Monthly Archives: May 2015

Twitter is under no obligation to host Chuck Johnson’s witch hunts

chuck johnson

I don’t always mind if people invoke the C word when referring to an instance in which a major social media or search platform bans a particular person from posting to it. Yes, Facebook or Twitter banning a user does not meet the technical definition of censorship given that they aren’t government entities and, as private corporations, are under no obligation to host anyone’s speech. But with some of the largest internet platforms — companies like Facebook and Google — wielding near-monopolistic influence in their respective industries, it’s not difficult to imagine troubling scenarios in which that influence is used to suppress speech. Last year, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey detailed the devastating impact that came when Google harshly punished his website within its index; his web traffic was eviscerated, resulting in him having to lay off staff members in order to stay afloat. It’s likely that a domain banning on Facebook would have a similarly calamitous effect on a news site. It’s possible to construct an argument, then, that these large social platforms should be more circumspect in banning users than, say, the New York Times is when deciding whether to ban commenters.

That being said, there are plenty of instances in which a social platform is not only justified in banning a user, but under moral obligation to do so. If we’ve learned nothing else from the GamerGate controversy that swept the web last year, it’s that open platforms like Twitter can be used to quickly form mass pseudonymous hordes who then lob death threats at targeted users, usually women. We’ve been treated to horrific screen grabs of Twitter users promising the most violent, misogynistic acts imaginable, often alongside the victim’s home address. This has led to calls for Twitter to improve its abuse prevention methods, methods that even Twitter CEO Dick Costolo admits are inadequate.

This brings us to Chuck Johnson, the conservative “journalist” whose Twitter account was permanently banned today. For the uninitiated, Johnson wrote for several prominent conservative news outlets before striking out on his own and launching Since then, he’s spewed some of the most misogynistic, homophobic, and racist vile imaginable, often under the guise of journalism. Within mere hours of the Amtrak train derailment that tragically killed eight passengers this month, Johnson, with virtually no actual information as to the circumstances of the crash, took to Twitter to claim that the engineer steering the train was black and that the derailment was a direct result of his affirmative action hiring. When it later emerged that the engineer was actually white, with nary an apology he shifted his attack, claiming that the engineer’s homosexuality made him predisposed to mental illness and then suggesting that was the cause.


Of course being hateful and wrong, by itself, may not justify a permanent ban, but Johnson’s behavior went beyond merely marginalizing minorities. His “investigations” are often organized witch hunts that expose victims, many of whom aren’t public figures, to threats of violence. He has a predilection for declaring rape victims as liars and then offering bounties for identifying information, which he then publishes. After falsely claiming that two New York Times reporters had published the address of police officer Darren Wilson, Johnson then published the home addresses of those two reporters. The resulting death threats drove them from their homes. In the wake of the deeply flawed Rolling Stone reporting on campus rape at the University of Virginia, Johnson published the full name and other identifying information of Jackie, the potential rape victim at the center of the story. He then followed up that “reporting” by publishing a photo of Jackie, which then turned out to be a photo of a completely different rape victim, one who was then exposed to online harassment.

If you define “terrorism” broadly as using the threat of physical violence to silence particular kinds of speech, then it’s not hyperbolic to conclude that Chuck Johnson and his GamerGate brethren are terrorists. Their threats are clear: If you, a minority, use your voice to expose instances in which you’ve been marginalized, then we will threaten your privacy and cause you to live in fear for your safety. For that reason, Twitter is under no obligation to host and be a party to Chuck Johnson’s hate speech. In fact, it’s obligated not to.


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The dirty secret in marketing: Most Twitter hashtags are useless

Mobile hashtag vertical concept

If you’re planning to hire a new employee for your social media marketing team and wondering whether a particular applicant is right for the job, you may want to start by taking a look at her Twitter profile. If she uses the #marketing hashtag in her bio or if most her tweets contain a hashtag for #every other #word, then the choice is simple: don’t hire her.

What I just said is blasphemy in certain marketing circles. In this alternate universe, hashtags are an opportunity for discovery; if you employ them, adding them to topic-based words like #econ or #education, then those interested in economics or education are more likely to see your tweet when they search for those hashtags. This pro-hashtag view is held within Twitter itself. When I was an editor at a major national magazine we were visited by a Twitter liaison who chastised us for not using hashtags more frequently. Whenever we write a story about drones, he argued, then we should use the #drones hashtag. He backed up his argument by citing internal statistics showing that tweets with hashtags received, on average, more engagement than tweets without them.

