychological tactic favored by coaches in many sports, and it will be interesting to see if Trending stories become notably more conservative in the next few weeks or months. If so, it would represent a master stroke in media manipulation. 

To me, the bigger problem for Facebook isn’t necessarily any bias it exhibits or builds in — after all, if political bias was illegal for media companies, both Fox News and MSNBC would be out of business. Rather, the issue is that we’ve all been led to believe, if somewhat naively, that algorithms drive the content in Trending Topics. Facebook hasn’t ever really hidden the fact that human curators play a role, but their role has been at best misunderstood by the public and at worst obscured by the platform. And the output delivered by the combination of algorithm and curator has been portrayed as objective and absent of agenda.

There’s enough mystery as is about Facebook’s News Feed algorithm; brands struggle to grasp the impact and the workings of the many changes the algorithm undergoes every year. If the Trending feature’s algorithm is revealed to be overtly subjective and more affected by human biases than they’ve let on, then businesses (and consumers) may well legitimately further question the output of News Feed, which might lead advertisers to scale back, and lead consumers to trust less the nature of what they’re seeing.

In other words, I think Facebook’s big problem is not a lack of subjectivity in its output, but the fact that for so long they and other tech companies have represented that its software is objective. The reality is that any algorithm reflects its creators’ biases, but that’s not what we’ve been allowed to believe.

If Facebook — and, while we’re at, the other major social networks and sites that now serve as information sources and gatekeepers — are now playing the same role that journalism and publishers have traditionally played, exercising judgment about what readers should see or how news should be presented, then Facebook must be willing to engage in the same candid discussions about transparency and fairness, maybe even about journalistic ethics, that publishers and journalists have had for decades. The issue is less about bias, and more about acknowledging that what you see on Facebook isn’t as objective as

If Facebook doesn’t respond in that spirit, it may not just be conservatives who feel betrayed.



When Celebrities Pass, Should Your Brand Pay Tribute?

I wrote yesterday about whether it’s ever acceptable for a brand to try and convey human emotion in its digital content, especially in the event of a beloved celebrity’s death. I was, and remain, curious about the seeming contradiction between our often-stated desire to have brands behave in a more “human” fashion online, but our frequent displeasure when a brand tries to convey shared grief, mourning, or loss.

But even if you’re one of those who accepts the premise that it’s not always inappropriate for a brand to express emotion or share in communal mourning, you have to acknowledge that most brands don’t do it with the sensitivity or respect or sense that is required to make such an expression work. Too often, brand efforts come off as crass commercialism, an effort to sell you something on the back of another human being’s death. Most marketing still seems to be too ham-handed to seem genuine at these times; instead, brand tributes most often feel contrived, unnatural, selfish, and shameless.  Which leads us back to the question of whether your brand should publish a tribute to any celebrity who has left us too soon.

Is It Ever Not Crass For a Brand To Mark A Celebrity’s Death?

To start, let’s acknowledge that there are virtually no circumstances under which there be any harm to your brand or its reputation if you don’t post a tribute. I can’t think of a single case where a brand would be damaged by not posting an acknowledgement of a celebrity’s death. As author and internet expert Peter Shankman has said on many occasions, “no company ever went broke because they decided to shut up on social media for 24 hours.” It’s a very hard case to make that your brand will suffer and people will be angry with you because you didn’t do a tribute post.

Consideration of this would eliminate 99% of the tweets brands plan on intend regarding a beloved entertainer’s death. If you’re a brand marketer, unless you work for Bad Idea Jeans it’s almost a lock that you should fight whatever urge or pressure you or your team are experiencing to “do something.” 99 times out of 100, the answer to the question “Should we post a tribute to this person?” is a resounding “No.”

And yet, there are those rare times when a brand gets it right and strikes a responsive chord with the audience. (Look no further than Chevrolet’s tribute to Prince last week for a prime example.) How can your brand strike the right tone, if your boss feels that you simply must do something?

I think there are three mitigating factors to determine whether a brand might be able to get away with acknowledging a celebrity’s death or posting a tribute.

First, did your brand have a demonstrable tie to the celebrity? Did they ever appear in a commercial for you, or serve as a spokesman or paid endorser for a long period of time? Had they ever famously mentioned your product in a work of theirs, or their affinity for your product in interviews? If not, don’t post a tribute. Absent that kind of tie, your tribute is almost certainly going to strike the audience as opportunistic and tone-deaf.

