Monthly Archives: March 2015

Can Jay-Z kill the middlemen?

jay z

It would be impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when celebrities with already-established fan bases began to realize they no longer needed the middlemen media companies on which they’ve historically relied for distribution, so I’ll just settle on July 2000, when Stephen King started releasing chapters of a never-before-seen novel on his personal website. It was called The Plant and had been largely written in the 1980s. The book, ironically enough, takes place in a struggling New York publishing house and details the consequences when its characters reject the manuscript of a crazy person who then sends them a mysterious plant with magical powers. King’s model was simple: He’d publish a chapter once every few weeks. If you downloaded a copy of the chapter, you were expected to mail King $1 to an address he provided on his website. I remember, as a 16-year-old, visiting his site every day to check whether a new chapter had dropped, and then mailing an envelope with a single dollar bill to King’s P.O. box.

Today, self-publishing is a rapid growth industry, one that has steadily gained mainstream acceptance, but back then such a move was unheard of. Did this spell the end of New York publishing as we knew it? As Stephen J. Dubner (of later Freakonomics fame) wrote in a New York Times profile of King:

Despite the novel’s plot — a writer sends a man-eating plant to a publishing house that rejected his manuscript — Big Publishing did its best to appear unruffled. ”I don’t feel particularly threatened,” said Susan Moldow, the publisher of Scribner, King’s offline publishing house. The literary agent Mort Janklow told a reporter, ”That’s a fellow sitting up in Maine having fun, but it’s not a way to run a business.”

I remember reading a (since-deleted) note King published to his website claiming that, all in all, the experiment brought in about $600,000 in revenue. Sure, this was less money than he’d make from a standard book advance, but it wasn’t bad considering it was released before the invention of Kickstarter, back when the internet population was minuscule in comparison to what it is today. Imagine if King were to repeat the experiment today, armed with the distribution and payment services from Amazon, the Barnes and Noble Nook, and Apple’s iBooks? Something tells me his print publisher would be much less sanguine in regard to his decision.

Over the next decade, famous artists would occasionally dip their toes into the self-distribution arena. In 2007, Radiohead released its album, In Rainbows, under a “pay-as-you-want” model. According to Wired, it netted the band about $3 million. In 2011, the comedian Louis CK released a stand-up special on his website for $5, and it raked in more than $1 million. “My goal is that I can reach the point where when I sell anything, be it videos, CDs or tickets to my tours, I’ll do it here and I’ll continue to follow the model of keeping my price as far down as possible, not overmarketing to you, keeping as few people between you and me as possible in the transaction,” he wrote on his website.

Every time a celebrity experiments with the self-distribution route, we see a wealth of think pieces about what this means for the future of content. But while those cheering on the demise of traditional media might have found such experiments heartening, they’ve been largely anecdotal, and we never quite knew whether these celebrities’ successes were in large part reliant on the novelty of the endeavor.

It’s only within the last year that we’ve seen a vast acceleration of this process, whereby celebrities have increased their leverage by peeling away the middlemen to such a degree that we can truly begin wondering if the landscape is forever changed. The New York Times recently profiled the Player’s Tribune, a site owned and operated by former pro baseball player Derek Jeter. After years of rising tension between sports journalists and the stars they cover, the Player’s Tribune offers a vehicle through which athletes can bypass the traditional press completely and speak directly to the fans.

And now we have the (re)launch of Tidal, a premium music subscription service (a la Spotify) that was purchased by Jay-Z and is notable not only because it’s owned by a music celebrity, but also because more than a dozen other top stars have retained a stake in the company. The move followed Taylor Swift’s own departure from Spotify, and it represents a much larger shift in power than a single band launching a pay-as-you-wish album.

It’s my belief that this represents the next stage in what’s been commonly called the “great unbundling.” Typically that term has been used to describe trends in the cable and newspaper industry, where subscribers have “cut the cord” with these major bundlers of content and moved toward more niche products that better fulfill their needs. But even when a cable subscriber cuts the cord from a major corporation like Comcast, he’s simply moving to a much smaller corporation like Netflix. A middleman still exists, even if it’s a much more efficient and cost-effective middleman.

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But what Stephen King’s experiment taught us was that if you’ve already benefited from the outsized exposure that delivers you millions of fans, you can then bypass the entire media apparatus completely and sell directly to the consumer. In 2014, Ben Thompson wrote about the smiling curve, with publishers existing on the lower end of the curve (representing their decreasing value) whereas the writers/artists and the distribution technology (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) both exist on the high ends. What this next stage of unbundling represents is the elimination of the publishers completely so that the curve becomes a straight line between two points.

The question now is what this means for the content itself. It’s not like I’m the first person who has contemplated what happens when the New York Times’s star journalists realize they no longer need the Times and split off to form their own news destinations. Defenders for the traditional system argue that these middlemen institutions provide a vital filter for quality and accuracy. A disintegration of the media company is a disintegration in journalist standards. At the same time, every journalist has experienced the unnecessary changes of an overzealous editor, and every music, television, and film artist has dealt with the soul-crushing compromises forced upon them by the studios to which they’re beholden. Given that the stars on which these studios have traditionally relied are increasingly concluding that these compromises are no longer needed when they control the means for distribution, perhaps we should stop asking what value the middleman adds to the equation, but instead ask how the middleman can continue to put food on the table in a world where he’s utterly obsolete.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

Image via Style Bistro

How to Handle a Brand Crisis on Twitter

bp global pr

Let’s say you’re a major retailer and your head of IT comes to you and tells you the company has had a major data breach and millions of credit card numbers have been compromised. Or you’re the CEO of an organic baby food company and you realize you’re going to have to issue a recall on some of your products. Almost immediately, you and your team must put a plan in action for how you’re going to announce these issues to the public. A decade ago you probably just met with your legal and PR teams to determine how you’ll word the press release and craft messaging for your call centers. But these days a third team needs to be added to the mix: social media. Not only will this team have to monitor what’s being said online during the crisis, but it’ll need its own messaging in order to respond to angry consumers in real time.

Peter LaMotte is a Senior Vice President at Levick, a PR firm that specializes in crisis management. I interviewed him about how to counter activists who are targeting you on Twitter and why brands shouldn’t overreact if they receive negative feedback on the microblogging platform.

What are the kinds of company crises that will have the largest ramifications on Twitter — the kind where the company needs to devote a lot of resources to monitoring and responding to what’s happening on Twitter?

The answer is twofold. It’s usually correlated with the size of the crisis itself. With BP, at the time when its oil spill occurred, Twitter was fairly nascent, but it showed what could happen if you don’t tackle the issue on Twitter. There are those crises that actually start on Twitter. There’s the famous Chrysler tweet, for instance.

So there are crises that begin on Twitter itself, and then there are other crises that occur offline, but you know, because of the size of the company, it’s going to boil over onto Twitter.

Yeah, because Twitter, like most social media channels, it’s just a form of communication. It’s a means through which people are going to express their opinion. Companies have the option to express their position or clarify statements or refute claims in the media. Most companies are not organized enough to have their own army of supporters, all they have is their own brand. So that means they’ve got their Facebook page, their Twitter account, and maybe a few other channels if they’re a big enough company, but for the most part it’s just one or two handles. That’s their singular megaphone. Whereas if Joe Public turns on you, that’s thousands if not tens of thousands of users attacking your brand online.

If you’re a company that has activists who are trying to rile up anger against you, where are most of their efforts going to be focused? On Twitter? On Facebook?

peter-lamotte

Peter LaMotte

Because of the open nature of Twitter, a lot of people are using Twitter. But it’s almost never used successfully as a singular path. It’s usually part of an organized campaign that might originate at a microsite or a Change.org petition. Or it might be through a more traditional campaign like a TV ad with Twitter hashtags. But when it comes to dealing with the crisis, let’s take it from two perspectives. You have the perspective of someone who’s dealing with the crisis, and then you have the general public. And then you have perhaps a third perspective, the activists. The mistake many corporations will make is they’re just reactionary. Twitter is a communication tool, so it should fit into a larger strategy. Any company that is not prepared and does not have its own crisis plan will have a difficult time reacting fast enough in a way that doesn’t just look reactionary. When you look at these brands that are constantly pushing out good news and building up their brands in a positive way, when a crisis happens, they tend to have a more lenient response, because people have seen the more positive things they’re doing. But when a company is caught with their pants down, Twitter is a good way to quickly address issues and answer questions because it’s relatively real-time and can be monitored. From a communications standpoint, with the way that other platforms are closed and locked down, a lot of people don’t realize how important Twitter is for monitoring sentiment. If Twitter loses its popularity and falls off, there aren’t a lot of tools that can dig into Facebook or some of these other platforms to monitor sentiment.