But this is a classic correlation vs causation scenario. Anyone who has spent any time on Twitter knows that it’s populated with millions of bots, spam accounts, and RSS feeds. The use of a hashtag usually means that the tweet was written and sent by a human, so is therefore more likely to be retweeted than a tweet sent by a bot or a spam account.

In all likelihood, most hashtags deployed on any given day are tweeted out much more often than they’re actually searched for, meaning that there are many more people including the #econ hashtag than there are people going to Twitter search and plugging #econ into the field.

What I’m saying is pretty well accepted among the most elite Twitter users. Look at the Twitter accounts that receive the most engagement, whether it’s Justin Bieber or the New York Times, and you’ll see they only use hashtags sparingly. This is partly because hashtags are ugly and make a tweet difficult to read. As Daniel Victor put it back when he was a social media editor at the New York Times:

I believe hashtags are aesthetically damaging. I believe a tweet free of hashtags is more pleasing to the eye, more easily consumed, and thus more likely to be retweeted (which is a proven way of growing your audience). I believe for every person who stumbles upon your tweet via hashtag, you’re likely turning off many more who are put off by hashtag overuse.

But even if you manage to get users to include your brand’s name as a hashtag, something many marketers would consider a crown achievement, the effect is likely to be minimum. The marketing software company Hubspot looked at three instances where the hashtag #hubspot became a trending topic, and two out of the three instances produced no noticeable spike in following.

That’s not to say all hashtags are useless. In fact, when deployed strategically, hashtags can perform extremely well at increasing visibility, driving engagement, or providing context for your followers. Here are a few examples:

Jokes: Some of the best uses of hashtags are when they’re included ironically or to provide subtext. At its most basic, this could be as simple as a #sarcasm hashtag. No, nobody is searching for that hashtag, but it contextualizes the tweet. A linguist at NYU recently studied 1,633 hashtags and found that female Twitter users were much more likely to use these “expressive” hashtags.

Beyond simple subtext hashtags, some of the most frequent trending hashtags are of the humorous “scenario” variety. For these tweets, the hashtag presents a scenario, like, for instance, the mashup of two movie titles, and users try to present the funniest version. As I write this, the #RejectedUniversityClasses hashtag is trending. Scroll through them and you’ll find plenty of gems like this one:

rejected university

Live events: One of the few instances in which users will actually turn to Twitter search to follow hashtags is when something is happening in real time and they want to find people who are responding to that live event. This includes actual current events like the Ferguson protests or the Baltimore riots as well as pop culture events like the Mad Men finale or the Super Bowl. One of the most famous examples of this was the #StandWithWendy hashtag, which quickly reached trending status while Texas representative Wendy Davis filibustered a Texas bill that placed harsh restrictions on abortion. Its quick ascendancy led to the live video feed of her filibuster receiving hundreds of thousands of viewers, most of whom discovered it as a direct result of the hashtag.


Caused-based hashtags: Occasionally activists will band together in an attempt to raise awareness of an issue by employing a hashtag. My favorite example of this was #TakeMyMoneyHBO, a campaign launched by a software developer who wanted HBO to release a standalone app that didn’t require a cable subscription. It quickly gained traction and led to thousands of Twitter users tweeting out the exact amount they’d be willing to pay each month for such an app. As I wrote previously, it “allowed HBO executives to witness, in real time, how much money they were leaving on the table by continuing to require an expensive cable subscription as a prerequisite for HBO.”


I’m sure my views here are likely to be rejected by some who still worship at the altar of the hashtag. These hashtag devotees will point to some anecdotal instance where a hashtagged tweet of theirs generated increased following and engagement. But this doesn’t change the fact that hashtags are ugly and, for the overwhelming majority of them, unlikely to increase the audience size for your tweet. And for a platform that limits you to 140 characters, why waste a single, precious character for something that produces so little value?


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Image via Saurage Research

Why competing publications are teaming up on podcasts

Slate's Political Gabfest

Slate’s Political Gabfest

Usually when two corporate entities enter into some kind of partnership you can be certain a small army of lawyers is involved in the process, each side guaranteeing that no ambiguity exists as to who owes what deliverables and share in costs. Not so with Crossing the Streams, the new pop culture podcast launched earlier this year as a collaboration between film news site Moviepilot and the humor magazine Cracked. Alisha Grauso, Moviepilot’s editor-in-chief, first met the Cracked team when she was attending Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in the fall. “Their PR guy reached out and said, ‘Hey, we heard you’re going to be at Comikaze. You have a great site and it overlaps with what we do, and we should talk because we have ideas for things we could collaborate on.’”

