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Say Media is proving not every publisher needs to become the next Buzzfeed

Ben Cohen, founder of The Daily Banter

Ben Cohen, founder of The Daily Banter

Ben Cohen just couldn’t seem to catch a break.

It was 2015 and The Daily Banter, the political commentary site Cohen runs, kept crashing. “Bill Maher was sharing quite a bit of our stuff on Facebook,” he told me as we sat together on the rooftop of a Washington, DC office building. “And we’d get huge amounts of traffic when he’d share stuff, because it would then go viral.” The Daily Banter ran on WordPress, an open source content management system that relies on various plugins created by its developer community, and huge traffic spikes would cause the plugins to break if they weren’t maintained properly. “We were freaking out because we’re getting millions of readers on one article, and the site’s gone down, and that’s potentially thousands of dollars of ad revenue that’s disappeared. That happened several times, so we probably lost, I would say, tens of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue because the site would keep breaking.” Continue reading

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 Moviepilot.de 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.’”

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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

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, Stamps.com, 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?

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

linkedin

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 Monster.com 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.

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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 Lynda.com for $1.5 billion, we’re witnessing LinkedIn’s next industry expansion: professional education. Lynda.com, 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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How to Use Twitter to Conduct Market Research

Market Research

Most users who regularly access Twitter do so merely to read what the people they’re following are tweeting and to check their @ mentions, but because Twitter is an open platform with most tweets accessible to the public, there’s a wealth of information for those looking to conduct market research and gain insights into consumer habits. The key is leveraging Twitter’s search platform to zoom in on specific communities and consumers. Twitter offers a number of free options for this, but you can also purchase tools made by outside companies that perform sentiment analysis and graph longterm trends by accessing Twitter’s API. Whether you’re a lobbyist trying to gauge public opinion on an issue or a consumer packaged good company wanting to see what people are saying about your competitors, there’s no shortage of data to be pored over if you know where and how to look.

John Andrews has conducted marketing for consumer packaged goods companies large and small. He eventually joined the grocery marketing team at Walmart and founded the influencer social media platform called Walmart Eleven Moms. He’s now the CMO at Ignite, a social media marketing agency. We discussed whether sentiment analysis tools are advanced enough, how to find the signal in the noise, and how to detect problems consumers have with your product before they bubble into the mainstream.

Why is Twitter such a valuable tool in terms of gathering intelligence? Facebook is a very closed system, it’s not very easy to search. So Twitter, while smaller in terms of audience, is the world’s largest real-time network that’s publicly searchable.

I would agree with that. I think what makes Twitter such a great informational tool is that instant pulse. If you want to find out what’s going on right now, Twitter is a great place to go. If I’m out having dinner with my family and I want to check a game score, I don’t pull up my ESPN app, I go to Twitter and type in — I’m a huge Duke fan — and I type in “Duke.” And I get the score as well as people’s opinions. I get ESPN, but I also get some guy at the game, some guy sitting at home, and another guy who hates Duke talking about how much they suck. I get this really interesting blend of content from different perspectives immediately. So I watched the Super Bowl, and I watched it on Twitter using the branding hashtag that marketers were using, so I got instant feedback on the advertisements, because that’s something I’m interested in. There are a hundred ways you could have watched the Super Bowl on Twitter and all of them would have been different. If I’m a Patriots fan, I could have just put in hashtag Patriots, and I would have gotten all the Patriots stuff. If I’m a city official in Phoenix and I just want to see how this is impacting my city, I can type in hashtag Phoenix. If I’m Toyota, I could get a view about what people are saying about Toyota in context with the Super Bowl. You can curate that down to as fine as you want and get instant information. What was really cool about the Super Bowl, as soon as an ad ran there was just a deluge of content coming out. As soon as the Nationwide dead kid ad ran, you knew it was going to be derided as the worst ad of the Super Bowl. People instantly went nuts on it. I don’t need any special software to do that. It’s easy to do. I can do it from any device that I have. It’s simple. And marketers have gotten smart about dialing into what people are saying and then really drilling down to what are the things people are engaging with so they can become a relevant part of the conversation.