The public at large is trained to search Twitter for hashtags and keywords, and an activist won’t be able to easily organize a campaign on Facebook the way he can on Twitter.

Exactly. Brands rely heavily on Twitter to get that sentiment. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than putting together a focus group. So, they rely on that and should be monitoring it at all times, including pre-crisis, before you even think you have a crisis. Most companies know where their risks are, so they should be monitoring around those risks, whether it’s a manufacturer around some kind of consumer device or anything that might be subject to litigation. So if they’re prepared, then when the crisis happens, they should have an automatic plan to put in place. In that plan, they should know who is going to say what, what the approval process is, and make sure it doesn’t need multiple layers of approval. And sometimes the industry holds you back from that. When it comes to the pharmaceutical and medical industries, a lot of times lawyers get very sensitive to what can be said, so make sure in a crisis they’ve already signed off on your messaging. If you go into these situations unprepared you’re basically walking into a firehose of people saying negative things about you. From the opposite side, it’s much easier to organize hundreds, if not thousands, of voices. They did that with the BP oil spill. If you remember, a fake BP Twitter handle was created, and people really bought into that. They thought, for just a brief moment, this was actually a BP account, and the result was brutal. That Twitter account gave BP’s haters content that they could share and retweet, which then picked up news traffic, which is why we remember this many years later that account in particular. Any PR nightmare is typically going to reverberate across Twitter, so activists are going to organize, using all the tools that brands do, to get their message out there. From a consumer standpoint, it makes it very easy to track, it makes it very easy to keep abreast of what’s going on.

Are there situations where brands have the luxury of preparing a Twitter response beforehand? A situation where you know the news is going to drop. When you do have that luxury, what’s your Twitter strategy?

It probably happens more often than you would expect, because every manufacturer, for instance, knows where the risks are in their plant. Like there could be a fire, there could be a death due to faulty equipment, there could be an explosion. It’s not to say they’re pre-writing these tweets, but they’ve come up with response templates and that would be within a crisis plan. Twitter is just an element of amplifying your messaging. So if there’s a plant explosion, even if you don’t know how or when it will happen, you can determine what will be your messaging one hour after it’s happened, when you’re likely not to have a lot of information about what caused it. What’s your messaging a day after it’s happened once you have more information? The messaging that’s given by someone at a podium, that messaging isn’t just going to be distributed at the podium, but also on Facebook and Twitter.

So is it a matter of trying to predict every kind of message that will be tweeted out by users and here’s a list of responses to all those possible reactions?

It’s not a specific as line by line responses, but at least there should be generic messaging. Let’s say there’s a major retail outlet, they’re going to have a response for if there’s a shooting. It won’t be an exact tweet, but it’ll be a general response like “We’re looking into it.” They will draft a tweet in the moment based on that more general messaging. They’ll also have a checklist about which parties need to sign off on a tweet. And so really the key here is that your Twitter strategy should never conflict with your overall messaging within a crisis. And it should never give conflicting information from what you would give to the press. What it does allow you to do from a more acute, focused level, is respond to very similar claims. If there’s a shooting at a retail store and suddenly people on the news are saying “…and there was an explosion,” you as the head of messaging who knows there was only a shooting, you can say “Rumors of any explosion are not true.” It can put down any escalation of misinformation.

What about the monitoring perspective? I’m guessing that’s a large part in developing a crisis strategy. Are you assigning someone 24/7 to monitor Twitter in real time?

I imagine it correlates to the size of the crisis. If you’re a small retail chain in a city,  you probably don’t need 24-hour monitoring. If you’re a large oil company, you’ll have 24/7 monitoring and also escalation plans in place. The good news for corporations, a few years ago if you really wanted strong monitoring you had to hire Radian6 and you had to pay an arm and a leg. Now, services are fairly affordable. The best things, like Radian6, are still expensive, but there are tiers below that, like Brandwatch, that are much more affordable but still do a good job. Sentiment analysis, I’d say, is mediocre at best.

So don’t put too much weight on claims from these tools about sentiment?

Well, if you’re going through a recall, for example, yes there will be a lot of negative sentiment, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the overall perception of your brand. A lot of people are pissed at you for one day or one week, and it doesn’t necessarily mean your brand is mud, it just means people found this to be a sexy story. But the point is that there’s much more affordable tools out there, all the way down to free. Twitter has search functionality built into it, so if you’re someone with very limited funds, you can get a very general idea of what’s being said. Startups do it all the time. They’re just monitoring whether anybody is talking about me or talking to me. But then you want to make sure to have a search tab opened about your industry or your competitors.

That was my next question: What should you be actually searching for during these crises outside of mentions of your brand?

Everything I learned about how to use Twitter was done while I was running a startup. What we looked at was our industry, our handle, but also variations of our handle. We looked at individuals, our CEO, the president of the firm. We looked at our competitors. What we’d typically get out of that is more for marketing purposes. Was anyone reaching out to our competitors and saying “Hey, can you guys help?” You’re looking for journalists who are covering your industry to get in front of them.

So you should put Twitter lists together?

Absolutely. You do what makes sense to your business. When you’re a small business and dealing with a crisis, typically you don’t have to have a team monitoring every mention of your business, because typically you’re up 24/7 dealing with it. Or if you’re not your team is in some form or fashion. Really it’s the monitoring when you don’t have a crisis, that’s the difficult part, because crises can emerge without you at first realizing it. Something you said in an ad, something you said in an interview. I think the real difficulty, and this is something we try to tackle here, is can you predict a crisis using social media? Especially from an activist perspective? Can you see the vague threats out there? Are these activists trying to organize a new campaign? And in doing so you need to determine how influential they are, how many people follow them, what’s the real impact they’re having?

Is there an analysis going on where you see people trying to stir up shit on Twitter, and there’s a debate over whether you should respond or if responding will just stir the pot and give them momentum?

In most cases you don’t want to respond at all, unless there’s a financial threat. Most activists out there, that’s their goal, which is to start the fight. They’re never going to lose, because they have no intention of ending it. So what you want to do is if they’re starting to say you’re a bad person, then maybe you should starting thinking about corporate social responsibility initiatives to provide a sort of counterweight to those claims. Then you can use Twitter to amplify and drown out the bad things people are saying about you. One thing you must realize is that people who hate you are going to continue to hate you.

Would you ever buy advertising against a hashtag they’re using?

I would first go to Google and buy those search results. Place a Google ad for any of those key terms. A lot of people who even see a hashtag might look it up on Google first to see what it’s about. And that’s why to this day BP still runs ads if you do any search for gulf oil spill, the first response is an ad for BP that shows what great things they’re doing to repair the gulf.

We know the Twitter demographics, that there is very limited penetration, at least compared to Facebook. Is there a tendency from a client to overreact based on something said on Twitter even if it’s not representative of what the public at large thinks?

If companies lose Twitter, they’re going to be hard-pressed to really get a good sense of what people think outside of expensive focus groups. And I think that’s a mistake companies make, is they see one tweet, or one tweet that’s retweeted 10 times and they think it’s a movement. The fact is it’s an open platform. It could be an ex-employee. It could be someone who has no say in the market whatsoever. If you’re a consumer packaged good, they probably don’t buy your product anyways, and unless they really get traction, they’re not going to have any impact on your bottom line. So you have to have a really good sense and err on the side of caution, because the nature of Twitter is binary. One tweet has the same value as any other tweet. Now the individuals tweeting have their own value in terms of how many followers they have, but followers don’t always measure influence. You see that when these platforms make a purge of spam accounts, sometimes you see users with thousands of followers lose 15 percent of their following because they had all these fake lists. That’s where a lot of these software applications try to measure true influence, and any of them that make this assessment just based on number of followers are not making an accurate assessment. Twitter has influence, but it’s not more impactful than if major media outlets pick up the news. There have been times where something trending on Twitter will jump over into the media, but if it’s something that’s trending on Twitter, you already know about it and you already hopefully have a crisis plan set up for that.

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This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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How to Enhance Your Personal Brand on Twitter

Amy Vernon. Photo by Andrew Kelly/Social Media Week

Amy Vernon. Photo by Andrew Kelly/Social Media Week

If I asked you which social network is best for advancing your own personal career, you might say LinkedIn. But while LinkedIn is certainly a great platform for updating your résumé and interacting with colleagues, the richest and most in-depth discussions in your field are likely occurring on Twitter. The tool is incredibly invaluable for not only keeping up with news in your industry, but also networking with the leading influencers who can aid your career development.