But if the celebrity in question has that well-known tie to a brand, that brand might be able to get away with a tribute. I’m thinking that when Michael Jordan passes away, Nike should probably be able to do a tribute without arousing too much ire; the connection between Nike and Michael Jordan is well documented and known to most of his fans. Other examples that come to mind include Priceline when William Shatner dies, or — before his current legal issues and troubling history became public — Coke or Jello when Bill Cosby passes away. Maybe Pepsi with Michael J. Fox, T-Mobile with Catherine Zeta-Jones, or H&M with David Beckham.

But those relationships and such ties are rare, even when a celebrity has done commercials for your brand. Just because there was once a sponsorial relationship doesn’t mean you can automatically get away with a remembrance; you have to look at how close the association remains in the public mind. Only if the association remains strong should you consider posting a tribute.

Second: Does the tribute you’re planning include your logo, your brand, or one of your products? If so, take it out or don’t do it at all. You’re just going to offend people. When you include your product or logo in a memorial, it ceases to be a tribute to a celebrity’s work and turns instead into a crass effort to capitalize on the attention being paid that celebrity to promote your brand. Don’t do it. (This is why so many were upset with Crocs’ effort with David Bowie, for example, and why I think the Cheerios post rubbed so many people the wrong way.)

The celebrity’s death is not about you or your brand; incorporating your logo, products, or tagline into your post merely represents an effort to make it so. To effectively pay tribute to a beloved entertainer or public figure, your tribute has to remain focused on that figure. You wouldn’t show up at a funeral trying to sell something, and you shouldn’t show up online trying to connect a recently deceased celebrity to something you’re trying to sell. (Think: an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across a pair of shoes David Bowie never wore.)

The main reason I think Chevrolet’s ad worked was because they were so understated and genuine about it, and weren’t overly marketing with what they did. There was no obvious logo in their tribute, no current product, no tagline, no push for you to draw a deeper connection than what was already there. Where other brands’ efforts came off as exploitative, Chevrolet’s stood out as heartfelt, and struck a chord with shocked and saddened fans.

I’ll say again: in most cases brand tributes are a bad idea. But as we’ve seen, these two factors can, rarely, make your brand’s memorial an acceptable part of the larger conversation.

There is a third factor that I think comes into play on ever rarer occasions, but is very real and can justify a brand tribute: hometown heroism. In my next post tomorrow, I’ll write about the unique circumstance of when a public figure is so closely affiliated with a particular state or city — and so beloved by the local community in question — that brands based in the same city might be moved to expressions of shared mourning or loss.




Do Brands Mourn? Should They?

On Thursday, the unexpected death of legendary musician and rock star Prince shocked and stunned the world. Fans, especially those who grew up with his music during his biggest years in the 80s and early 90s, were devastated. Many people — from entertainers to fellow musicians to even the President of the United States — began posting tributes on social media channels as they began to process the news.

Fans weren’t the only ones. Many brands, from Cheerios to 3M, from Hamburger Helper to Maker’s Mark to Chevrolet, joined in the expressions of grief and sadness at the music icon’s passing.


Predictably, many were not happy with the brands that tried to get in on the mourning act; some brands responded by pulling their tributes, while others like 3M rode out the criticism storm. (This provided an object lesson to brands that once something is published, deleting it doesn’t keep people from seeing it or knowing that you did it.)

Prince’s death was not the first time brands have tried to get in on the act of mourning a celebrity’s passing. In January, Crocs tried to mark the passing of David  Bowie by tweeting an image of Bowie’s signature Aladdin Sane lightning bolt over a pair of Crocs — and Crocs too felt the wrath of the internet for doing so.

The criticism of brand celebrity tributes boils down to two major arguments. The first I’ve seen is that brands should not try to market on the back of someone’s death, and that tributes to deceased entertainers come off not as respectful, but simply as tone-deaf and crass. On this point, I would agree in almost every situation, though I would argue that there are rare cases where this becomes a bit of a gray area. More on that in another post tomorrow.