In terms of market intelligence, do you think brands are too focused on what’s being said about them on Twitter rather than trying to actively monitor what’s being said about their competitors and their industry as a whole?

Most marketers are doing a good job of knowing what’s being said about them and what’s being said about their competitors. To your point, what they’re maybe missing is what is the broader conversation they want to be part of? Elmer’s Glue was a client at my former company, and when I was talking to them I said “No one is talking about glue. No one wants to talk about glue.” And the first time I said that to them I thought they were going to throw me out of the room. Because that was what they wanted to talk about. And I said “That’s what you want to talk about, but don’t you want to talk about what your customers want to talk about?” What consumers want to talk about with glue is spending time with my daughter making a craft project. Being creative putting a gift together for my wife. Inspiration about things that I could do to have a Halloween party. Those are the organic conversations people want to share. Nobody gives a shit about glue.

You’re talking about doing research on ancillary industries like crafting, DIY, things that are related to the industry Elmer’s is in.

What I will say to brands a lot is what kinds of conversations do you want to be part of? What conversations are relevant and interesting to people that may include your products? How can you be part of those conversations in a way that’s helpful or interesting or provocative to the audience? If you went to a cocktail party and all you did was talk about yourself, you’d be viewed as a jerk. But if you look at the way people approach social media, that’s a lot of what they do. You look at a lot of Twitter streams where it’s just pictures of a brand logo or package. Great, who cares? I’m not going to share a picture of a bag of potato chips with my audience.

Let’s say a client comes to you and says I want to be more active on Twitter. Before you send out the first tweet I imagine there’s a fair amount of research that goes into it so you can understand how Twitter can bring value to that client. What kind of research are you conducting before you even send out that first tweet?

 

Like any form of marketing, you need to have a sense of what the grand objectives are. Where the brand lives in the overall environment. We look a lot at sentiment. Whether a brand has accounts on social media is irrelevant because they still have people talking about them on social media. Some of that conversation is good, some bad. For most brands, most conversation is neutral. Our job is to really understand where are those points of engagement? Why as a consumer would I follow this brand? More important, why would I share anything about the brand? And then developing content and testing that content against what people want to talk about. I said to a marketing friend of mine when the Nationwide ad ran during the Super Bowl, I can’t believe they tested that spot, which kind of baffled me. If they wanted to go and test that with several hundred consumers, that’s super easy to do, and they could have easily predicted what the reaction would be.

In terms of sentiment analysis and positive versus negative tweets, do you put much stock in the technology that claims it can scan all of Twitter and spit back out sentiment analysis?

I think that you can get some sentiment out of Twitter, but what I’m skeptical of is the technology that promises it’ll give you this precise assessment of what people think about your brand and tells you what you should say in response. It’s social media, it requires a human. A human should look at data to understand what happens. If you’re going to have computers manage your social media, then you should probably not be doing social media. You have to be able to engage with people, and you can’t do that with a machine. I absolutely think a machine should inform what you’re doing on social media, but a human has to be thinking and writing and creating the interaction.

With something like the Super Bowl where you have this huge audience and these huge brands, there’s just so much volume. How do you sort through all that noise to deliver real intelligence?

A lot of people chase numbers. Two years ago, your ultimate number of Facebook fans or Twitter followers were the main goal. There were marketers whose bonuses and evaluations were based on how many people do we have and do we have more than our competitors? So there was this arms race of “I have to go get a million followers.” And now, I think most people would say that’s not the goal. Engaged followers is the goal. You see lots and lots of brands with these huge follower counts with no interaction. You’re pumping out a lot of content nobody cares about. A professional community manager is the biggest asset that a brand can have. And the reason is they spend time and energy every single day inside a community of people who are engaged with the brand, good, bad, or otherwise. The longer a community manager spends managing a brand’s channel the better the engagement rate they get. That’s because they know the community as well as the community knows them.

