Monthly Archives: April 2015

Self-publishing’s rise has led to a boom in freelance editing services


For awhile it probably seemed to some friends and family that Rebecca Faith Heyman had pursued an expensive degree at NYU without any intention of actually using it. She did her undergraduate and graduate degrees there, both in English, and while many of her classmates secured internships at the big publishers and magazines, Heyman spent her summers working service jobs in hotels and restaurants. “When I got out of school I wasn’t really sure what to do,” she told me recently. “I had started teaching yoga, which is not, as you can imagine, terribly lucrative.”

But despite forgoing the traditional publishing route, Heyman had always held an interest in book editing, and what with her advanced degrees in English she thought she could give it a try. So in 2007, right around the time of the Amazon Kindle’s debut, she signed up for a couple online freelance marketplaces, the kind where potential clients post jobs for which freelance editors bid. At first, many of the jobs she took on were for simple proofreading, but when she began offering tentative feedback on the editorial structure of a manuscript she was surprised to find a receptive audience. “I would say things like, ‘Hey, I noticed there’s this big continuity error, and you might want to go back and fix it,’” said Heyman. “I wasn’t really being paid to do that, I would just let them know.”

In the early days of Kindle self-publishing, many of the books were of the business variety — the how-to ebooks that bloggers and consultants had already been offering as PDFs on their websites. Eventually, however, genre fiction writers began to wade into the fray, and these authors, many of whom had given up in frustration on penetrating the New York publishing scene, suddenly found themselves with fervent — and lucrative — readerships. And with this sudden demand came a rising need for the kind of editors who offered the feedback that could be found at traditional publishing houses — something for which Heyman discovered she had a talent. “People really responded to the feedback and asked for more,” she said. “And I said, ‘Well gee, I guess my literary taste has value.’” Over the next few years, from about 2007 to 2009, Heyman put herself through a crash course in freelancing — she learned how to be client-facing, price her services, and use her education and literature background to provide editorial suggestions.

Rebecca Heyman

Rebecca Heyman

This commitment to building out her freelancing career paid off as self-publishing swiftly crossed over into the mainstream. A recent analysis of ISBNs, the identification numbers assigned to most books, found that the “ISBNs associated with self-published books climbed 437% between 2008 and 2013.” According to the Author Earnings Report, an analysis of the 120,000 bestselling ebooks on Amazon that’s released quarterly by bestselling author Hugh Howey, “in mid-year 2014, indie-published authors as a cohort began taking home the lion’s share (40%) of all ebook author earnings generated on while authors published by all of the Big Five publishers combined slipped into second place at 35%.”

These days, Heyman has more client inquiries than she has time to take on, and during any given month she’s juggling between seven and 10 manuscripts. She’s not alone. While much has been written about the rise of self-publishing and the launch of overnight bestselling authors like E.L. James and Amanda Hocking, we’ve heard little about the growing cottage industry of freelance editors and designers that’s emerged to service these writers. As the self-publishing scene has matured, many authors who previously handled all stages of publishing — from layout to cover design to editing — are now seeking out others to handle production so they can focus solely on writing. The publishing industry, essentially, is experiencing an unbundling, with some editors and designers even decamping from the “Big Five” New York publishers to pursue freelance careers.

How big is this growing market? Exact data is hard to come by, but a recent paper published in Learned Publishing found that up to 59 percent of self-published authors have at some point used an editor. “There is evidence to suggest a growing awareness among self-publishing authors that  professional editing is an essential component for increasing the chance that their work will sell,” the authors wrote.

According to Ricardo Fayet, the market for these freelancers has grown large enough that it’s attracted a surge of amateurs, many of whom began flooding online marketplaces and offering cheap, low quality services to unsuspecting authors. That’s why Fayet, along with three other co-founders, launched Reedsy, an online marketplace that vets freelance editors and designers prior to allowing them to advertise their services on the platform. “We received over 3,000 applications — people who filled out profiles on Reedsy,” he told me. “And a lot of the worst ones, they sent us emails after their submissions saying, ‘Am I accepted on Reedsy, when can I find authors on Reedsy?’ Out of 3,000 applications, we’ve only selected 238.”

For several years there had been a gold rush of self-published authors who, spurred by newspaper articles on Kindle millionaires, flooded the market with low-quality, poorly-written books in the hope of overnight success. But recently that gold rush has calmed down, evidenced by the slowing rate of newly-registered ISBNs. For those authors who remain, said Fayet, there’s a growing recognition that in order to cut through the noise there needs to be more emphasis on producing a professional product, both in design and editorial standards. “The importance of editing has really sunk in for every serious author, but they’re not really ready to put in the necessary money in to hire a new editor,” he said. “But there’s a lot of education out there through blogs and books on the importance of editing.” He argued that this has led aspiring authors to slowly begin opening up their wallets to take their manuscripts to the next level. Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, one of the largest distribution channels for ebooks, wrote recently that “if you’re preparing a book launch and you have a couple thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket that you want to spend on marketing, spend that money on professional editing instead.”


How much does it cost to have someone edit and design your book? According to Fayet, a “full developmental edit,” which covers everything from structural editing to copyediting and proofreading, costs between $2,000 and $4,000. A freelance designer will charge anywhere from $500 to $2,000 to design a cover. It pays well enough that “a lot of in-house designers are currently sorting out their NDAs with publishing companies to join Reedsy as freelance. The way they do business is they try to get as much traditional publishing jobs as possible because they pay more, and then do side jobs with self-publishing.”