The second, which I saw articulated best by many participants in a spirited discussion on leading communications expert Shel Holtz’s Facebook page, is that “brands” don’t mourn or grieve; as organizations there is an implied impersonality to a brand, and that any genuine grief or sense of loss should be shared by individual employees (whether a CEO or a marketer) rather than using the brand’s digital platforms to do so.

This is where the whole debate takes an interesting turn, in my opinion. The argument is often made — by people whose opinions I respect and appreciate — that brands aren’t people, and any expression of grief or emotion from a branded account is destined to turn off an audience and make your brand look anywhere from conniving to callous to contrived. Brands exist by definition to sell something, the argument goes, and any expression from a branded account just isn’t genuine.

The challenge I have with this argument is that for most of “social media’s” existence, most experts have exhorted brands to “act more human.” “Humanizing” marketing and communications has been a buzzword, has subtitled or been the subtext of a bunch of books, and has been one of the things we say we want more from brands, since brands began jumping into social media platforms a decade ago. Talk like real people, we advise. Make sure your brand comes off as relatable and as a brand run by real people; don’t just robotically sell to an audience, but talk to them, relate to them, act human.

But when brands like Cheerios or 3M acted more human and shared their Minnesota-based emotions regarding Prince’s passing, the criticism was fast and fierce. Tone-deaf, we said. Exploitative, we argued. Even if Cheerios and 3M were expressing the emotional zeitgeist of their home region (Minnesotans having a particular emotional tie to Prince), they still shouldn’t have done it, went the argument. Brands don’t mourn, we collectively suggested; stop trying to act like a brand has emotion, and leave it to the individuals to share their feelings.

Which is it? Do we want brands to act human or don’t we? Can we really implore brands to act more like human beings and to stop talking in marketing-speak, but then complain or criticize when they do express emotion from branded accounts?

Is It Different With Death?

Admittedly, the conversation changes when we’re talking about the passing of a celebrity. All discussions of emotion shift when death is involved. Even if audiences love the personality you’ve crafted in your social media accounts, when someone dies it is all too easy to come off exploitative or like you’re trying to use someone’s passing to sell things. As a brand marketer, you have to exercise extreme caution in your choices when a celebrity dies. Those that don’t show sensitivity or compassion or decency (I’m looking at you, HomeBase) in their efforts deserve all the scorn heaped upon them.

But other brands — notably, Chevrolet — seemed to get it right with their tributes and attracted not criticism but praise for their effort.  This would seem to indicate that audiences aren’t always turned off by shows of emotion, mourning, or tribute by a brand; there are factors and conditions which can make it “okay” for a brand to share in communal emotion. (I’ll cover in another post what I think those factors are, and how brands should approach developing tributes to beloved entertainers or public figures; hint: 99% of the time, don’t.)

For now, I’m interested in the widely expressed sentiment that brands shouldn’t try to show emotion or express grief, when in the digital space we simultaneously have traditionally advised brands that behaving more humanly online is the right way to proceed.  Like with any personal situation, death brings heightened emotion to a situation and calls for greater tact and sensitivity to your communications, whether personal or branded. Just as there are people who respond boorishly or insensitively in personal interactions to a death of someone we care about, there are obviously brands that are going to blow it and look bad.

Again, let’s not talk about the tone-deaf nature of too many brand “tributes” — we’ll save that for another conversation. But should the topic be completely off-limits for a brand?

I don’t think the answer is always no. (Most often it is, but not always.) Human beings experience grief or sadness when a beloved entertainer dies. Why do we automatically argue that brands cannot? If done with sensitivity and respect, like Chevrolet’s tribute to Prince, can’t we ever accept emotional or even grief from a brand?

For now, let’s leave out the questions about how to do tributes well or when such a post sounds a resounding flat note; I’ll get to that tomorrow. Today, I’m talking about the larger question of whether expression of emotion, especially taking part in communal grief, is ever okay for a brand. Do we really want brands to be human? Or do we only want them to act human some of the time?

If the expression of personality and emotion and humanity is one way for brands to cut through the clutter of content available to audiences, and to draw a deeper affinity for or connection to the brand from those audiences, should conveying that the brand is sharing in the broader community’s sense of loss be exempt or off-limits?  Is it really that different with mourning? Sure, brands don’t “mourn” in the obvious sense — but can’t they be part of a community’s expression of grief?

It’s an interesting question for marketers and communicators to tackle. I’d love to hear your thoughts.