Amy Vernon has experienced the power of Twitter as a personal branding tool firsthand. A former metro editor in the newspaper industry, Vernon went on to consult with top publishers and brands on their social media strategies. She’s amassed over 24,000 Twitter followers and is a highly-regarded voice in her field. We discussed how she gained so many Twitter followers and why you shouldn’t use the platform to just talk about yourself.

You have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter. Before we talk about how you got those followers, tell me about the growth trajectory. When did you start on Twitter and what was the growth rate of followers?

I started my account in 2008, and at the very beginning I wasn’t using it all that much. When I started really using it, it was slow at first, and I was having conversations with people and joining in on other people’s conversations. The first Twitter chats started happening, like #Journchat. We were really having those conversations that were much easier back then because there were a lot fewer people using Twitter. So I would say my first 5,000 followers or so came over a year, and it was very slow. Then I started using a tool called Tweet Spinner. It was a company that was later purchased by Moz, which also owned a similar tool called Followerwonk. So I just dropped Tweet Spinner and kept Followerwonk. It helped you find people to follow. I’ve always checked out the profiles of all the people I follow. I know a lot of people are using the tool and set it as automated so that any person who tweets a certain word then the tool automatically follows that person for you. And I never did that because it doesn’t do you any good, and it ends up just flooding your timeline and making it impossible to follow the people you actually want to follow. But I did use it to automate the following, because I’d just go through large groups at a time and look at them and determine which ones to follow. But after awhile I felt I was following too many people and it became untenable. And Twitter Lists came a little too late to the game, and trying to sort everyone I was following into lists at that point was very difficult. So I took six months to really pare down who I was following and make that manageable. And I knew that a lot of people would unfollow me, and that was fine because they were only following me because I was following them. My following continued to grow though, because I was getting involved in a lot of Twitter chats and started being put on “best of” lists and I was also speaking at events.

Sometimes people follow me and I look at their profile and they have like 50,000 followers, but they’re following 50,000 people. And whenever they tweet links to my articles they send almost zero hits. And so I wonder about this quantity to quality ratio. It’s not that hard to get a lot of followers if you just follow people who follow you back, but I don’t think those people are actually following you. Would you agree?

I totally agree. I knew that if someone was following me only because I was following them, then they didn’t care what I was tweeting about anyway. I know some people who follow a lot of people and yet they still get a lot of engagement. That’s fine and I’m glad it works for them. I know some people who follow tons of people and they have tons of followers and I have no idea if they get much engagement at all. I think sometimes people fall into the vanity metrics. It’s very natural. People tend to be very competitive and they want to have the most followers. But it becomes this treadmill where at some point Twitter isn’t useful anymore. Even if you have lists, how many lists are you going to really look at? If you’re following people and you’re not paying attention to what they’re tweeting about, why are you even following them? I also don’t fool myself into believing every person who follows me is hanging on my every word. There are people who I’m sure pay no attention to anything I say.

Where does Twitter stand in the hierarchy of social media platforms when it comes to enhancing your professional brand? If you’re advising an executive who wants to engage in thought leadership online, and you have this pie chart in front of him showing how much time he should be spending on different networks, where does Twitter fit in?

I think that in terms of thought leadership, your own blog, LinkedIn, perhaps Medium, are the most important. I would say Twitter is more important than Facebook. Facebook isn’t really a thought leadership platform. Twitter is, and it’s something I’ve always recommended to clients, that it’s the place where you can show your knowledge and your authority on a subject. If there’s an article that is really important to your topic, even if it mentions someone, or is written by someone that happens to be a competitor, then you’re still better off sharing that because people are going to remember that you shared that and they heard about it from you, and you’re concerned with sharing the most important information even if you’re mentioning a competitor.

That’s something that a lot of marketers talk about, that you shouldn’t use Twitter to just talk about yourself.

Right. You can look at it as a place where you can exhibit your thought leadership. It’s probably the key platform after your blogs and LinkedIn. I think now with the LinkedIn publishing platform, that rises pretty much to the top, but Twitter has always been a place where you can show your thought leadership and show that you’re an authority on a topic.

When you have a client and they’re new to Twitter and looking for the right people to follow in their industry, what kind of strategies do you suggest they use to find the people they should be following?

There are a lot of great tools that can help with that. Followerwonk is one of them. You can search bios and use of hashtags. There are other platforms like Wefollow where people have self-selected categories that they’re interested in. It’s like a Yellow Pages for Twitter. People have put themselves in there for the topics they’re interested in. Those are places you can go to find the people who are talking about the topics you’re interested in. In addition, Twitter chats are a huge resource, and there are a couple of places you can go to find the many Twitter chats out there. Tweetchat.com has a Twitter chat calendar. There are Twitter chats on almost every topic out there and anyone can join in. So if you’re a company in the food industry, there’s #foodchat. Most of them are weekly, some are monthly. You can literally just join in on the conversation. Often they have a guest. Sometimes they’ll just have open questions to the group. For instance #flipboardchat on Wednesday nights, it’s a group of Flipboard enthusiasts, and the people who run it have open questions to the whole group, and people just kind of share their advice and ideas on how to better use Flipboard. There are a lot of chats where you can go just to learn more about different online tools. I really think that Twitter chats are the best platform out there to really find good people.

Do you find you get sharp increases in followers when you do Twitter chats?

Exactly. The thing is it goes back to what I was saying about when I’m having conversations on Twitter there’s so much more interaction than when I just tweet a link. And in those Twitter chats it’s understood that people are jumping in to answer the questions and respond to each other. You can really meet new people and have conversations with them. You’ll find interesting people to follow but other people will find what you say is interesting and follow you as well.

Other than Twitter chats are there any other strategies if you’re new to Twitter to get people to interact with you and follow you back?

Even if you create a list of the top 50 people who you want to interact with on Twitter, and you’re watching what they’re talking about, you can jump in and join their conversations. The nice thing about Twitter is it’s sort of like a cocktail party where someone is standing there and you walk up to them and start talking, it’s sort of that atmosphere where even if you’re not following someone it’s not considered weird or creepy to strike up a conversation with them as long as it’s a normal person conversation. You can just start talking to those people. Ask them a question. Comment on a link they shared. Answer a question they asked. Just say “Hi, I really admire your work.” You really can just reach out and speak to those people.

Would you recommend people purchase Twitter advertising for their own personal accounts?

I think if you do it should be done very sparingly. I know some people who have done it. I’ve experimented with it with my own account. It depends on the topic, what it’s relating to. It’s certainly something I would consider depending on who the person was and what the topic was. But if it was a new product or something and you’re talking about a CEO or someone in the C-suite, I might do that, because that would be an appropriate thing that you’re promoting.

How important is Twitter for driving traffic to blog content? Facebook has received so much press for being a major traffic driver to content, but it seems like on more niche topics Twitter is in some ways more important.

I think that it probably depends on the person and on the blog. It depends a lot on where you’ve built your audience. I know most publishers have never traditionally seen as much traffic from Twitter, but a lot of that was because many people access Twitter through third party tools that aren’t easy to track on anaytics platforms. They don’t show up properly because they’re not coming through Twitter.com.

What are some of the growing pains you experience once your following reaches a certain size? I imagine that keeping up and responding to all the replies gets more difficult.

If someone just retweets a tweet of mine I don’t feel obligated to thank them. Sometimes if someone retweets something with a comment, if I don’t have anything original to say about it, I’ll favorite it, which sends a signal to the person that I saw the comment and appreciated it. It’s saying thank you without wasting the space to say thank you. If someone asks me a question or congratulates me for something or adds something significant to what I’m tweeting, I try to respond in some way. Sometimes it’s as easy as tweeting “That’s a really good point.” Other times it ends up being a conversation. I think about how I would respond in real life and respond in a similar fashion. If someone asks me something, I will answer. When I get the spammy “Hey, take a look at this video” and they’ve tweeted at 50 people the same stuff, I often ignore it because it’s so unrelated to anything I’ve expressed interest in. The other day someone reached out to me about an app he created,  but what he said made it so obvious that he was speaking to me because he even mentioned my dog. This person actually took the time to specifically comment on something I take a lot of photos of, so I actually took a look at his app. In those types of things it’s all in the approach.