Kiele Raymond

Kiele Raymond

In some cases, editors are leaving positions at New York publishers to dive into freelancing full-time (in fact, the Learned Publishing paper estimates that 67 percent of freelance editors began their careers in traditional publishing). That was the case for Kiele Raymond, who left her job at a Simon and Schuster imprint a little over a year ago. Through a family connection, Raymond had secured an internship in Simon and Schuster’s marketing department and, after abandoning her initial plan of pursuing a PhD, reached out to her boss there who offered a position in the editorial department. From there, she followed the traditional publishing track, working as an apprentice with two senior editors at an imprint called Touchstone Books before getting a promotion to another imprint, Gallery Books, where she managed her own list of authors.

To anyone aspiring to a career in publishing, Raymond’s trajectory would have been enviable. “I’d been living in the city for three years and was kind of at the point where I could have kept going in the traditional track,” she told me. “But then I stepped back and looked at my personal priorities and what I wanted as a lifestyle and decided I wanted to leave New York City.” She and her boyfriend, who also worked at Simon and Schuster, moved up to coastal New Hampshire.

Luckily for Raymond, she connected early on with New York Book Editors, a firm founded in early 2013 that acts as a sort of middleman, attracting clients in need of manuscript editing and assigning them out to small group of freelancers like Raymond. “They come from the New York traditional publishing world, and they’re bringing the in-house experience to both first-time authors who have a final draft and want to go find a literary agent and authors who are looking to go self-publish.”

In fact, most of the freelancers to whom I spoke often work on manuscripts destined not for self-publication, but for traditional queries to literary agents. “I would say about 85 percent of my clients want to traditionally query,” said Heyman. “They’re not closed to independent publishing; it’s a great option for some people. But what most people don’t realize is that the effort it takes to promote your book when it is independently published is commensurate with — if not more intense than — the effort you’ll put into querying agents for one year.”

For Raymond’s client roster, the ratio of self-published authors to those pursuing the traditional publishing route is about fifty-fifty. I asked her how the editor marketplace has changed, both during her tenure at Simon and Schuster and later as she transitioned into freelancing. The biggest shift she’s noticed is how the marketplace has become more formalized, transforming from a rag-tag group of freelancers to the establishment of companies that help connect editors to authors more efficiently. “Before these editing firms started to grow, you’d go on the internet and you’d have this book and you wanted to know how to get it published, and basically the only advice out there was to send your manuscript off to a million agents and see what happens.” Without firms like New York Book Editors and companies like Reedsy, “I would have been a little bit more hesitant having to build and find clients on my own and navigating that world.”

So what services are these editors actually providing for authors? “What I found myself doing was basically providing a personalized MFA program for my clients,” said Heyman. “I’m looking at their work as a thesis, saying, ‘OK, we have to give you a crash course in style and voice and sentence structure.” She only works with “manuscripts I actually believe in,” so before even agreeing to take on a client, Heyman requests a five-page sample of their work. Assuming she thinks the author possesses real talent, she then takes between four to six weeks to produce a 10-page editorial letter that addresses all the structural changes and rewrite suggestions she feels is necessary for the book to be considered of professional quality. Often, she and the author review the letter over a Skype call. “My goal with my clients is that if they do independently publish, I want the people who read their book to say, ‘Who published this? Was it Simon and Schuster? Hyperion?’ There should be no gap in quality between independently-published work and traditionally-published work.”

Of course many writers, especially among the least experienced, have rather large egos that make them less receptive to the notion that their manuscripts are anything less than brilliant. And with every freelancer I spoke to for this article complaining about the number of inexperienced editors flooding the market, it seems clear that even authors who seek out professional feedback might not always find it. But with the near-daily profiles of self-published authors who hit it big as well as a growing trend of traditionally-published writers abandoning their New York publishers, the demand for freelance editing is set to rise. As self-published authors seek to supplant the Big Five publishers, they’ll first need to recreate the very production services that have allowed these stalwarts to dominate for so long.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Images via Fountain Pen Network,  Facebook, and Kiele Raymond

Most PR flacks are terrible at their jobs


Look at the email inbox of any reporter and you’re likely to see a graveyard of bad pitches from public relations specialists, the detritus that comes as a result of a low barrier to entry and a fundamental misunderstanding of the very people they’re pitching. Having spoken to other journalists about this phenomena, I know I’m not the only one who, upon opening such pitches, feels a small sliver of pity for these robotrons and their overpaying clients before I send their neutered, lifeless copy to the trash bin.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I feel like there are few industries other than PR where there’s such a concentration at the bottom, a nine to one ratio of bad to good. Most of this poor quality, I think, comes from outright laziness, an unwillingness to put in the actual research to understand the journalists these flacks are pitching before they hit the send button.

Many don’t even take a moment to check to see what you actually cover. Instead, most of them subscribe to massive databases that collect reporter contact information and sort them by broad categories like tech, energy, or finance. Though I often write about tech, an even cursory look at my article output would reveal that I don’t ever write about new product launches, and yet I receive dozens of pitches each week from flacks representing products I would never cover.

The very worst flacks decide to place you on mailing list you never asked to be subscribed to and blast out every press release they produce. Over the past 10 days I’ve received three emails from the same marketer trying to get me to write about a device that cracks coconuts. Coconuts!