If consumers have problems with a company, do you think the first place they’ll give voice to those problems is on Twitter?

It’s a great place to listen and to identify any potential issues. It’s going to happen fast. For any brands that are my clients, I have text alerts so if there are any mentions on Twitter, I know. Most of our community managers that manage individual brands have the same thing. It’s not the only place, though. There are many tools that have sensitive triggers that look for anomalies and jumps in the rate of mentions of a brand. They can spot things very quickly if there’s a change. Twitter can be a very valuable early warning system.

Let’s say you have a client that has lots of enemies and activists, like a cable company or oil giant. Is part of the intelligence gathering identifying all the activists on Twitter and trying to determine whether they’re having any success at stirring up shit against your brand?

I think monitoring the good and bad is great. I think a more advanced strategy is engaging with those people. When I was at Walmart I found some of our harshest critics really appreciated it when you got in a real conversation. With social media you could do that in a way where a lot of other people who were just lurking could witness and be impacted by it.

If you look at a lot of companies with heavy customer service components, companies like AT&T or airlines, a lot of them have launched customer service-specific social channels so those problems are dealt with. I don’t think it’s to get the negative conversation off the main channel so much as companies like AT&T are receiving so many responses that they need to have specific accounts for dealing with certain issues. You see people getting even more creative about it where they’re morphing those customer channels into specific issues, like whether you’re having connection problems or a problem with your billing, etc. I think there’s a reasonable expectation that I can go to a social channel and get help. It’s your 800 number.

Last question. Does monitoring Twitter create a distortion effect where you assume Twitter sentiment reflects public sentiment when in reality Twitter makes up a relatively small portion of the U.S. population? Do brands overreact, not realizing there’s a world beyond Twitter?

Obviously, just being on social media creates a specialized audience. Twitter is not the world. The other thing is, I don’t care how good your brand is, somebody is not going to like it. Somebody is going to always complain. What I look for a lot with attacks, I look at the individual, and frequently they’re just people who complain. That’s what they do. You’ve got to be able to create a sensitivity between that and your customer base as a whole, because that could be a very different group of people. You could be administering to this one person who doesn’t really have much influence at all.

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

amazon twitter marketing

Image via Insight MEA

I don’t find your millions of pageviews impressive

Ashton Kutcher is the founder of a new viral aggregation site.

Ashton Kutcher is the founder of a new viral aggregation site.

It happens once every few months. A business or media reporter writes a breathless profile of some previously unknown web native who has “cracked the viral code.” We’ve been treated for years to the adage that you can’t engineer viral, but this social scientist, through the clever use of headlines and listsicles and blatant Reddit theft, has finally reverse-engineered the process that delivers millions of pageviews to a single aggregated post. One of the earliest sightings of these articles came in April 2014, when Bloomberg News featured the man behind Viral Nova. “The site has emerged as one of the defining media companies of this convulsive era,” wrote Bloomberg’s Felix Gillette. Later it was Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times profiling IJReview, a kind of conservative Upworthy. In January, the New Yorker crowned Emerson Spartz, the founder of another website you’ve likely never heard of, the “King of Clickbait.”

“I keep hearing people around town talking about this young man as a Steve Jobs kind of guy,” Gary Holdren, one of Spartz’s chief investors, told me. “I think his stuff is indicative of where digital media is headed.”

The latest installment of hyperbolic proclamations of internet dominance is brought to you by Business Insider, which recently profiled a website that started “in [Ashton Kutcher’s] living room as an experiment of combining technology with the power of social media to drive additional views of impactful, socially relevant, and sometimes just light-hearted stories throughout the world.” All this is just window dressing to say “yet another website that produces nothing original and traffics in high volumes of fly-by visitors via the use of cheaply-aggregated content.” Hilariously enough, the profile’s opening line sums up the trumped-up exaltation through which these sites are covered and the ultimate folly these articles succumb to:

Ashton Kutcher owns one of the most important media companies in America, and almost no-one even knows it exists.