Sometimes if I have an article that I want to promote, I’ll schedule three tweets out to the article over a period of hours, and I’ll find three to six people who are most likely to be interested in that content and then add their Twitter handles to the end of my scheduled tweets. So then it’s not spammy.

Yeah, I have done that. Sometimes if I mention a couple people in an article, I’ll say “with shoutouts to so-and-so” in my tweet.

So my last question is: What actually comes out of using Twitter? It’s nice to have a lot of followers, but in terms of advancing your career, what can it actually do?

The thing about Twitter that has been most useful to me has been connections I’ve made with people, and then when you meet them in real life you’re not going through all the small talk because you’re meeting as friends. Very early on Pete Cashmore, the founder of Mashable, used to respond to everyone on Twitter. And when I met him at an event and said who I was, he knew who I was because we’d spoken on Twitter. That’s very valuable to be able to go up to someone who you want to have a conversation with whether it’s for networking or someone who’s a friend and you don’t have to waste time explaining to them who you are because you’ve already engaged in that small talk.

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This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

Twitter marketing cover 2

Image via Andrew Kelly/Social Media Week

How a hobby foreign affairs blog became a paywalled news destination

Hampton Stephens, founder of World Politics Review

Hampton Stephens, founder of World Politics Review

Like many journalism startups to emerge in recent years, World Politics Review came about simply because the kind of reporting its founder was interested in didn’t really exist at most traditional media outlets. “I was trying to publish op-eds in various newspapers,” Hampton Stephens told me in a phone interview. “And I was struck that there weren’t many outlets for the kind of analytical writing about international affairs I wanted to do.” He launched the site in 2006 when he was earning a graduate degree in international affairs, and though he had no initial business model, he also wasn’t a newcomer to professional journalism; Stephens took a job out of college in the marketing department at the National Journal and, after getting the reporting bug, went on to write for several publications, including a newsletter for the defense industry.

In those early days, Stephens populated World Politics Review with his own writing, as well as contributions from people he knew from his reporting background and grad school. By 2007, however, he had decided he wanted to turn the fledgling site into a mature business, and so began commissioning pieces for about $100 a column. “We had great success early on attracting a lot of contributors, which kind of validated my idea that there was a dearth of outlets for these people who wanted to do this kind of analytical writing.” But he was also “incredibly naive,” as he put it, because he initially thought he could achieve profitability by simply selling ads. This was before the Great Recession had eviscerated newspapers across the country. It was back when many news executives assumed they could eventually sell online display ads at the same rates as they had in print.

But the limitless supply of content on the internet drove down ad rates to such an extent that only websites with massive scale were able to sustain themselves. Though World Politics Review audience was growing, it quickly became clear that Stephens would never see the level of traffic needed to break even, much less turn a profit. He realized he would need to erect some kind of paywall, but he also knew that such a measure would inhibit his ability to market the site’s content. So, several years before the New York Times introduced the concept of a “leaky paywall,” one that’s being widely emulated by other news companies, Stephens began to roll out his own porous subscription service.”A lot of our traffic is coming from search engines, and we want people to get a taste of the first article,” said Stephens. “So for that first click [from Google] they get the whole article, and if they click to another article then they hit the paywall.” The same goes for any inbound referrals from Twitter or Facebook. “We do know people who abuse that. We know there are people who are following us on Twitter on a daily basis and probably clicking through to every article we publish and reading it for free, but basically we decided that’s the tradeoff you have to make.”

In 2009, armed with an investment from family members, Stephens hired an editor-in-chief and then stepped back to begin focusing solely on the business side of the company. Because World Politics Review was more niche in focus than, say, the New York Times, he understood that his core customer base would consist mainly of people who worked in some realm of international affairs — like, say, academics or NGOs — and so there was enormous potential in selling subscriptions to large institutions that employed these kinds of professionals.

Though WPR does offer individual subscriptions, at about $60 a year, more than 60 percent of the site’s subscription revenue comes from these institutions. In late 2010, Stephens signed a partnership deal with EBSCO, an information services company that sells bundled digital subscriptions for scholarly journals and other publications to universities, companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. “They have a sales force that’s calling on [these organizations], so our partnership allows us to focus on the content while they have the sales force, and we have a joint venture where we share the revenue.”

This partnership has allowed WPR to vastly expand its subscription base (the State Department, one of its largest customers, has made the site’s content accessible to 45,000 employees), but recently Stephens has begun to focus more on diversifying the company’s subscriptions so it’s not so reliant on a single partnership for distribution. He hired a part-time salesperson to begin targeting smaller institutions that aren’t on EBSCO’s radar. “If I sent [EBSCO] a hot lead, they’ll go out and call them, but for the most part they’re pitching World Politics Review to their existing customers and they’re not going out of their way to make sales calls to sell us specifically. That’s the nature of the agreement with them. We realized there’s this whole universe of smaller institutions that they’re not currently hitting.” WPR recently signed up several small NGOs and nonprofits (most of which have fewer than 50 employees) in both the US and the UK.

Stephens has also focused significant effort toward securing more individual subscribers; his goal is that they eventually make up at least 50 percent of his subscription base. To do this, he’s sought to understand who his core subscriber is and what kind of information she would need to do her job. “There are some hardcore news junkies whose job is completely unrelated to foreign affairs who subscribe, but those are definitely the exception,” he told me. “The way we approach producing the content is as though we’re producing it for people who have a professional interest in this stuff — access is an asset for doing their jobs. Whether they’re a policy maker, a risk analyst for a multinational corporation, or they’re an academic who’s teaching students or doing original research.”

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WPR, Stephens argued, fits somewhere between mainstream publications like the Economist, which are writing for a more general audience, and international affairs journals that are only published quarterly and might not run a longform article until two years after it was originally submitted. “There are mainstream readers who can get something out of what we publish,” he said. “But we’re assuming a certain amount of knowledge on the part of our readers. What we’re trying to do is combine the best aspects of those mainstream publications in terms of writing shortform stuff, but also having the depth and thoughtfulness of an academic journal, but one that’s publishing daily.”

The site has four full-time editorial employees, most of whom are based in New York (the editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, lives in Paris) and responsible for writing one piece per week. The vast majority of their workday is spent commissioning and editing content from a network of contributors who have a wide range of subject matter expertise and live all over the world. “We pay them per piece, they’re contractors,” said Stephens. “We don’t have long-term contracts with any of them. At any given time there’s a stable of regular contributors, maybe 100 people who are contributing more than once a year.” Because most of them already have full-time jobs and are mainly focused on gaining access to WPR’s readers, Stephens only needs to pay a small honorarium to receive high-quality contributions. “I’d guess that if you compare our costs to other publications that aren’t just [aggregating content], they would be very favorable. We get a lot of bang for the buck in terms of the money we spend on content.”

Because WPR doesn’t have a “US-centric focus” — meaning international affairs aren’t covered through the lens of how they impact the US — it has strong international appeal, both among contributors and readers. “Our traffic is always a slight majority outside the United States,” said Stephens. “On any given month it’ll be 52 percent from non-US readers. Our subscribers break down probably about the same way — between 50 and 60 percent non-US and between 40 and 50 percent US-based.” This has, of course, allowed the company to target overseas NGOs and other institutions, vastly expanding its potential revenue base.

Though WPR is not yet profitable, Stephens said he hopes to be in the black by the end of this year. The question he finds himself contemplating now is how to expand once the site becomes self-sustaining. “Do we remain a niche publisher, or do we try to go big and add other services, maybe come out with regional sections and have more newsletters, and have an African service and an Asian service? I don’t know the answer to that. I’d be lying if I have a grand vision. Right now we’re just so focused on getting to profitability, and I think at that point the options really open up for us.” I asked him if he’d considered a metered paywall like the one rolled out successfully by the New York Times? Or perhaps a Wall Street Journal model where some of the site content is placed in front of the paywall? “We don’t publish enough content to have two separate tiers,” he replied. “We’re publishing basically 70 to 80 new original pieces a month, which is a significant amount, but it’s nowhere near the output of the New York Times or BuzzFeed. “If we did two tiers, would someone be willing to pay for, instead of 80 articles a month, would 40 be enough to justify a subscription?” Stephens didn’t think so.