Of course for most journalists, these pitches are little more than a minor annoyance (though god forbid your phone number gets circulated on these PR databases. Then you start getting phone calls asking if you received their press releases). The real victims are the clients. Unlike most other industries that create concrete deliverables — an advertising agency, for instance, actually produces a finished ad and places it — the only deliverables in PR are when they secure media placements. This makes it extremely difficult for potential clients to vet the firm prior to hiring them, meaning these clients must rely on the firm’s claims as to what relationships and success it’s had in pitching stories.

And hiring a PR firm is expensive. For any account you’re hiring at least one senior executive and a low-level minion who will do the brunt of the work.  For a small firm you need to pay a minimum of $10,000 to even make it worth their time, and for a larger firm they won’t even pick up the phone for less than $30,000.

Even when they do get placements it’s not a terribly efficient use of a client’s money. Oftentimes, a media placement means that a company executive gets interviewed and quoted for a sentence or two in the middle of an article. Sure, it strokes the client’s ego to be quoted, but how much brand penetration are you getting when you contribute 10 words to a 1,000-word article, and were those 10 words worth $10,000?


This is why we’ve seen a growing shift toward content marketing. Rather than clamoring for journalists to cover you, you can actually compete with those journalists as an informational resource. Instead of getting a brief mention in a long article, you’ve authored the entire piece of content yourself and it’ll appear alongside your branding. There are much more concrete deliverables and measurements associated with content marketing. You not only have a completed piece of content, but it’s much easier to measure its impact in terms of traffic driven and lead conversion.

Meanwhile, the state of PR pitching only continues to get worse. It used to be that, at the very least, the product being pitched to you actually existed. But now with the rise of crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo our inboxes are flooded with pitches for half-baked ideas and products that aren’t on the market and may never be. Whatever abuse my email inbox has received in recent years, the worst is still to come.


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Image via Mytechgurus

Sony email hack reveals the company’s undisclosed Wikipedia edits

Over at the Daily Dot I broke the story that top Sony Entertainment executives repeatedly ordered underlings to edit Wikipedia articles about them.

Thanks to WikiLeaks’ release of a searchable database of all 173,132 emails exposed from the Sony hack, we now have at least some idea as to the extent that Sony employees have edited, without any disclosure, Wikipedia pages related to the company.

Will the FTC soon rain on native advertising’s parade?


In late March, CUNY journalism professor Jeff Jarvis reached into his own pocket and paid for a Google Consumer Survey, the results of which should concern anyone who works within the journalism or advertising industry. He did so after browsing the viral aggregation site Upworthy and noticing a miniscule “promoted” tag on the righthand corner of one of its posts. You and I know what that word means — that it’s a form of native advertising, which is paid-for content that appears alongside and resembles editorial content — but does the average news consumer?

No. In fact, a majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, had no idea that any money had exchanged hands for the post’s existence (most thought it was some sort of recommendation, either by algorithm or from the site’s editors). “Wouldn’t it be a helluvalot simpler just to call it an ad?” Jarvis asked rhetorically. “Why don’t they? Why doesn’t any publisher of such promoted/native/sponsored/brand content just call it an ad? Because busy people don’t want to click on ads; if the web proves nothing else, it proves that. So they—publisher and marketer, united—want to fool the reader into clicking.”

Jarvis isn’t the first to notice this obfuscation. Last year, Augie Ray pointed to several studies that shed light on the opacity of native advertising, including an Interactive Advertising Bureau survey that found only 41 percent of the general news audience was able to identify native advertising and a 2013 study revealing that over 50 percent of respondents “didn’t know what the word ‘sponsored’ actually meant.”

These studies come to us as we continue to contemplate whether native advertising is the news industry’s “savior,” here to rescue news orgs from ever-diminishing display ad rates. Over the past few years nearly every major news company has launched an in-house “creative agency” that works directly with sponsors to craft promotional content it thinks will appeal to the publication’s readership. Yahoo CEO’s Marissa Mayer has reportedly staked the future of her company on native advertising and the format now makes up 10 percent of the New York Times’s digital advertising revenue.

Thus far, the industry has galloped into this new frontier, treating it as a sort of Wild West where the chief concern is delivering value to the paying advertiser, even if it’s to the detriment of the consumer. As AdAge reported last year, the New York Times “shrunk the labels that distinguish articles bought by advertisers from articles generated in its newsroom and made the language in the labels less explicit,” all because “several marketers have bristled at all the labeling, suggesting it turned away readers before they had a chance to judge the content based on its quality.”

But just as the Wild West eventually reached a saturation point that required more strident law and order, native advertising, in its near-universal application, may be soon facing its own reckoning, in this case from the Federal Trade Commission.

Many mistakenly believe that a piece of advertising meets FTC requirements as long as there’s some form of disclosure, but that’s not true. In fact, the burden is much higher: the disclosure must be sufficient so that the average consumer recognizes it as paid content, and such recognition occurs prior to them consuming it. As I’ve documented previously, the agency has a long history of stepping in and ruling a disclosure insufficient, and it sometimes offers specific guidelines on how the disclosure should be presented.  Barry Cutler, who was director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection from 1990 to 1993, recounted to me last year how the agency cracked down on infomercials in the 80s and 90s that purported to show man-on-the-street interviews with satisfied customers and scientists in lab coats endorsing products. As Augie Ray explained, the FTC requires infomercials to include the words “‘THE PROGRAM YOU ARE WATCHING IS A PAID ADVERTISEMENT FOR [NAME OF PRODUCT]'” at their start.

Over the last decade, the FTC has slowly waded into internet advertising, issuing several guidelines ranging from how a disclosure should be presented in a sponsored tweet to the requirement that bloggers disclose when they’ve received free products in exchange for reviews.