Grauso met with Jack O’Brien, Cracked’s editor-in-chief, and Daniel O’Brien, one of the magazine’s lead writers, and though the group discussed a variety of projects, they quickly settled on teaming up for a podcast. There isn’t 100 percent overlap in their coverage — Moviepilot focuses mostly on film and television, and while Cracked does cover pop culture, it’s usually through an idiosyncratic, humorous lens — but both are deeply rooted in geek culture, so Crossing the Streams would cover topics ranging from film to television to comic books, but from an insider’s point of view. “Jack doesn’t necessarily have a movie background, but he has a broad pop culture background,” she said. “I come from movies, but can talk about other areas as well.” Together, they could use their clout and connections to invite Hollywood insiders onto the show. An episode released in March, for instance, featured a panel discussion that included Alonso Duralde of The Wrap and Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg where the four conversed on the history of the Oscars and why the ceremony is currently broken.

Why did Moviepilot choose to team up with Cracked rather than just going it alone? To understand Grauso’s decision, it’s helpful to consider Moviepilot’s history and its relatively recent entry into the U.S. market. It was founded in the mid 2000s when three German entrepreneurs got together and formed a production company. After producing a few movies, they concluded they could better promote their films if they had an online community to market to — thus was born. “Then after a few years they realized they could only grow so big within the German market,” said Grauso. “German movies are great and popular in Germany, but only in Germany.” So in 2012, the company launched a sister website in the U.S.

In just three years, the site’s audience has grown tremendously. It pulls in 35 million unique visitors who generate over 80 million pageviews a month. But given its newness to the U.S. market, it doesn’t yet have strong brand recognition compared to some of its older peers. Cracked, on the other hand, not only has a large audience but has also been around for a decade; this has allowed it to amass a much more devout following. “For us it’s a win-win,” she said. “We don’t make money off it, but it’s a form of branding, getting our name out to a new audience. It’s ‘Hey, we’re working with Cracked, you know Cracked!’ It’s about name recognition.”

Moviepilot isn’t the only publication to have realized the benefits of teaming up with a competing outlet to launch a podcast. Because podcasting is a nascent medium with a growing-but-still-latent user base, news organizations and media personalities are finding they can attract a following much more quickly if they combine resources and work together to drive listenership. In some cases this involves informal collaborations, like when comedians sit down for guest interviews on each other’s shows, but other media entities are entering into official partnerships. The New Yorker and and the public radio station WNYC, for example, inked a deal earlier this year to create a one-hour podcast and national radio show.

Perhaps no podcast collaboration is larger than the one rolled out by Slate in February. As I’ve documented previously, Slate has a 10-year history growing a popular podcast network, one that boasts a legion of fervid fans. With shows ranging from its Better Call Saul recaps to the Political Gabfest, the online magazine has amassed millions of listeners and secured sponsorships with well-known brand advertisers. But the February announcement — that it was rebranding its podcast network under the name Panoply — indicated that it has much higher ambitions than simply hosting shows featuring Slate journalists. In addition to its current stable of podcasts, the network has entered partnerships with over a dozen other publications, including Huffington Post, The New York Times Magazine, Inc, and Popular Science.

Andy Bowers, Panoply’s executive producer who’s been involved with Slate’s podcast network since the very beginning, told me that the magazine realized within the last year that it had spent a decade building the infrastructure and knowledge to maintain a podcast network and that other publications, many of which have dipped their toes into podcasting but haven’t fully committed, could benefit from that knowledge and support. “Of course they could do it on their own, and some have done it on their own,” said Bowers. “But we figured that the case would be a lot easier to take to their higher ups if they said, ‘We can just go and let Slate do it for us.’”


There are a number of services Panoply offers to its media partners, many of which position it as more of a behind-the-scenes production company, one that handles most of the technical aspects of podcasting while the publications supply the talent. Most of the media partners are based in New York, which allows them to visit the Slate offices and use its recording studio. There are about six full-time staff members on Panoply’s production side along with a number of freelancers; this core team helps the partners with everything from recording the podcast to editing and remixing it. Moviepilot experienced similar benefits when teaming up with Cracked. “They work with Earwolf Studios,” said Grauso, referring to the podcast network that produces shows for major comedians. “We go to a studio where we have mics and we can all see each other. There’s an audio engineer listening the whole time who’s adjusting volume, adjusting mics, and then they have an engineer who cuts it all together. It’s pretty high tech and they handle all of it.”