A few hours after we got off the phone, Stephens emailed me with further thoughts on the future of World Politics Review. One of the benefits of relying on reader subscriptions rather than advertising is that it has allowed the publication to focus 100 percent on delivering value to the reader, and any future expansion must adhere to this core value. “The fact that they pay us for the service ensures that they are our real customers and that everything we do, from the integrity of our content to the usability of our site, is done with them in mind,” he wrote. “We could not build the kind of service we want to build if the majority of our revenue came from advertising. In this case, our real customers would be our advertisers and our readers would just be a product we are selling to advertisers.” For those who worry about the rise of native advertising and its potential for blurring the lines between independent journalism and sponsored content, this fidelity to readers should provide some welcome optimism for the future of journalism. The question now is whether a profitable market exists for such journalistic integrity. Stephens’s bet, to which he’s dedicated nearly a decade of his life, is that it does, and this is the year he aims to prove it.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

How to Craft a Killer Twitter Advertising Campaign

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In terms of granular targeting of your messaging, few platforms are more effective than Twitter. Using its various advertising tools, you can boost your posts to place them in front of your targeted demographics, create a trending hashtag, or even target users who are watching a particular piece of live television programming.

Matt Deluca is an account supervisor heading up all digital paid media for Edelman, one of the world’s largest PR and marketing firms that services Fortune 500 companies, major non-profits, and politicians. Before that he worked on the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 election run. He and I spoke about the ideal advertising campaign for Twitter, how to target Twitter ads to live television viewers, and the perils of running a promoted hashtag.

What is the ideal campaign for Twitter? What instances would you advise a client to spend money on Twitter advertising versus Facebook advertising or display advertising or even print advertising?

It’s not necessarily based on the advertiser, but rather the audience. What we always do at Edelman is look at the target audience — there are certainly clients and issue campaigns where their audience is heavily online. If we were for example doing a campaign that’s really focused on 18 to 34-year-olds who are looking to buy sneakers — guess what? They’re going to be on Twitter, they’re going to be on Facebook. But they’re definitely on Twitter to follow athletes. If there’s an ad or live event on TV, we’re going to have corresponding ads on Facebook and Twitter, especially Twitter because they have really good TV targeting. When we’re defining an audience, we’ll see how they index on Facebook and Twitter and when they’re really highly indexed on one or the other, that’s how we choose which platform to focus on. We’ve also seen cases where it’s a little less proactive and more reactive, where companies are using Twitter to target and influence media in particular, and there really is value there since just about all journalists are on Twitter.

Speaking of the media, a relatively small percentage of Americans are on Twitter, at least compared to other platforms like Facebook. With Twitter, would you say you’re more trying to influence the influencers rather than reach the mass market consumer?

I’d say there are many times where you are going to be reaching the influencers. For a lot of clients, especially those that want to use it as a media relations channel, it is very effective for the media. It’s no secret that the media has an outsized population on Twitter, particularly in New York City, DC, and Silicon Valley where they discuss and formulate stories. And there are certainly folks on Wall Street who look to see what brands are saying online, particularly around earnings. And then we see other industries whose biggest influencers are on Twitter. That’s something important for clients to keep in mind.

What’s the ideal case in which you’re trying to run a Twitter ad campaign alongside something that’s happening on television?

What I’ve seen work are Twitter ads that are run concurrently with national television advertising buys. I’ve seen it be effective when there’s bleed-over onto Twitter of people talking about what they’re watching on television. A major sports apparel company running alongside the Super Bowl or a playoff game, we’ve seen that be effective on Twitter. Or American Idol if you’re a soft drink company or a consumer package goods product, that’s where you integrate. You line up your major audiences on Twitter along with the TV buy. I think you’ll start seeing that on the political side as well. A lot of people are using cable buying to hit audiences who aren’t necessarily in that prime time timeslot. I’m sure they’re going to take that TV data and match it on Twitter, and they’re getting better at doing that in real time. It’s a good way to bolster your online presence against your TV presence.

So let’s use your hypothetical of the sports drink product running during American Idol. What kind of ad would you be running on Twitter?

Matt Deluca

Matt Deluca

What I’ve found to be effective is the use of images and also video now that Twitter is really integrating video more and more into their platform. The other thing that I’ve seen really good engagement on is their website cards, lead generation cards, video cards, and image cards, which are in-line tweets that contain multimedia that’s fitted for Twitter. It looks really good on mobile. And what you do is redirect people offsite. With email cards you can collect emails from users. What I do is align my content to both my audience and whatever targeting method I’m using. If it’s TV, folks will be talking about the big game, so you try to make allusions to that game. You’ve got to provide some type of value to the end user, not just a “Check us out!” There needs to be some apparent benefit to that interaction.

How important is it to include a photo or hashtag in a promoted tweet?

I would say a photo is one of the most important components. A hashtag…I think you always have to be very careful with hashtags. We’ve seen all sorts of brands have issues with them. But I’ve seen them work as well. I’ve found multimedia to be extremely effective on Twitter. It’s a component I really try to push all our clients to have across the board. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and when you only have 140 characters, that can be a real critical component to extending your message online.

Would you say if your client is in any way controversial, like a major cable company or something like that, you would steer away from hashtags because people might try to hijack that hashtag?

Yeah, you have to think about all the positives and all the negatives. You have to weigh one against the other. And you have to figure out what your response is going to be. It doesn’t have to be a hashtag, it can be anything you do online. It’s really just important to think about any potential blowback. Hashtags are very hard for a brand to control. Once you set it down in the sand, it really does become something folks may skew out of proportion. You also have to be careful about using someone else’s hashtag as well. We’ve seen both success and massive crises that occur out of it. A lot of the time what we’ll do is if we’re going to use a hashtag you have to think about all the possibilities of what could happen and how you’re going to respond. That’s something we caution all our clients to think about.

How difficult is it to convince a client to advertise on Twitter versus Facebook or Google? Do you find that if the client isn’t active on Twitter themselves, they’re less likely to value Twitter?

Everything’s a pilot for us. We go to a client and say, “Hey, we don’t need to start in the deep end. Let’s try a couple things out. Let’s see if it’ll work. Let’s test it out. We’ll work with you to determine what your key performance indexes are going to be, what matters for you. And then we’ll sit down and figure out what went wrong and what went right. And how we can do better next time.” I’ve had clients who say we’re just not going to do it. And that’s fine. I’ll say for the most part it’s been fairly easy to work with clients in terms of at least talking about the pros and cons. It comes down to the budget. While you can do pretty small buys, you have to think about your scale. Sometimes marketing budgets need to go into what’s clearly most effective dollar for dollar. And that’s why we like to do the tests.

A lot of people are consuming Twitter on mobile. Does that impact what kinds of products or services you want to advertise on Twitter? I’m guessing people would be less likely to order a product on Amazon while on their mobile phone rather than their desktop. Or am I wrong in assuming that?

I think we’ve begun to see more and more consumers making purchases on mobile. I remember seeing an article that on Black Friday, a large percentage of Amazon’s sales were made on mobile and tablet devices. So I think we’re starting to see more users feel comfortable, particularly if Apple Pay takes off. It may not be the predominate way of making purchases online, but it’s much better than it was two years ago. We’re certainly seeing clients begin to think about their mobile strategy. Especially with any millennial targeting, which is a critical demographic, they’re going heavily mobile. You have to constantly think about what your website looks like on a mobile device and is my purchase funnel optimized for mobile.

Making sure there’s a mobile ready site waiting for them.

Yeah, if it’s not mobile friendly, then we have to be very judicious with what we do online with our Twitter advertising, including just targeting desktop users.

You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Twitter through a political lens. What’s the best kind of content for politicians to run Twitter ads against? Is it issue-oriented tweets targeted toward people who care about the issue? Tweets on election day targeting voters?

It’s a completely different platform now compared to what we were seeing in 2012. There are a lot more options for a campaign between generation cards — to get email signups — to video and website card features that drive people to specific landing pages within Twitter with a native looking ad. They’ve done a lot with their targeting mechanisms and have introduced better email integration — being able to match up your voter file, your in-house email list, and being able to do targeting off that. They’ve done conversion-based tracking and retargeting. The TV targeting is certainly something worth testing out. Both the Romney and Obama camps would be salivating now over what can be done on Twitter if they had access to what’s available now. From the content side, I think it’s critical for the next one and a half years that campaigns are using Twitter to talk about the candidate in an effective way, share their messaging, inform their supporters, challenge their opponents, and work with the media. It’s not just putting up pictures at a state fair anymore. You need to be testing constantly. I think the one thing I find interesting is what happens when you have candidates who actually tweet themselves. A lot of times they’ll hand over the keys to the car, but Chris Christie has been well known to be tweeting himself. Rand Paul has as well. It’ll be interesting to see if that changes at all. I’ve always found it to be pretty fun.