But so far it has remained reluctant to issue any firm guidelines for native advertising. A workshop conducted in late 2013 with several major news orgs left the agency “with no clear direction about how to police” the format. Considering that one of its earliest cases, in 1917, was against a vacuum cleaner company that placed misleading newspaper ads, the agency certainly has precedent on its side when wading into such issues, but the 2013 meeting merely led an FTC representative to conclude that “this has raised more questions than it answered.”


Well, it may need to answer those questions sooner rather than later, given that in recent months we’ve seen strong evidence that native advertising is not only making it difficult for consumers to differentiate between editorial and sponsorships, it’s also eroding the wall between the editorial and business divisions of news companies.

In October, a former Vice editor published emails sent from higher-ups in which he, the editor, was repeatedly reprimanded for publishing stories critical of Vice’s native ad partners. And then recently, BuzzFeed, considered to have one of the most successful native ad models in the industry, came under fire for removing a post critical of Dove, a BuzzFeed sponsor. Though editors initially argued the post was removed for other reasons, an internal investigation revealed several instances in which editorial staffers were pressured by the business staff into removing posts.

Is it possible that this could have happened had the sponsors simply purchased standard display ads? Sure. But it’s not difficult to see how creating sponsored content that so closely resembles editorial content erodes the differentiation not only in consumers’ eyes, but in the eyes of newspaper executives as well. And with these companies facing increasing pressure to make up for lost print advertising dollars, the erosion of that wall may prove too tempting to overcome. While no industry welcomes the oversight and enforcement of the FTC, I can’t help but wonder if many editors and reporters would breathe a sigh of relief if the agency suddenly stepped in and ensured that their journalism would continue to retain integrity in a world where marketers are concerned with anything but.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

Why LinkedIn is the most well-positioned social network right now


Snapchat. Meerkat. Periscope. Pinterest. If you scan tech news headlines you’ll notice a certain predilection for the shiny and new, a tendency to cover pre-IPO, still-nascent social platforms that have the potential to capture market share from current stalwarts. We’re constantly treated to ballooning valuations and think pieces about how Company X is attracting a lucrative demographic (usually millennials).

But one of the most well-positioned social media companies with vast potential for growth isn’t shiny or new. In fact, it held its initial public offering in 2011 and launched more than a decade ago. Yes, we’re talking about LinkedIn, the website that, up until recently, you only visited when you were looking for a job. With its $2 billion in annual revenue, it would be easy to dismiss LinkedIn as a tiny gnat buzzing around Facebook, which brought in $12 billion in 2014 revenue and currently boasts 1.3 billion active users.

But here’s the thing: while LinkedIn has been long known merely as a network to update and publicly display your resume, it’s becoming the central information and networking hub for career professionals, many of whom are now utilizing its new blog platform to engage in thought leadership and market themselves and their services to an ever-growing mass of daily, addicted LinkedIn users. Given that LinkedIn is the only major social platform focused entirely on careers, it has a lock on the most high-value demographics, most of whom are coming to the site primed to do business.

As I’ve documented previously, LinkedIn’s blog publishing platform, launched to the public early last year, has been a game changer. According to the last publicly-available figure, users are publishing 50,000 posts a week (it’s probably higher than that now). Pieces shared on LinkedIn Pulse consistently rack up hundreds of thousands of views and even a modest push on a LinkedIn channel can result in several thousand readers. After seeing the amount of engagement LinkedIn blogging drives, I have to agree with Business Insider’s assertion that LinkedIn Executive Editor Dan Roth is the most powerful business journalist in the world. It was only a matter of time that users would begin to recognize the unique value proposition of publishing to LinkedIn, especially since it’s almost impossible to drive real traffic to a company blog. Why drive potential customers to your blog when you can bring your blog to your customers?

As LinkedIn becomes a daily habit for millions of businesses and professionals, an entire realm of revenue opportunities open up. It’s already becoming the go-to platform for both job listings and professional recruiters — an industry estimated to be worth an annual $457 billion. Unlike and other job listings websites, LinkedIn users spend time on the platform regardless of if they’re actively looking for a job, meaning that hiring managers and recruiters can use it to poach employees who already have jobs. It also wouldn’t surprise me one bit if LinkedIn begins to segue into the personal services industry (think hiring a plumber or someone to mow your lawn), which has already attracted the likes of Amazon and Google.


I think we’re also going to see a huge influx in advertising dollars to LinkedIn as businesses begin to use it to market their services to other businesses and professionals. While it might not be the ideal network for, say, Pepsi to advertise on, it’ll certainly lure in B2B companies who derive the entirety of their revenue from other businesses. A recent research report projects B2B ecommerce to reach $6.7 trillion by 2020. LinkedIn only needs to bite off a small chunk of that market in order to vastly multiply its annual revenue.

And now, with the purchase of for $1.5 billion, we’re witnessing LinkedIn’s next industry expansion: professional education., with its video tutorials and online courses, specializes in the creative and technical services for which there is insatiable demand in this new economy. Essentially, LinkedIn is seeking to dominate every segment of the job lifecycle, from professional training to the entirety of a person’s career trajectory.

It’s not that these various industries don’t have major presences on platforms like Facebook and Twitter, it’s just that for every business professional looking to network on Twitter there are five who just want to use it to follow their favorite celebrities or sports teams. That’s a lot of potentially-wasted ad dollars if your targeting is even just a little bit off. At the same time, no one is visiting LinkedIn to follow the travails of Justin Bieber, which opens the door for vastly more efficient ad spending.