In addition to its production services, Panoply also handles much of the ad placement for the network. Not only does it have access to the direct response advertisers that are currently found on most podcasts (Audible, Squarespace, Dollar Shave Club), but it has also built inroads with the lucrative brand sponsors that have so far eluded the podcasting medium. “We leave it open for each organization to bring their own ad sales to the podcast if they want,” said Bowers. “Some have taken us up on it, but most are relying on us” to sell ads. In all cases the media partner has full ownership of the podcast and Panoply takes a portion of the ad revenue it sells.

Of course one of the biggest benefits the Panoply network offers is the ability to attract a large audience very quickly. As I and others have pointed out, podcast discovery includes a lot more friction compared to other mediums and often relies more on old-fashioned word of mouth. You’re unlikely to see podcasts shared on Facebook with the same frequency as images, text, or video, and it’s generally accepted that the best way to promote a new podcast is to have it plugged on a much more popular podcast. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite common, when you’re listening to a Panoply podcast, to hear a promo for another Panoply podcast. “Think of it as a newsstand,” said Bowers. “If a newsstand only carried one publication, would you be likely to go there? Probably not. But you go to a newsstand looking for one or two things, and there’s a bunch of other things there too, and you’re likely to peruse those things and maybe even buy them.” It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy.

Perhaps one reason these publications have been so amenable to collaboration is that podcasting, despite being on the upswing, is still far from mainstream adoption, at least the kind of mainstream adoption enjoyed by its sister medium, radio. It’s easy to team up when there isn’t much money on the table (a recent analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that a third of the top 100 podcasts didn’t even have a single ad). Once it enters the zeitgeist — and many of its proponents think it eventually will — then these partnerships might become more corporatized and structured. For now, most of its practitioners are looking to have some fun, and any other benefit, whether it’s increased branding or a little extra money, is a welcome addition. When I spoke to Grauso, she didn’t seem too concerned with whether the Crossing the Streams podcast would ever produce significant revenue.

“If we get to that point, then that’s awesome. But it’s not something we’re really thinking about at the moment.”


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Image via The Exponent

Stop acting like the Facebook Instant Articles tool is something novel

facebook trojan horse

This is the week when independent journalism finally died. Or so you would think, given the reaction to Facebook unveiling its “Instant Articles” tool, which will allow select publishers to host their content directly within the Facebook mobile app, thereby speeding up load times and reducing friction between the massive social network and the content its users link to. Not since Neville Chamberlain ceded Czechoslovakia to Germany have we seen such dire warnings of the consequences of appeasement.

From the moment the late David Carr reported that Facebook was courting publishers for in-app posting we’ve been inundated with proclamations of a Faustian bargain, one in which Facebook, already the dominant force in web traffic for news publishers, gains final control over distribution and then uses that leverage to squeeze publishers dry. By giving preferential treatment to its initial partners, it would quickly force all other publishers onto Facebook Instant, a scenario that would eventually allow it to control all content delivery on the web. Heeding these warnings, initial partners like the New York Times aggressively negotiated the terms to ensure they retain valuable user data and receive 100 percent of the revenue for ads they sell themselves and 70 percent for ads Facebook sells.

This has done little to assuage the doomsayers. Writing in The Awl, John Herrman predicted that “almost any arrangements, formal or informal, between Facebook and publishers could be declared invalid or irrelevant whenever Facebook chooses, especially if Facebook’s macro internet situation changes.” Contently declared that “This isn’t just a Trojan horse; this is a Trojan horse draped in gold chains and being ridden by Beyoncé.” A widely-distributed web comic depicts Mark Zuckerberg as a spider luring unsuspecting publications into his web.


Lost in all these hyperbolic predictions of the coming apocalypse is that there is absolutely nothing novel or new about a company handling the distribution and placement of content created by another company.

Let’s start with the pre-internet days. For more than a century, the New York Times and other newspapers have relied on newsstands, convenience stores, and other places of business in order to sell a sizable portion of each day’s newspapers. These papers have no say as to where their publications are displayed within, say, a 7/11, nor do they retain any data about who is actually walking into the 7/11 and purchasing the paper. Yet if the New York Times were to suddenly announce it was inking a detail to have its print papers distributed in CVS stores all across the country, nobody would accuse it of making a deal with the devil.