What kind of research are you doing beforehand so you know where to target your Twitter ads to maximize ROI?

A lot of that is driven through your first and third party data. The analytics backend is helpful. Looking at prior messaging and prior content. If you’re just starting out, it’s always good to look at crosstabs and target using that. There’s not much targeting you can do from an organic side. You can’t geotarget or interest target without paying for an ad. I use email list and our in-house CRM data to target people who have shown a propensity to be engaged on an issue. On the organic side you have to think about what everyone is interested in, because it’s like a megaphone. And in terms of micro-messaging, that’s where you want to get into paid ads so you can target them just to who will care about them.

Twitter is known as a real-time network and the marketing world is known for there being a lot of red tape in terms of getting things approved by a client. Are there ways to deal with the immediacy of Twitter with this slow approval process?

We don’t really struggle with it. We believe in the creative newsroom approach, and the critical component is being agile and pre-planning the process. Asking ourselves: if we have a piece of content show up, what’s the approval process and making sure somebody is available to discuss and approve as quickly as possible? On the political side there were rumors about the approval process of tweets [for Mitt Romney]. You have to think about all the legal implications of what a tweet can mean and what it says. And you have to do that from the consumer side as well. There’s trademark, copyright, and other things you need to think about. So you want to set up that process early on and set it up with the client so the client is onboard. Walk them through what it would look like and what the process is — if this scenario happens, here’s how we’ll respond, etc. A lot of it is about establishing a level of trust, and that needs to be done ahead of time, not the day of.

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This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise. This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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Image via Mashable

How to Run a Successful Twitter Chat

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Michele Payn-Knoper

What’s a Twitter chat? It’s an event conducted on Twitter at a specific time that centers on a specific hashtag that was invented specifically for the chat. At the allotted time, a moderator begins tweeting out questions and other related material, and those participating in the chat answer the questions while continuing to use the hashtag so that others can follow along. For example, a Twitter chat called #Journchat occurs every Monday at 7 p.m. CT, and at that time professional journalists from all over the world tune in to share and gain knowledge. A Twitter chat can be an excellent opportunity to glean actionable insight in your industry and also network with the top practitioners in your field.

In April 2009, Michele Payn-Knoper launched #agchat, easily the most widely-used Twitter chat in the agricultural space. It was so successful that it spawned the AgChat Foundation, which now administers and moderates the weekly event. “We’re operated primarily by farmers,” Payn-Knoper told me. “We provide training for farmers and ranchers to equip them to tell the farmer story. We’ve had five national conferences as well as regional conferences. We work at different agriculture events to provide training on social media.”

I interviewed Payn-Knoper about how to use Twitter chats for crowdsourcing questions and how to get people to actually show up to one you’re organizing.

Why participate in a Twitter chat? What benefits have you seen both running and participating in Twitter chats?

I think one of the benefits of participating in a Twitter chat is about community. #Agchat and #foodchat were started in service to the community and to build a community. My goal is to use social media to inspire conversations around farm and food. When I started the chat I was already participating in #journchat and felt like there was a need for those in agriculture to work together and communicate with food buyers. And the benefit that I’ve seen is the community that has built around that, a kind of townhall from which a lot of smaller communities are formed.

In terms of what you get out of the community, is it more a form of networking? Or is it more of an informational hub where you’re actually learning a lot of stuff while the chat is going on?

It’s both. I think the networking is invaluable because in agriculture the people who work in it only make up 1 percent of the population, but while it may seem like a very small world most of the people who work in it live in extremely remote locations. The view I have out my window right now is a field. That’s my office view and I like it that way. As far as participating in the chat, regardless of the chat you’re in, if you’re in the right community you’re going to learn. I would encourage people to take the time to listen as much as they talk, because you can really glean a lot of information if you choose to listen.

You could almost use it as a form of crowdsourcing, like if you ask the right question at the right time, you can get a lot of good answers at once.

Absolutely. One of the keys to #agchat’s success is its consistency and the fact that it’s always been moderated consistently. It’s always been conducted at the same exact time, Tuesdays from 8 to 10 Eastern. It’s always been on the same time and the same day, so people understand what they’re getting into. The other component to it is the moderation. As a professional speaker I’m trained to facilitate, and the chats were initially structured the same way I would moderate an actual meeting between professionals. And that’s really allowed us to have a consistent voice regardless of who’s moderating.

Do you notice a sharp uptick of quality followers whenever you’re participating in a Twitter chat?

Oh yeah, I certainly think that people can expect that as they participate in a chat and provide good information and resources for folks. It varies depending on the chat. Some chats are designed to be parties. #Agchat was never designed to be a “party.” It was designed to help the community.

What are some ideal situations for starting your own Twitter chat? Let’s say you’re some kind of caused-based non-profit, what are some questions you should be asking yourself before you decide to launch one?

Well, first off, do you have the community?  #Agchat and #foodchat were successful because there were enough people concerned about agriculture advocacy and being able to connect farm and food. Do you have a community of influencers that can help you? Especially because moderating these things can be a huge time commitment, especially when you’re traveling. But aside from whether you have the community, I would ask is there a global need or a need within the community? Is there a common interest? Frankly even though my work and my business revolves around agriculture advocacy, I was dumbfounded during my first few weeks of #agchat by the number of folks who were interested in agricultural advocacy. And the other thing that I think people have to ask themselves, particularly at this juncture, is whether that need is already being served? When we started #agchat there was nothing like that out there.

Would you say that for a non-profit, if there’s already an existing chat similar to what they want to do they should just reach out to the moderator and get more involved in that chat rather than starting their own?

I do at this point. We all have to deal with information overload. And today’s social media ecosystem is much different than what we saw just a few years ago.

I imagine the biggest hurdle of launching a Twitter chat from scratch is there’s no guarantee that anybody will show up. How do you overcome that? Do you recommend reaching out to influential users beforehand so they can bring their followers to the chat? I’m guessing you want big players participating so it’s not an empty room where nobody is tweeting but you.

I think anybody who starts anything runs that risk, but if you don’t take on certain risk there’s no reward. At the time of launching #agchat I had no idea if it happened to be the right topic at the right time, and those were the earlier days when it was easier to get traction than it is now. While I’m a big fan of recruiting influencers and bringing them in early to build ownership, I don’t always see influencers as those who have the greatest numbers. Sometimes the most passionate people can build a community faster than those with the most Twitter followers because they are so passionate and they’ll put in the elbow grease. I think it’s a combination of getting worker bees as well as large numbers, but ultimately the common denominator needs to be the passion because those are the folks who are going to try to work to make sure it succeeds for the greater good. And there are those who unfortunately get involved for the wrong reasons, usually for self-gratification, so I’d just offer a word of caution. But that’s the reality.

And what’s the best way to approach other people to get them involved? I’m guessing that you word it in such a way like “This is how you’re going to benefit from this. We’re going to get all the key people within the demographics you’re looking to reach and together we’re going to pool our resources.” Is that the pitch you’re giving?

It’s pretty much centered on “Hey, we’re going to try to try out the chat, and this is what I think will result.” The secret is to have good relationships with people beforehand. I have built my community very strategically and tried to build relationships with people by doing good work and being a resource for them. When you serve the bigger picture and it’s not just about your name, it’s not just about building Twitter followers, then that speaks volumes to people.

Let’s talk about structuring the chat itself. Let’s say you’re the moderator. What should your role be in the days and hours leading up to the chat? What’s the prep beforehand?

My general recommendations are to announce the topic of the chat a week in advance. And then to have daily tweets scheduled for the first few days. For example I know within the agriculture community if I want to get people’s attention, I either need to send tweets out about 8 p.m, which is when the chat starts, or very early in the morning. You need to know when your community is online. You also need to give directions on how to provide answers. I’ve found pretty consistently over a number of years that people need guidance on how they’re supposed to participate. There’s a lot of intimidation about participating in your first #agchat because they don’t want to screw up. Which is ridiculous, because it’s just a chat on Twitter. That’s why I’ve developed guidelines that people can find at our website. Usually anywhere from three to five days in advance, you start sending out multiple callouts a day, asking people to direct message you their questions. And on the day of the chat probably just send out five reminders. People like the direct message aspect, then they can ask their questions, and I find that if people are publicly asking the account questions then it’s hard to really filter those and manage it.

So you’re saying they should direct message questions they want you to ask as the moderator?