Why is it one of the most important media companies in America? Because it has “27.5 million US monthly unique visitors (and 47 million globally)” and “it’s one of the fifty biggest websites in the US.” But with such mind-blowing traffic numbers, how come nobody knows it exists? This obvious paradox is never addressed in these articles. But it’s rather easy to explain. These “viralologists,” as the New Yorker described Spartz, are far from genius innovators and are instead purveyors of cookie-cutter strategies that generate near-worthless traffic and almost no brand loyalty. Visit all these websites and you’ll find they’re all near-identical in not only design and sensibility, but content as well. In fact, many of them have recently discarded any pretense that they assemble content in original ways and now they just rip off each other’s listicles wholesale, at best slightly modifying the headline:

[Ashton Kutcher’s website] markets itself as a platform with a social conscience, aiming to “leverage viral social storytelling to create positive change in the world”—but the truth is rather uglier. The site has lifted content from BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Cracked, Matador Network, and elsewhere—all seemingly without the authors’ permissions and with little in the way of source credits.

The A+ article “This Girl Was Sent Home In Tears Because Her Dress Was Too Short. So Her Mom Did The Most Awesome Thing Ever.”, for example, is almost identical to a BuzzFeed post by Ryan Broderick. The only significant difference, besides the headline, is the removal of one photo and the addition of a request for readers “to share it with your friends.”

You don’t have to dig deep with any of these sites to find accusations of content theft. Spartz, in his New Yorker profile, openly brags that taking the time to assemble an original list is a waste of time.

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So if these traffic behemoths are easily replicable and take little skill to create, what part do they actually play in the future of media? As Ben Thompson deftly points out, they’re simply hastening the demise of the very metric for which they’re worshiped: the pageview:

The problem is that online ads are inherently deflationary: just as content has zero marginal cost, so does ad inventory, which means it’s trivial to make more. A limited amount of total advertising dollars spread over more inventory, though, means any individual ad is worth less and less. This resulted in a bit of a prisoner’s dilemma: the optimal action for any individual publication, particularly in the absence of differentiated ad placements or targeting capability, is to maximize ad placement opportunity (more content) and page views (more eyeballs), even though this action taken collectively only hastens the decline in the value of those ads. Perversely, the resultant cheaper ads only intensify the push to create more content and capture more eyeballs; quality is very quickly a casualty.

It’s not a coincidence that the rise of these viral aggregation sites has correlated with near-universal interest in content marketing and native advertising. The traffic race has become unsustainable from a business standpoint, and so we’ve seen a slow-but-steady shift in the industry that redirects the focus to quality, loyal readerships, those who will stay on a website to pause and click on sponsored content within its feeds. This has also led to a decoupling of content from a news org’s domain. BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti recently stated that he doesn’t care whether BuzzFeed content is read on BuzzFeed.com or on Facebook or YouTube or some other platform; when you don’t sell ads based on pageviews but instead on how widely a piece of native advertising spreads, then suddenly it becomes a lot less relevant how it spreads.

In January, I declared 2015 the year viral content becomes worthless, and though the pageview certainly won’t go down without a fight, worshiping at its altar is quickly becoming the vestige of a dying religion. Yes, we still see glowing profiles of these unclothed emperors, but they’re increasingly appearing alongside profiles of those who have eschewed the traffic game and placed all their efforts on delivering quality. And if the internet truly is the meritocracy we claim it is, then quality will reign in the end.

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How to Craft a Killer Twitter Advertising Campaign

twitter ad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Deluca

Matt Deluca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter marketing cover 2

Image via Mashable

How Facebook is trying to pull a Netflix

Facebook-drives-traffic

Those following the ongoing travails of the digital journalism industry have likely read by now that Facebook has been making direct overtures to news companies — many of which rely overwhelmingly on the social network for traffic — arguing that because their mobile sites offer an inconsistent (read: terrible) user experience, they should host their news content within Facebook’s ecosystem. In return for this handover of content, Facebook will share the revenue for any ads it sells against it.