With that in mind, one can understand LinkedIn’s potential even if it never reaches the user scale of Facebook. It doesn’t want to be the social network for everybody, but rather its goal is to be the fulcrum on which the entire business community pivots and interacts. The teens can have their Vines and Snapchats. When they finally grow up and graduate college they can join the only network that can actually get them a job.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.


How to Conduct Customer Service on Twitter

customer service

Ten years ago, a customer who was having a problem with a product or service only had one option: call customer service and wait on hold until someone eventually addressed their problem. These days, they’re just as likely to hunt down the company’s Facebook page and begin complaining on its wall or @ messaging its account on Twitter. And the longer it takes for the problem to be dealt with, the more frequent and louder they tweet.

As much as a company would like to just use Twitter to broadcast its marketing messaging, it will likely need to establish a customer service messaging strategy for when any complaints come in. And the more customers you have, the more complaints you’ll get.

The website hosting company Dreamhost hosts over 400,000 websites, and so it has to field any number of messages from users who are dealing with site outages and other problems. I spoke to Social Media Specialist Ellice Soliven and Event and Community Manager Marissa Rosen about the structures Dreamhost has put in place so it can deal with customer messages efficiently and effectively. We discussed how to prioritize which Twitter users to respond to and how to streamline the customer service process.

When you’re assembling a staff that’s focused on customer service on social media, how much focus do you have to put on Twitter versus other social networks? How likely is a customer to voice their complaints on Twitter versus Facebook or some other online forum?

Marissa: Twitter is first and always has been first. There are certainly people who use Facebook, and we used to not have our wall open to the public, so nobody could actually comment on it. But we opened it about a year ago so people could comment on the page and it definitely brought in much more feedback, but it’s still not nearly as much engagement as what Twitter sees.

And why do you think that is? Why does Twitter see the most engagement?

Ellice: I think it’s because it’s more real-time. They know we can provide them immediate support. When they start panicking, even if they’ve submitted a support ticket, they’ll still come to Twitter because they know we’re there.

Do you think they’re trying to put a little more public pressure on you because they know it’s a public network?

Ellice: Yeah, some people do. Some people will use it to their advantage. It works and that’s what we’re there for. We just jump on the issues as soon as we see them. It’s kind of a huge collaborative effort as far as customer support goes, because it’s Twitter support working with the email support working with livechat support. We have to communicate the complaint coming from Twitter to the actual tech support team on our side.

Let’s say you’re running social media customer support. How should you decide to staff it? Is it just based on the number of customers a company has? Are you trying to spread your staff across timezones to have people on call most of the day?

Marissa: To be honest there’s not really that many calculations involved. Everyone is locally based out of California, just because that’s where our two offices are. We at this time don’t provide 24-hour support on social. But there’s tech support for 24 hours. Those people who might be screaming on Twitter, there’s still an opportunity to submit a support ticket and get their questions answered. They just might not be receiving that immediate response on Twitter. I haven’t felt that that’s been an issue for us.

Ellice: As of the last two to three years since we’ve had the social support team, we’ve always worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. And based on the metrics we’ve seen, most of our customers are on the West Coast. There’s not a lot of action during the midnight hours. Usually if people complain on Twitter and they need help, if we follow up with them when the team gets in at 6 a.m. it’s OK, but as long as we’re following up with them and making sure everything works and reaching out, people are usually receptive to that. We have three to four people monitoring Twitter and Facebook all throughout the day so nothing goes unnoticed. And we have people working every day of the week.

Marissa: They’re also monitoring our forum and Google Plus, which doesn’t see as much activity, but our forums do see a lot come through there so it’s a place that might not be a social media network, but our forums are a great place for the Dreamhost community to be involved in.

What goes into the training of staff in terms how to respond on Twitter?

Marissa: That’s something we’re developing further right now. A lot of it came from the social support manager doing a lot of hands-on support in regards to knowing the Dreamhost side of the customer panel and tickets and some of the technical issues. But they’re also learning how to publicly speak to these people because when you respond it’s not the same as talking to someone on the phone or writing an email. You have 140 characters to get something across, and if the person is really upset, you can’t just use a smiley face when responding. So there are a lot of customer service aspects going into it, but since the team has been changing, and with Ellice and I working more closely together, we’re trying to work with that social support team so that the marketing aspect is in line with that. Ellice has been working on a training program so they have a little bit more personal touch to them.

Do most complaints fit into just a few categories to where once you’ve seen a certain number you’ve seen them all?

Ellice: Yeah, pretty much. It’s mostly people whose sites are down or if our livechat support is a little busy and they’re waiting on livechat they’ll come to Twitter. That’s where we come in and say we can see you in the queue and sometimes even I would jump off Twitter and go into livechat and do it myself because I had enough technical knowledge to answer their questions. They really appreciated it because they got the attention they wanted right away. They’re always responsive to that. Our social support members not only have customer service skills but they ideally will have the technical knowledge to help people so they won’t have to wait for their tickets to get answered for a few hours. That’s something we strive to work on.

Marissa: That’s one of our biggest goals, to make our response times shorter. If you’re coming on Twitter to reach out to a business, you don’t want to wait 24 hours. That’s why you didn’t submit a support ticket in the first place. So at least on Twitter they know they’re going to get a response hopefully within the hour.

Is there any official kind of accountability that’s put in place? Are there measurements on how quickly you were able to spot a tweet and respond to it?