Correct. For example, all questions are directed to the @agchat account, not me as moderator, because that allows for the consistency of the experience week after week.

You mentioned prepping people. Is part of it sending your other participants suggested tweets beforehand, like “Hey, it’s up to you, but here are some suggested tweets you can send to help promote the event?”

Yeah, it depends. I’m not a fan of telling people what to say.

Let’s talk about the chat itself. How do you structure the chat? Like is it the moderator tweeting out a question every five to 10 minutes?

Some questions will take seven minutes and there will still be discussion going on. Other questions take two minutes to answer and they’re done. The way I’ve always structured it is to have all the questions listed beforehand. You can use Evernote, you can use your calendar. I believe it’s critical to have it all organized beforehand because it goes so fast. We have to deal with thousands of tweets in our chats, and the way to keep up with it all is to have it organized beforehand and then I also recommend multiple streams. I’d often moderate from one stream and watch Tweetdeck from my personal account on another stream.

I talked to another person who did a Twitter chat and the first time she was put in Twitter jail because she was retweeting too often. Is that a danger, that you shouldn’t tweet too much especially if you’re the moderator?

Since you’re moderating from the @agchat account that typically isn’t a problem because it takes a whole lot to be put in the Twitter jail. If it’s an account with a lot of followers it’s harder to be put in the Twitter jail.

What’s the ideal amount of time for a Twitter chat? A half hour? An hour?

Ours has always been two hours. We’ve tried shorter time frames, and you don’t really get into an effective discussion. Within that chat, we typically would open up for introductions at the beginning and then in order to prevent people from doing too much self promoting during the chat at the end we set aside some time so people can promote their websites and blogs or ask questions that maybe weren’t asked by the moderator.

What are some of the insights you’ve gleaned from the chats? Do you fee like you’re actually learning something about the industry?

Absolutely. The insights can range from how people are using drones to apply the right products to their fields in an environmentally friendly way to how farmers can care for their animals on days like today when it’s snowing in Indiana. And then on the flip side we’ve had expert panels where there’s been dietitians on, and it was extremely contentious, but we’ve had a couple different chats where we basically told one side of the issue to be quiet so they could listen to the other side of the issue and then the next week we’d allow the opposite side to talk.

Do a lot of people try to hijack the chat?

There have certainly been efforts to do that, but if you have a powerful community that understands the guidelines, then that diminishes the risks. The more successful a chat is, I think the more likely that is to happen, but we just need to stay focused.

If you had to draw a line graph of participation, do you feel like the further you are into the chat the more people there are who are participating because people have been pulled in by the hashtag?

I think it’s a bell curve. For example, since we’re an international chat we have people who come on early who might be up in Canada, and then we have people who come on later because they’re out in California.

What’s the level of self-promotion that should be happening during the chat?

I would say minimal. I’m not a big fan of self-promotion during chats because I think the chat is for the greater good. That’s why when we structured the chat I made it so if people want to pitch their own projects, then they have 15 minutes at the end of the chat to do so.

***

This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise.  This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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How The Atlantic Uses Twitter to Drive Traffic to Content

Jake Swearingen, The Atlantic's social media editor

Jake Swearingen, The Atlantic’s social media editor

Though Facebook drives far more traffic to content than any other social media network, Twitter plays a vital role not only as a direct source of traffic, but also to reach industry influencers who can propagate content across all platforms, from Facebook to Reddit to even the mainstream media (a disproportionate number of journalists hang out on Twitter). It used to be that websites simply set up an RSS feed that automatically tweeted out any new content, but it quickly became apparent that if you wanted to maximize the traffic-driving potential of Twitter, you needed to hire a social media editor who would apply a human touch and leverage best practices to get the community engaged with a publication.

Jake Swearingen has been running social media accounts for publications since 2011, first for alt weeklies in California and then later as digital director for the magazine Modern Farmer. In September 2014 he became a social media editor at The Atlantic, overseeing its social platforms with a combined following of millions of users. We spoke about what role Twitter plays in driving traffic and how to maximize click-through to content.

Can we start by contextualizing Twitter’s role in sending traffic to news publishers? How important is it in terms of sending traffic referrals? One of your writers recently wrote about the limited traffic impact of Twitter, but do you subscribe to this belief that it’s not a big deal?

If you look at it purely from a metrics standpoint, there’s absolutely no question that Twitter is not a huge traffic driver in the way Facebook is or even a small link on a middling blog, both of which send more traffic than a link from a very well-known Twitter presence. I remember when I was at LA Weekly we had written something about Miley Cyrus, and she tweeted it out with an explicit call to action for her followers, something like “You have to read this.” At the time she had 2.2 million people following her. I was curious so I tracked how much traffic that had gotten from Twitter, and it was about 2,000 people who had come over. So her click-through rate was abysmal. Way less than 1 percent. Way less than the click-through rate of a banner ad. When you look at it that way, Twitter doesn’t drive a lot of referral traffic, and it doesn’t drive a lot of referral traffic for us. It’s significant, usually in our top five, but compared to Facebook and Google, it doesn’t come close. Certainly there are specific kinds of stories — like [Atlantic writer] Ta-Nehisi Coates, pretty much anything he writes is going to do well, and where it does really well is on Twitter. Because when he says “I have a story,” it’s something people pass around really quickly. And the other part of it is we can only track what traffic is coming from Twitter, we can’t track when someone spots something on Twitter and then links to it elsewhere and sends a lot of traffic that way. It’s hard to nail down how much traffic Twitter is really worth.

What about Twitter as an influencer network? That even though it doesn’t have the reach of Facebook or Google, it’s where the top industries leaders congregate and something that takes off on Twitter bubbles over into other networks.

I’ve certainly seen examples where a story did well on Twitter and nowhere else, partly because even influential Twitter is still dominated by essentially media people along with a few luminaries in tech, politics, and celebrities. I do think there is something to the idea that you’re able to get in front of influencers or people who control a lot of attention. But even that, I think if we were just looking at referral traffic, I think we could stop posting on Twitter all together and we would take a traffic hit, but it wouldn’t be a significant one. The reason we do stay on Twitter is because for a lot of the people we want to get in front of, it’s the way they consume information. And it’s a way for us to immediately be a part of the conversation in a way that can’t be done on Facebook. Even though The Atlantic is not a breaking news organization and isn’t usually trying to respond immediately to something that happens, we want to be part of the conversation and you have to be on Twitter to do that.

We’ve heard that Twitter is re-entering its partnership with Google, which will allow Google to tap more directly into Twitter’s stream when it’s indexing content. Do you think that has major SEO implications to it?

For us as a publication, we do pretty well in SEO, I don’t know how much of an effect Twitter will have for us in terms of indexing better on Google.

How do you decide to launch a new Twitter account? The Atlantic has a lot of verticals and even subcategories. Is there this cost/benefit analysis going on before you launch a new Twitter account or decide you should roll it in under an already-existing account?

I think there are two big parts to it. One is how you build traffic to it, or rather how do you build followers? Twitter is a little bit easier to build followers than Facebook is at this point. Both require time and effort. The second is the workflow of it. Who is going to be responsible for it? Who’s going to own it? You can’t just set up an RSS feed to your Twitter account and call it a day. You have to write headlines and copy that is meant for Twitter. I would probably be considering whether this is a topic I could amass a sizable community around. Is there somebody on our staff who is already really interested in this and who might be already doing this regardless? I don’t think it’s something you would just start up the same way you would build up another section of the website. Really, the topic has to be good and you have to find someone who will do it out of passion. Unlike a Facebook page, where you can get away with only posting three or four times a day, a new Twitter account really needs to be going 10, 12, 15 times a day.

What’s the dynamic between the main Atlantic Twitter account versus the accounts for its different verticals? How do you decide how much play a story should get on the main Twitter account instead of just letting the vertical Twitter account promote it?

Everything we publish goes through the main Twitter account. We try to retweet our sub-accounts and hope that drives some people to go follow them. That’s the extent of it. The sub-accounts will publish everything that goes through their channel.

I’ve noticed that most news organizations, including yours, only use hashtags sparingly. Is that a conscious decision?

I think there are two parts to this. One is aesthetics, or, put another way, snobbery. The tweets that use hashtags often look like marketing or like someone who doesn’t know how to use Twitter very well. And the people running these accounts usually want to look like they’re working for a sophisticated publication or brand. The other part of it is that hashtags just don’t drive that much more attention to you unless you’re hitting upon one that has consistent interest in them. There are smaller hashtags that people are following along on their own. Or if there’s a hashtag trending and of the moment, then you can sort of ride along that traffic. So why do it?