Unsurprisingly, many have come to regard this offer as a Faustian bargain, one that will give Facebook even more power over news publishers until it can leverage that power to make them obsolete. Writing for The Awl, John Herrman argued that these publishers will give in by rationalizing the move as mere diversification of revenue.

Handing over a major source of revenue—not to mention analytics and audience data and the establishment of boundaries—to an outside platform might sound like a risky transfer of power. It would be! But a publisher might be able to dismiss that concern by pointing out that many publishers are already dependent on vendors and ad agencies they don’t control, rather than directly negotiated advertising deals, and that the industry seems to be moving further in that direction, and besides, platform anxiety didn’t really stop anyone from trying iOS apps, right?

It’s easy to detect a heavy dose of skepticism in Herrman’s writing — he’s been a longtime critic of the viral content mill born in part to suck more traffic out of Facebook — but this wouldn’t be the first time media companies will have handed over large amounts of valuable content to another platform: in fact, Netflix’s entire business model is based on just this sort of transaction, and yet so far it has only added to media companies’ bottom lines, providing an additional source of revenue generation.

When television networks syndicate the rights to their programming to Netflix, they’re sending it into a black box where they can extract no user data — all that goes to Netflix — and at the same time they’re giving cable subscribers that much more ammo to cut the cord and just consume media from Netflix. But so far, TV companies have not been hit as hard financially as other forms of media, including record labels and newspapers. For one, they’ve diversified their holdings, launching multiple channels across the cable dial (Fox owns Fox News, FX, and FXX). Also, Netflix has received competition from the likes of Amazon, Google Play, and Hulu, both in terms of viewers and for the rights to TV shows. And now we’re seeing some channels launch their own standalone streaming apps. For the longest time you still needed a cable subscription to access them, but, with the launch of a standalone HBO Go app, we’re likely to see others try out subscription services outside cable.

In fact, news publishers can learn a lot from how TV companies approach streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. For one, they don’t hand over the entirety of their content offerings; you’ll find plenty of NBC shows on Netflix but far from its entire roster. News publishers could set aside certain stories for Facebook while publishing many others exclusively on their websites. TV networks also produce some kind of delay between when a show airs on cable and when it’s available on Netflix — this helps prevent them from cannibalizing their lucrative cable audience. News publishers could also delay uploading content to Facebook, giving its web version a headstart in collecting readers.

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Most important, TV companies ensure their audience isn’t dependent on just one platform. Their stations are available on cable, satellite, antenna (if they’re one of the main broadcast neworks), Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and their own websites and streaming apps. Though Facebook is certainly the most powerful of social networks, there are still large userbases present on major platforms like LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Email, Flipboard, and YouTube. Not to mention their ability to create their own standalone-apps for smartphones.

So while it’s healthy to show some skepticism (as I have) when entering any kind of content partnership with Facebook, it’d be foolish to ignore the collective power of Facebook’s engineering base and its success monetizing mobile users, especially as display advertising, the main revenue source for news publishers, performs so poorly on mobile. Turning away that revenue may hinder Facebook from gaining even more monopoly power over the internet, but it could just as easily mean cutting off your nose to spite your face.

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Why it matters if Facebook is rejecting advertisements critical of it

mark zuckerberg 2

ARTICLE UPDATED BELOW

Last week, I encountered something I had never experienced before when purchasing a Facebook promoted post (a form of advertising that places your content right in people’s newsfeeds). I had written an essay about whether Facebook can get us to care about serious news, and if squinted at the right way it could be construed as vaguely critical of Facebook for the media consumption habits it’s enabled. As I often do after writing a new piece, I posted it to my Facebook page and put a little money behind targeting the post toward those who work in the media industry.