Or take newspaper syndication, which adopts basically the exact same structure offered by Facebook Instant. For decades newspapers have been syndicating columns and wire content from other sources, placing that content in their own publications. The content creators — whether it’s Dear Abby or the Associated Press — supply writing to these newspapers and magazines with the full knowledge that the newspapers will place the columns wherever they see fit, whether it’s the front page or the back of a subsection.

This isn’t a new concept for the web either. When I was an editor at US News & World Report, we regularly syndicated our content to Yahoo News. As far as I knew there was no actual revenue exchanged for this transaction; we received value by placing “related” links within the body of the articles with the hope that a small portion of Yahoo’s massive readership would click over into our other articles. When it comes to mobile, Flipboard and other apps like it have ongoing partnerships with hundreds of publications that allow them to repackage content in an aesthetic, easy-to-load format. Like Facebook Instant, these apps offer up revenue share on ads sold. Combined, they have hundreds of millions of users.


In nearly all these cases, the publications syndicating out the content are ceding control to distributors and in return they receive almost no data on the users consuming their content, outside maybe raw traffic numbers. Why then are we holding Facebook to a double standard and treating it as anything other than a syndicator of content?

The only difference between Facebook Instant and the examples above is that Facebook has reached a scale never seen before, and there’s this ongoing worry that it will one day crush the open web and envelop the entire internet within its closed, tightly-regulated garden. It also doesn’t help that the Facebook newsfeed, by picking winners and losers, has instilled a high level of paranoia and distrust within in the news media.

But it’s worth remembering that Facebook, while remaining a very large component of the internet, by no means encompasses the entirety of our online lives, and there’s still a lot of media consumption that happens outside of it, whether it’s browsing articles on the open web, perusing through Flipboard, watching television, or reading a print book. I’ve argued before that social media editors have become too obsessed with Facebook reach and I’ve also praised BuzzFeed for how it has diversified its distribution so that it’s not too reliant on Facebook. Ultimately, I think that Facebook, while not completely benevolent, has genuine interest in serving up high quality content to its users, if only to ensure that they stay engaged and coming back to Facebook. Letting Facebook host some of your content will not be the end of independent journalism and it won’t prove the downfall of your company. That is, as long as you continue to provide true value to your readers by serving up what we all crave: good content.


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Why are tech companies scrambling to create original content?

Hand Drawing Content Flow Chart

For the longest time it seemed major tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google wanted nothing to do with professional publishing, and by that I mean hiring professional content creators, i.e. journalists, to create polished media content. Why? Because Silicon Valley hates anything that doesn’t scale. Original content creation is labor intensive, expensive, and can’t be automated with code. The content created has a limited shelf-life, thereby decreasing the longterm ROI for the labor devoted to it.

You can see this philosophy reflected in how media companies have framed themselves to Silicon Valley investors, and by that I mean they’re attempting to pretend they aren’t media companies at all. BuzzFeed, when announcing a $50 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz, described itself as a company with “technology at its core,” and one of the investors compared it to Tesla and Uber. We’ve also seen the rise of the “platisher,” which is a media company that tries to create a platform for user-generated content (for instance, Forbes’ massive contributor network) so it can scale well beyond the limits of its paid editorial staff.

Why, then, have we recently seen tech behemoths, most of which already boast hundreds of millions of users, trying to enter the original content game? In some cases this has meant merely opening up their platforms so media companies can host longform content directly to them, as is the case with Facebook and Snapchat. Both have entered into partnerships with major news orgs to host content directly within their app ecosystem in exchange for a share in revenue for any ads sold against that content.

But other tech companies are wading expressly into original content creation, either by hiring journalists and artists to produce exclusive work for these companies’ platforms or by outright buying up entire media companies. The most obvious example is Medium, the blogging platform headed by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. Though anyone can create a blog on Medium (and many do, including me), the company also employs editors and freelance journalists to produce magazine-like publications (my favorite is Backchannel, edited by Steven Levy).

A few months ago, Reddit launched a professionally-produced podcast, then followed it up with a curated email, and is now employing a team of videographers to produce original video. Business Insider recently reported that Twitter has made attempts to purchase Mic, the policy-oriented news site that’s geared toward millennials. Facebook and YouTube, both at war for top video talent, have dished out millions of dollars to entice creators into producing video exclusively for their platforms. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos decided it was worth $250 million of his own money to buy up the Washington Post and now Verizon is purchasing AOL, which has transformed itself from a platform to a media-oriented content company, for $4.4 billion.