How much are you using tools to schedule tweets and how do you decide whether to schedule a tweet or just tweet it out right away?

We use a tool that puts tweets into a hopper and analyzes when the best time is for it to be tweeted out. About 70 percent of what we do is done using that. A lot of what we write on a day-to-day basis is a little bit more evergreen compared to what you’ll see at your average publication. We’re writing things that work just as well if you write them today versus two weeks from now. That said, when we have something that’s absolutely in the news or part of the conversation at that very moment, then we will publish immediately.

We’ve heard that we’re supposed to tweet out the same piece of content several times a day because only a small percentage of your followers will see any given tweet. What’s your rule of thumb for how many times you should tweet out an article?

In my experience, unlike Facebook where people will start to complain if you repost a piece of content too much, with Twitter, just because of the pace of things getting quickly buried under more tweets, you can post a piece of content many, many times. We’ve definitely run things five, six, seven times.

In a single day?

Not in a single day. Sometimes something we’ve posted in the beginning of the day we’ll post again in the evening, but this is over a course of two or three weeks where we rerun something through a significant number of times. It’s something where people are clicking enough that it tells me they haven’t seen it before.

How important is it that you post a photo with the tweet? Is the click-through noticeably higher when you do it?

Well I don’t have any official data on that. I’ve read plenty of marketing white papers that have shown a higher click-through rate. My gut, anecdotally, is yeah, pictures absolutely matter a lot. Especially certain types of graphics. I know we can throw up a post that has a graph, a map, or basically any type of infographic, and we immediately see people start retweeting it really fast, much faster than they’d have time to actually read the article, and even faster than they’d have time to even comprehend the infographic they’re looking at. We’ll post it and within a few seconds we’ll see five, six, seven retweets. I think there are certain types of graphics people enjoy retweeting. The way I think of it internally is that Facebook makes you seem like a happy well-rounded person, and Twitter is about trying to make it seem like you’re an informed of-the-moment person, and things like graphics and infographics help them broadcast that out.

So you’re saying that information that’s self-contained on Twitter where you can avoid having to click away from Twitter performs better?

Yes. On Twitter, most people don’t want to leave Twitter, which is great for Twitter but bad for news organizations like ourselves.

The Atlantic employs several journalists that have very high Twitter followings. How important is this in terms of driving traffic? Are people more likely to click on and engage with a tweet coming from a human being versus a branded account?

My gut would say yeah. We can track this somewhat. We have a tool called Parse.ly that we use. And when Ta-Nehisi Coates puts up a tweet to his work, that will spike like crazy. More so than we ever see from our branded accounts. So it does matter if you have a big name journalist who’s working for you who also has a pretty big presence on Twitter. They can definitely drive a lot more traffic than what you’ll see from our branded account.

So how important is it then for a social media editor to focus on not only building a following for the publication but also for the journalists who write for it?

It’s important. If you’re at The Atlantic and you’re a writer who wants to do that, that’s something where we help out. But it’s also something that we’re never going to force someone to do social media. I think that’d be a terrible strategy if we went around to everyone and really got on them to post every day because we wanted that traffic. If someone wants to do it, then that’s great, but I don’t see that as something we should be adopting as a strategy. It’s just a happy bonus.

What kind of metrics are you judged by and judge yourself by? Especially on Twitter.

On Twitter, I would say I’m mainly looking at referral traffic. I’m looking at how much engagement we’re getting on Twitter. How many favorites, of course, but retweets are even more important. But mainly referral traffic. If I suddenly saw our Twitter referral traffic was dipping below what it was, then I’d want to think about if we’re doing something differently than before. I do think, as with most publications, we’re mainly focused on referral traffic and not just what we’re doing on that platform.

How do you delegate roles when the main social media editor is off-duty? Are you expected to spring to life wherever you are? Or can you email someone and say take care of this.

We’re certainly lucky that we can have a couple people who can take over when I’m not around. The day-to-day on the Twitter account is handled by my fellow, who does it with my overseeing him. Over the weekends we do a mixture where I’m doing some scheduling out beforehand and we have an editor who pulls weekend duty and helps out. Social media is not the most complicated thing in the world. If you can show someone how to write some copy and here’s how to attach a photo, then they’re good to go. The dirty secret to social media is that it’s actually not that hard.

***

This article is excerpted from my book: Your Guide to Twitter Marketing. I sought out some of the world’s most powerful marketers and grilled them on their subject matter expertise.  This book gives you direct insight into how the world’s top marketers approach Twitter and use it to drive sales and influence.

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Why journalists make the best content and social media marketers

simon hire me

It’s commonly accepted at this point that every company and organization should have an official blog, and that every working professional should be engaging in thought leadership in the form of blogging and social media engagement. The problem is that many of these blogs aren’t updated regularly and they’re not high in quality. That’s not the fault of the employees who work there; they have their own busy work schedules and have very limited experience creating web content that their customers and target demographics will want to read. At the same time, there’s wide recognition that these organizations should be on social media, but often there’s little strategy applied to social platforms other than occasionally posting content to a Facebook or Twitter page.

As a longtime journalist who’s written for national publications ranging from US News & World Report to The Atlantic to Scientific American to New York Magazine, I’ve spent my entire career creating and marketing content so millions of people would want to read and share it. As an assistant managing editor at US News & World Report, I built up the magazine’s social media presence, resulting in a 146% increase in Twitter followers and 590% increase in Facebook fans (Facebook traffic for the News division increased by 286% and Twitter traffic increased by 326%.). Our Tumblr followership increased by 53,000 followers during my tenure and our Google+ following by nearly 300,000. I’ve also worked with Fortune 500 brands to develop their digital content and social media strategies, as well as conducting PR campaigns that resulted in mentions at the world’s largest blogs and news outlets.

I can use these journalism and social media marketing skills to develop content for you and your brand and ensure it reaches the influencers and customers within your industry. Please review my offered services below and don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Blog Management/Content Marketing/Thought Leadership

As a journalist and marketer, I’ve helped develop engaging content ranging from static infographics to 5,000 word articles. I can leverage these skills to:

  • Manage company blogs: I will conduct a detailed audit and research into your industry to find what kind of content it finds most engaging and then produce that kind of content for your blog. This might involve writing the content myself or recruiting and managing already-established niche bloggers or journalists. I will also work closely with your website’s developers to optimize the blog to maximize the shareability of content via design. Very slight tweaks in how your content is presented can increase the number of shares or the chances that someone will subscribe to one of your social channels.
  • Thought leadership: It’s now necessary for many professional executives to regularly engage in online thought leadership, whether it’s writing regular columns for major outlets like Forbes or blog posts for LinkedIn and the company website. Many of these executives, however, are too busy and inexperienced in writing content for a public audience. I can work closely with these executives to glean their professional insights and convert them into ghost-written articles they can publish under their own bylines.

Social Media and Email Marketing

Creating compelling content is only half the battle. You also have to find ways to deliver that content to the social media streams of your customers and industry leaders, i.e. the people you want to influence. My services can include:

  • Social media intelligence: Sometimes you can handle the management of social media accounts internally, you just need someone to identify where your target demographics are online and the best practices for reaching them. I can perform a detailed audit, examining your marketing goals and determining which communities you should focus on and the best methods for engaging their users. This will involve identifying the key influencers within your industry (which in some cases might be your competitors) and leveraging search tools to analyze their followers and topic focus. I can then create a detailed plan for how to reach these users and place your brand in the conversation.
  • Social media management: This is a more hands-on approach where I play a role in managing your day-to-day social media presence and incorporating it into your larger content strategy.
  • Social media advertising: Though it’s possible to grow organically on social media, it’s often a slow process, so spending some money toward targeted social media advertising can boost your reach and influence much more efficiently than standard display or print advertising.

Public Speaking/In-Person Staff Training

Perhaps you want your entire staff trained on social media management and best practices. Or you’re organizing an event where you need someone to speak on marketing, content, or digital media. I can prepare a presentation and talk in advance that’s tailored to your needs.

Public Relations

I have relationships with and have successfully pitched journalists and bloggers at many of the largest media outlets in the world. I can work with you to develop a media relations strategy and create news and content that journalists will want to cover. I can also perform advanced targeting to identify the journalists most likely to be interested in your story, rather than simply relying on PR software that merely categorizes journalists by broad subject matter beats.

Feel free to contact me if you’d like to learn more.