Typically, there’s a short waiting period while Facebook’s algorithms scan your ad and determine whether it’s approved or rejected. If it gets rejected, it’s usually because it violated one of Facebook’s ad guidelines, like the one limiting the amount of text that can be shown in the accompanying image. Usually the wait for approval takes less than 15 minutes.

Not this time though. I can’t remember exactly how much time went by, but it was at least two hours before I received any indication of what happened to my ad. At first, it was just a small bit of text in the ad dashboard telling me the ad was “not running” without saying why. Finally, I received an email from the “Facebook Ads Team” explaining why it was rejected:

facebook ad

This struck me as odd for two reasons. The first was that it had rejected me for using a Facebook logo in the image — of course I was going to use a Facebook logo when writing an article about Facebook. Any journalist writing about Facebook will likely use some sort of Facebook branding as art.

The second was the nature in which my ad was rejected. Based on prior experience, Facebook should have been able to quickly scan the ad and reject it within a few minutes. The fact that it took a few hours made me suspicious that it had been somehow flagged by the system and then reviewed by a human — someone who could judge it not just based on whether it misused Facebook’s branding but also on whether it said something that Facebook didn’t like.

If this was true, then it would be both noteworthy and alarming, and I briefly pondered writing an article about my experience. But I decided to give Facebook the benefit of the doubt. After all, when I swapped out my image for a generic photo of Mark Zuckerberg and resubmitted, my ad got approved. Also, my story would be very anecdotal.

But this week my experience became slightly less anecdotal. The International Business Times published a piece highlighting several instances where Facebook rejected unflattering promoted posts. It first noticed the policy when IBT tried to promote one of its own articles that was critical of Facebook.

A quick Google search of the issue reveals a number of Facebook users rejected for similar reasons. One marketing blogger wrote that she was unable to boost an article about Google Plus, a competing social network. Another said she was unable to boost an article called “The End of Facebook,” which criticized Facebook’s news feed algorithm. And one Facebook user posted that he was unable to boost a status update that contained a famous viral video from (Google subsidiary) YouTube that accused Facebook of ignoring a widespread problem with so-called like farms.

You may be reading this and thinking: “So what if Facebook rejects ads critical of it? It’s not a news organization and has the right to protect its brand.”

The reason this is worrisome is that thousands of news organizations are increasingly investing both time and resources in growing their Facebook presence, and Facebook has been actively lobbying them to invest in it even more.

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In late 2013, a report from Shareaholic found that 17 percent of referral traffic to publishers came from Facebook. By mid-2014 that number was up to 23 percent.  There are many news sites out there that derive the majority of their traffic from Facebook (even as others attempt to diversify their traffic sources). A few years ago Facebook tweaked its algorithm to produce a traffic hose of visits to news sites, and those sites, wanting to capitalize on that traffic, assigned full-time staffers to optimize both their pages and content for Facebook.

Recently, as David Carr reported in the New York Times, Facebook representatives have been going on a “listening tour” to several news publishers in an attempt to get them to host their mobile content within Facebook’s ecosystem, all under the guise of improving the user experience. “That way, they would load quickly with ads that Facebook sells,” Carr wrote. “The revenue would be shared.”

Some have worried that entering this kind of partnership would give Facebook too much leverage over the news media, eventually weakening the media’s ability to make money while strengthening Facebook’s grip on the internet. This news that Facebook might be censoring ads should give these news companies further pause. Do you really want to relinquish your content to a company that might actively suppress news that’s critical of it? Will you be sacrificing your right to report on the most-visited platform on the internet?

To be clear, the evidence is still very much anecdotal, and Facebook is denying that any form of censorship is occurring. Still, if I were an audience development director working at a news organization that’s currently contemplating a content partnership with Facebook, then I might want concrete and specific assurances, in writing, from whomever at Facebook I’m negotiating with. Otherwise, you’ll be signing away a lot more than your content with your partnership deal. You may be signing away your very editorial independence.