So why are tech companies suddenly interested in labor-intensive, unscalable content creation? My guess is that it has something to do with a combination of the 80/20 rule and the 1 percent rule. Both embrace the idea that the most influential users on any platform make up a tiny percentage of the overall user population. It’s no secret that the media represents disproportionate influence on major social media sites like Twitter, both in terms of branded news org accounts and the personal accounts of their reporters.


As I’ve written before in regard to Medium, tech platforms will sometimes use what is called a “mullet strategy” (business in the front, party in the back) by commissioning high quality content to attract readers with the hope that some of those readers will stick around to launch and run their own user accounts on the platform.  As I wrote in November, “You’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.”

This is why YouTube is shelling out money to keep its stars under its own roof. One could argue that losing a few YouTube personalities wouldn’t matter for a platform that has over 1 billion users who upload 300 hours of video to its platform each minute, but YouTube realizes these stars are the foundation on which the entire network stands. If they were to suddenly leave for Tumblr or Facebook’s video platform, then many of their fans will also begin uploading video content to these platforms, thereby planting the seeds that could grow into a massive user base. Influencers matter, and these tech platforms realize that sometimes you need to pay to keep the influencers from decamping.

So perhaps the notion that original content creation can’t scale is outdated. Instead, it is a means to an end, a way to keep the business flowing in the front so that the unwashed masses of amateur users can be lured into joining the party in the back. Old media isn’t dead after all; it’s just now used as bait.


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Image via Ketchum

Why HBO Now’s launch will be great for Netflix

hbo vs netflix

Back in 2012, I interviewed Jake Caputo, a web designer who had a novel idea for how to convince HBO to launch a standalone subscription service that didn’t require a cable package. Instead of simply voicing his wishes, he created a website called It provided a helpful Twitter widget that allowed one to tweet out how much money you would pay for such a service. Because the widget also generated an associated hashtag and a link back to the website, it quickly gained a critical mass that allowed HBO executives to witness, in real time, how much money they were leaving on the table by continuing to require an expensive cable subscription as a prerequisite for HBO.

Well, Caputo finally got his wish (and was even featured in an official HBO ad for his troubles). Late last year, HBO announced it was launching a standalone service, called HBO Now, and the product debuted in April. Almost immediately, the service was declared to be a direct competitor to Netflix, a narrative that was foreshadowed in 2013 when Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told a reporter, “The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” Netflix, the thinking goes, has always positioned itself as a competitor to cable, and so HBO Now will serve as an alternative for those wanting to cut the cord. This idea that the two are competitors is considered such conventional wisdom that Netflix’s shares dropped 3 percent immediately after HBO’s announcement. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings claimed he didn’t consider HBO a threat, Wired responded with “Yeah, right.”

But HBO is only in competition with Netflix in the sense that it competes for attention, so technically it’s competing with just about any form of media, whether it’s newspaper subscriptions or music downloads. But there’s virtually no overlap in HBO programming and Netflix programming, which means there’s not only little redundancy for those subscribing to both but also these two companies are not bidding for access to the same programming, which would drive up the price of said programming (I would say Amazon Prime is much more of a competitor to Netflix on this front, since they’re likely bidding for quite a few of the same shows and movies).

Also, HBO Now will give many hangers-on to cable just the kind of excuse they need to finally cut the cord, and with joint Netflix and HBO Now subscriptions they can get access to many of their favorite cable shows and the Netflix/HBO original programming at a fraction of the price of what they were paying for cable. Currently, the average cable bill is $64, with many paying upwards of $100 per month. With Netflix’s $8.99 monthly subscription and HBO’s $15, a cable subscriber is looking at a minimum 62 percent savings if he cuts the cord and subscribes to BOTH Netflix and HBO.


If anything, HBO’s threat to Netflix lies in its ability to push other cable networks into launching standalone apps. As Nelson Granados noted in Forbes, immediately after HBO announced HBO Now, CBS announced their own app. Because Netflix licenses content directly from networks like CBS, these networks will be motivated to drive up prices or rebuff Netflix completely once they’re in direct competition with the company.