Marissa: We use a tool called Sparkcentral. They have all that in place. That’s actually how we respond to everybody. The whole social support team logs into Sparkcentral and they have this really great tool that if you can’t get back to the person right away, you can set a “boomerang,” which is a time when it reminds you to follow up with them. That’s been the best tool we’ve implemented.

Do you think there should be some level of prioritizing based on the number of Twitter followers a customer has?

Ellice: That’s one of the features within Sparkcentral, which is setting them up as a VIP. There are certain people who are major influencers, and it can hurt the brand. We also want to treat everybody as if they’re a priority as well, so it’s kind of a delicate balance.

Marissa: But you can definitely see on Twitter some people who don’t have a profile picture yet, and they’re just creating an account to reach out, and that’s kind of delicate too, because if they’re taken the time to go that route, then you want to make sure to respond to them even if they have no influence in that community at all.

Is it difficult to streamline the process from someone on your support staff seeing a tweet, getting in contact with that person, and then finding the right person in the company to address their concerns?

Ellice: Hypothetically, if someone complains, the first thing we do is locate their account. If there’s anything in their profile that indicates they have an account with us, like a domain name, we’ll locate the account and check their support history, see what kind of customer they are and what kind of help they’ve had in the past, what kind of help they’re getting now, and we’ll get back to them. If they have a support ticket open, we’ll say OK I can see we’ve received it, I’m going to fix it myself or find an expert in that issue. If someone had an issue with their domain registration, we have certain people on our support team who are really good at that and we can talk to them and see if they have time to help. We get the technical support team member to address the ticket and then we reach out to the person on Twitter to let them know, “I have someone looking into it, if you have any further questions, let me know. Just look at the email and we’ll get you covered.” We just want to let the person know that they have our attention and we’re getting to their complaint.

What’s the best way to approach them? Through the main corporate account? A special customer service account? Or should each individual staff member have an account they use?

Marissa: We have a social care Twitter account and a brand account. Even though we split into two four years ago, some people don’t know that we have a social support system so our goal is that if a tweet comes into the @dreamhost account, which is the marketing brand one, the response always has to come from @dreamhostcare so people realize there’s a whole support Twitter account they can focus on. And those people who know the @dreamhostcare, that’s what they’ve been using and they know they’re going to get a response.

Ellice: We also have a separate Twitter account that tweets out status posts, so if there’s some kind of maintenance or something huge that’s affecting a large portion of our customers, that Twitter handle will automatically tweet out those issues.

I notice a lot of customer reps try to take the conversation off Twitter and on to email or phone. Is this in part to direct the conversation away from a public forum where people might see it?

Marissa: I actually think some people want to continue the conversation on Twitter, and we find it hard to make them understand that if an issue has come in and someone has checked on it and said back “Actually I checked your support ticket and it looks like you’ve been responded to, so check your email and respond there” — you could repeat that 12 times, and they’ll still only want to communicate on Twitter rather than going to right where their answer is, which is in their inbox. And that’s really interesting to me because they’re still saying we haven’t responded yet, and we’re saying, “Yes, check your inbox.” Sometimes people are on Twitter asking for things that are security or abuse related, and we cannot give out, even as a private message, that information. And that is, I think, a very hard thing for people to accept. They don’t want to go the route that needs to be taken. They want to give their credit card information over Twitter. They want to give phone numbers through that medium, but we won’t interact in that way.

How often to do people thank you guys on Twitter after you’ve helped them?

Ellice: Kind of a lot. We get a fair number of compliments and thank-yous on Twitter.

Marissa: I always like the ones who come in who weren’t even helped on Twitter, but they’ll publicly thank someone who helped them in livechat or helped them in their email. Even if they have phone support. They’ll actually go on Twitter to say the thank you rather than starting on Twitter with the negative.

Do they name the customer service person who helped them?

Ellice: Yes. Sometimes they’re really creative with their tweets. One time when I was on the team it was pretty awesome because this girl who was helped wrote a Tumblr post about how awesome her service was and then she linked it on Twitter. I responded to her with “Thank you so much, that’s awesome.” And then she tweeted us a little haiku about how much she loved us. So I tweeted back to her a haiku about how awesome she was. She got a kick out of it and it totally made her day. We don’t need to be formal all day. That’s something Dreamhost prides itself on. We’re irreverent. We’re fun. It doesn’t have to be robotic tweeting all the time.

Marissa: I would say we don’t want to be robotic. You want to be as human as you can over a social media platform.

Ellice: People don’t expect it sometimes.

Marissa: We have a guy on our team who’s a comedian, and he has that tone of voice the way he answers people. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least he gets to be himself instead of being something that he’s not.

Do you think users who maybe a decade ago might have called a customer helpline are now being trained to go to a place like Twitter to complain because they’re more likely to get a response?

Marissa: I think it’s still generational. Certain generations like mine, this is the new way to get in contact with people. I see it too with some of our older customers, especially the ones that have been with us for 10 years, they’re still wanting to get on a phone call. Those people are very hard to transition.


Like this article? It was 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.

amazon twitter marketing

Image via ether speak

The war for Reddit’s soul

Some of the most influential people on the internet are largely anonymous and have been repeatedly accused of abusing their power. In a new article published at the Daily Dot I give you an in-depth look into the world of Reddit’s most powerful moderators.

Reddit, which bills itself as the “front page of the Internet,” is arguably just that. Roughly 168 million people visited the social news site last month, and many of its most popular subreddits have as many as 8 million subscribers each. Reddit’s reach and influence over the Internet is profound and pervasive. But despite recent structural changes, an in-depth look at the role of the site’s moderators reveals a community nearing crisis, with a constant battle for quality control and power taking place behind the scenes and threatening the site’s democratic ideals.

How Government Agencies and Policymakers Can Leverage Twitter

state department twitter

It used to be that if a political PAC or activist wanted to place pressure on lawmakers to enact some kind of policy change, they’d urge you to “call your Congressmen.” Now they’re just as likely to launch a campaign on social media and encourage you to tweet at your local representative. At nearly every level of federal, state, and local government, it’s becoming increasingly common for citizens to not only air their grievances with government services on social media, but they also expect a response from the agency on that same medium.

Alexander Howard has covered the Gov 2.0 space extensively as a journalist, for O’Reilly Media and other outlets. We spoke about whether citizens are more likely to interact with policymakers on Facebook or Twitter and how local agencies can manage social media on a limited budget.

What differentiates Twitter from other social networks, particularly for government agencies, policy makers, and politicians? What opportunities does Twitter provide governments that, say, Facebook doesn’t?

Facebook has adopted a number of the features that made Twitter a little different. Twitter was profoundly mobile in a way that Facebook wasn’t, but in the past two years, Facebook put a huge amount of resources into its mobile app and now in many ways the social networks that are very popular, from Facebook, to Twitter, to Pinterest, to Tumblr, the look and feel is pretty similar.

But would you say that if a citizen is irate that they’d be more likely to tweet their frustration at a government agency or politician rather than commenting on their Facebook page? Like I know that when I’m pissed off at a company, I’m much more likely to look them up on Twitter and publicly tweet at them rather than going to Facebook and commenting because I think my tweet will be more likely to be responded to.

alexander howard

Alexander Howard

I don’t think so. We know the stats on Twitter use. It’s very popular among journalists. It’s popular among certain policy sets. It’s popular among certain minority populations. But overall, we’re talking about 20 percent of online users. Facebook has 1.2 billion users. I think the reason that we have that assumption that people are more likely to tweet at a politician is because it’s much easier to see those tweets on Twitter. You can easily pull up a politician’s account and see all their replies to them using Twitter search. But realistically just about every adult in the U.S. is now on Facebook, and it’s much more likely that they’ll go to that Facebook page or express themselves on their Facebook account than they will on Twitter. It’s not to say that people don’t go on Twitter to do that. There are millions of people who obviously do. But the sheer volume of people on Facebook is so much higher and if you look at the Facebook pages for any given Congressman, they’re absolutely jam packed with comments. And I remember something I was directly involved in by monitoring and reporting on Senator [Jay] Rockefeller putting a hold on the Freedom of Information Act reform bill — there was a volume of tweets coming at him. But the Facebook comments were in the hundreds. If you look at anyone in the public eye and compare the volume of responses on Twitter and Facebook, I think in general you will see just that the discussion is on Facebook. Twitter is something that a lot of people in the media are inclined to think there’s high usage of because other people in the media use Twitter.

So you think that focusing on Twitter would create a distorting effect of what the American electorate actually thinks?

Exactly. There’s a confirmation bias in effect with the media. This is something I’m hyper-aware of. I’ve myself spent a lot of time on Twitter. But that’s not the same as saying the average person is likely to log on and tweet at a politician. You might see highly engaged people be quite likely to follow their Congressmen, Senators, federal officials, maybe their state and local officials on Twitter and be engaged with them. That cohort might well do that. Your average Joe probably won’t.

Another thing to note is that most local politicians, if they have 10,000 followers on Twitter they’re doing pretty well. It’s only when you get to the national stage that you’ll see people with 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 followers, and it’s only the very top of the heap in Congress where people break six digits. The only people with more than that are presidential candidates. That’s where the final tier is.

Some local government agencies have tried to get citizens to opt in so that their tweets get sent as SMS text messages so they can receive any important information, but adoption has been pretty low.

Twitter though is still the most public of all social networks. Keyword search on Facebook, even though they’ve improved it in the last few months, is still not very good. As long as a policymaker keeps in mind that Twitter sentiment isn’t always representative of public sentiment, do you think it’s still important that they’re still running Twitter keyword searches to do research about problems or to get a pulse of the electorate? Just because it’s the only real-time network?

Yes, I think search is the thing. The intel part, the rawness of it, I think that’s why journalists love it so much because being able to do a search allows you to see what people from a certain place are saying about a certain thing and that’s really powerful. And it’s easy. Whereas with Facebook, it’s different. In 2009, I did this demonstration during a presentation where I showed that people were saying things in public that they obviously weren’t thinking beforehand about it being public. And what I do is basically pull up a search on “hungover.” And on any given day you see those people saying they’re hungover. And there’s no way a student or someone going to work would go and tell their coworkers in a place where their boss could overhear them really easily that they’re hungover.

With federal agencies, a lot of them might have the budget to hire someone to do social media, they’ll have an entire communications staff. But going to the local level, a lot of local governments have a hard time budgeting for that kind of commitment. What do you say to someone in government who says, “We don’t have enough time or resources to be on social media”?