Of course, Netflix hasn’t been resting on its laurels and has taken aggressive action in building its own content moat in order to shield itself from the capricious actions of frenemy cable networks.  As the New York Times reported, the company has tripled its original programming in just the last year. Just as we now consider Netflix’s mail delivery DVDs to be the vestige of a bygone era, harking back to the days of movie rental stores, it may not be long before its aggregation of old television shows is viewed as similarly anachronistic. Where once there were seasons of Twin Peaks and Friends, a million Frank Underwoods and Piper Chapmans will bloom.


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We’re only at the very beginning of the podcast boom

podcast microphone

We’ve seen a new phrase enter our lexicon in recent months: the “Serial effect.” Google it and you’ll find this neologism employed everywhere from The Hollywood Reporter to USA Today, and it’s used to describe the cambrian explosion caused by Serial, a podcast that relitigates the trial of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering his girlfriend in 1999. This podcast was so popular, the thinking goes, that it’s introduced millions of new listeners to the podcasting medium, in the process unleashing a tide that lifts all boats. Podcasts are now considered part of mainstream culture, a topic of watercooler conversation as well as a booming market for advertisers.

And there is evidence that the Serial effect is, indeed, real. Edison Research found that podcast listenership has increased by 18 percent in the last year. Each day we hear news of media companies launching new podcasts, the emergence of podcast networks, successes in podcast crowdfunding, and even the introduction of venture capital money. It’s hard to read that Marc Maron pulls in $15,000 for every podcast ad and not conclude that real money is being made on this platform that, up until a few months ago, was considered a hobbyist niche. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if we see articles within the next year questioning whether we’ve entered a podcast bubble, one that’s produced an oversaturated market.

But though the Serial effect is genuine, new data reveal how any growth was relative and that we’re nowhere near reaching podcasting’s full potential, both in readership and revenue. According to a new fact sheet released by Pew, the percentage of Americans who have listened to a podcast within the last month sits at 17 percent, a mere two points above where it was in 2014. As Nick Quah wrote in his podcast newsletter Hot Pod, “the gains in podcasting over the past several months were significant in relative terms, but are really a drop in bucket in absolutes, particularly in the more significant metrics: listenership, brand awareness, so on and so forth.”

A new analysis from FiveThirtyEight shows that major advertisers are only beginning to dip their toes into the podcasting waters. A data journalist there listened to the top 100 most popular podcasts and recorded what types of ads populated these shows. Her most significant finding? Roughly a third of the top 100 podcasts didn’t contain a single ad. So while we keep hearing of podcasts fetching north of $20 CPM ad rates, relatively few podcasts have the kind of scale that attracts advertisers at all.

And the kind of companies who currently advertise on podcasts are still relatively small fry. Roughly 87 percent of ads were for web-based companies, most of which aren’t even publicly traded (anyone who listens to podcasts has likely heard ads for Squarespace,, and MailChimp, none of which are Fortune 100 material). Most of these are also of the direct response variety, meaning that a user is given a specific URL to go make purchases, thereby ensuring that the ad is measurable. This is a far cry from the much more lucrative brand advertising you’ll see from major consumer companies like Coke, McDonalds, and Samsung.

It can be argued, however, that Serial only just concluded in December, and it’s unrealistic to think that Madison Avenue would shift all its advertising budgets in a mere few months. And one data point in the FiveThirtyEight analysis pointed to why podcast advertising has nowhere to go but up: almost 100 percent of ads are read by the host or a producer for the show. As Andy Bowers, senior producer at Slate, told me recently, podcasting is the most “intimate medium,” with hosts speaking directly into your iPhone earbuds in what is almost perceived to be a one-on-one conversation. This is why their ads have been reported to be so effective, and it’s only a matter of time before larger brands latch on to this efficacy.

The question is whether this intimacy will transfer over into brand advertising. Most podcast advertisers are relatively small companies that haven’t accumulated any negative baggage. What happens when Walmart wants to sponsor a podcast — will the host be able to heartily endorse the company, and if he does, will it erode listener trust? And if we see the emergence of the polished, scripted ads typical on FM radio, will that taint what before felt like an un-commercialized medium?


Either way, with market penetration still relatively low and the continued growth in smartphone use, as well as the introduction of bluetooth technology in newer automobiles (which makes it easier to listen to podcasts while driving), I think it’s safe to say that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to podcast adoption. With annual industry revenue at a paltry $34 million, it’s hard to blame podcasters for looking at the $44 billion annual radio industry and considering it an untapped goldmine, a revenue source that is nowhere near having reached its full potential.


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