Most people come into contact with local government. When I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, I all of a sudden wanted to know what the Cambridge Public Works is doing, I want to hear from the governor’s office, the emergency management agency. These are the key outlets for trustworthy information. In this environment, having really good information is really useful. And it shifts from being the press releases you expect government agencies and every level of government to be pushing out to thinking about here is what we want the public to know about a situation. Everything from traffic to weather to any kind of crisis information. So there’s a number of ways to think about this from different perspectives. From the citizens’ perspective, they want to be able to get accurate, trustworthy information quickly in the time and place of their choosing. So that’s a really strong argument for governments to join social networks and to create outposts where they post information that people can trust in an easy-to-consume format, ideally in a shareable way so that people who see it can share it with their networks so it can have a much greater impact. That’s the case for government to be there. For citizens, they might not want to be followed or surveilled by “Big Brother.” The idea that the police are following you on social media can be uncomfortable. But the expectation that many people have is if they do ask for help in these contexts, someone will hear them. So there’s a really interesting back-and-forth. On the one hand people want government at arm’s length, but at the same time they want help from the government very quickly. The Red Cross did a study back in 2010 and found that a majority of people expect help within an hour if they’ve asked for any sort of assistance.

Do you think a policy maker is more likely to act if angry citizens are tweeting out their displeasure in a way that’s publicly viewable rather than making private phone calls to where that policy maker works?

We’ve seen example after example of the pressure that concerted online campaigns combining petitions and social media have had on corporations. From airlines to retailers to studios. Pretty much anyone with a product or service is clued into the fact that they have customers who can go online and raise their issues. Sometimes it’s in a more organized form like Yelp, and other times it’s through Facebook or Twitter. If there’s a widespread reaction to a given product or service, the consumer pressure can clearly exert a lot of force upon behavior. And it seems clear that a regulator could take similar action as well in response to complaints. The state and local level are lagging on this front, but there’s the capacity for the public to express its displeasure on social media, and those can often lead to changes in the private sector and with non-profits. Government is a little different, but I don’t think that the same sources are irrelevant. If you see a massive online upset regarding the actions of government officials, or a lack of action, it can put pretty big pressure on government agencies. You can imagine what Hurricane Katrina would be like now if government officials had responded as poorly as they did. Looking at how Hurricane Sandy happened, by that time there was mature penetration of mobile devices and social media, and as that storm moved you could see people discuss it in real time, and public agencies and officials had the capacity to respond and inform.

Are there a lot of laws that limit what government agencies can say on Twitter?

At the government level there’s this Paperwork Reduction Act, which basically has limited the capacity of government officials to ask questions. And I refer you to Clay Johnson’s post, “The law everyone should hate.” It’s basically creating a real challenge around asking questions in a public forum. Back in 2009, the most powerful agency in Washington that nobody has heard of, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, issued guidance that you can ask questions over the internet, but you can’t ask for structured feedback. And we’re still not quite there. There should be a much more significant update that enables government to collect structured feedback, which is to say data, about all the things it does. That’s certainly what every other sector of the economy is moving towards. People want to know how people are interacting with their product or service. Anything and everything that can be measured, there’s now a push for it to be measured. And if you look at it with social media, you’re really hamstringing their capacity to listen in a structured way. At the local level it’s better. They’re not constrained by that. What they’re constrained by is fear of not knowing how to use social media to listen and really good technological tools to help them do it well. But I think we’re starting to see the evolution of a number of better feedback systems. This is where the civic technology sector is really fascinating, there’s been a lot more effective development from groups like Code for America, who are creating tools like Texitzen and other text feedback tools that enable states and cities to collect feedback about their services and policies. There’s a lot of genuine use by the state and local level of that civic tech space and I think if you look at Code for America under the apps section, you’ll see a whole selection of that stuff and you’ll see several municipalities that are using those tools.

One thing I’ve been really amazed by has been how the White House has allowed its staff to tweet based on their subject matter expertise. Do you think this is a strategy that can be employed by other government agencies?

Yeah, it’s always difficult to compare the White House to everyone else, because they have a lot more budget, they have great talent — it turns out they have like two dozen digital staffers. They’re really an accomplished digital shop. They’re certainly among the top teams in the world at that. There’s some considerable angst amongst the Washington press corps that the White House is using social media to cut out the media. I think they can and should use social media to go direct to the public just as previous administrations have used cable TV, radio, newspapers, whatever. It makes sense they’re adopting new technologies. What’s not OK is when they restrict press access and substitute just the government version. What the White House is able to do though is beyond what most state and local agencies are able to do because of their budget and their capacity to bring in top talent for affordable amounts because of the prestige of the job. At the local level, in order to bring in top digital talent, it may be a stretch. That’s not to say they don’t. If you look at Blue State Digital’s client list or Edelman’s, you’ll find some government customers there. But there’s often an issue there. It’s not also to say there isn’t some awesome stuff happening at the local level as well. If you look at the discussion about social media emergency management, there’s been some great maturation at the emergency management level over the last five years. There’s been people who have built up enough credibility within their government agencies that they’re able to be more creative in terms of acknowledging citizens online and saying, ‘Hey, we hear you, we’ll try to get back to you.’”

What about the opposite problem? How often do you see an agency or government official get too fragmented in how many Twitter accounts they’re running for different departments?

I think you take it city by city. I tend to think that if a government agency is significant enough to have its own website, it’s significant enough to have its own Twitter account. That’s not unreasonable. It is a challenge in respect to how people experience government and the help they want from government versus the way that government organizes itself. That’s a challenge for every agency, that people come to the website to do these top 10 things, but the website isn’t organized that way. This is a challenge that some places have met better than others. I think we can look at the Government Digital Services team over in the UK as a really great paradigm for thinking through what are the top reasons people are coming to these government websites. And how can we improve these services or provide them online if they haven’t been providing them. Even in 2015 we’re not providing some pretty obvious services at the government level.


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.

amazon twitter marketing

Image via digiphile