UPDATE

So I decided to run this article as a promoted post on Facebook, and as you’ll see in the screengrab below, my post was “not approved.” Now, unlike my last experience with a rejected ad, this time I made sure to use no official Facebook logos or branding with my thumbnail image. Instead I simply used a photo of Mark Zuckerberg. Again, like last time, I didn’t receive an immediate reason for why my ad was rejected. Given the lack of Facebook branding in my post, it’s hard for me not to conclude that it’s because I was critical of Facebook. Here’s the screengrab:

facebook ad reject

 SECOND UPDATE

Having my ad rejected made me naturally curious if Facebook was applying these standards equally whether the content was positive or critical of the company. So I created a dummy WordPress account and wrote a short blog post titled “Why Facebook is awesome.” I then posted it to my Facebook page and ordered $10 worth of advertising. A few minutes later I received noticed that the ad was “not approved.”

This is at least anecdotal evidence that Facebook is rejecting ads even if they’re positive. I still find it worrying, however, because it still means it’s suppressing any ads that mention Facebook or include photos of its logo or CEO. Considering it’s the most widely used internet platform in the world, this has profound implications for those journalists and media companies who want to cover it.

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Why Slate went all-in on podcasts while others focused on video

Slate's Political Gabfest

Slate’s Political Gabfest

The Serial Spoiler Special, the Slate podcast that, each week, analyzed the most recent Serial episode, was Slate’s quickest podcast launch when you measure the time between its ideation and debut. “Four weeks after [Serial] launched everyone at Slate was talking about it,” said Andy Bowers, the executive producer for the magazine’s podcasts. “And I got a call from an editor who said, ‘Why don’t we just record these discussions we’re having and do a podcast about the podcast?’ And I was like, ‘That’s a great idea.’ And two days later we launched it.”

Some found the idea of a podcast about a podcast to be a little too meta and absurd. A funny video uploaded to YouTube poked fun at Serial fans for their level of obsession and willingness to travel ever deeper down that rabbit hole. “Dude, don’t tell me about that Slate podcast, I love that podcast,” says one character in the video. “I’ve listened to every episode. In fact I’ve even started listening to a podcast that’s about the Slate podcast, so every week when the Slate podcast comes out, this podcast also comes out and talks about what they’re talking about on the Slate podcast.”

As absurd as it may have sounded to non-Serial fans, the Serial Spoiler Special was a huge hit, generating hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode. “A ton of people who were Serial fans started listening to it and so it brought a whole new set of listeners into the Slate podcasting orbit, which was terrific,” said Julia Turner, Slate’s editor in chief.

That orbit of which she speaks has grown substantially in recent years. According to Bowers, Slate’s 14 or so podcast shows get about 6 million downloads a month, and its audience has tripled in just the last year. Sure, part of that’s due to Serial and its success bringing millions of new listeners to the podcasting medium. But Slate made a very early bet, long before the mainstream adoption of podcasting was a forgone conclusion, by investing heavily in the audio format, positioning itself to ride the wave as millions of new consumers purchased smartphones and eventually realized that they could download audio files for on-demand listening.

It made that bet while many of its news media competitors shifted much of their focus to online video. Tempted by the high CPM ad rates on pre-roll ads, several print media stalwarts have invested significantly in beefing up their video staffs. In 2013, both Meredith and Scripps launched several original web series, and that same year the New York Times hired Rebecca Howard, a former VP at 20th Century Fox, to head up and expand its video department. But perhaps no company has staked more on video than BuzzFeed, which just accepted $50 million in VC investment, largely to expand its BuzzFeed Motion Pictures division, which racked up a stunning 4.5 billion views in 2014.

While Slate certainly hasn’t ignored video (in fact, it produces some of its own original programming and regularly aggregates viral videos from around the web), its podcast offerings are much more substantial, having developed fervent, almost fanatical followings from listeners, many of whom are willing to line up around the block just to attend a live recording. So why did Slate see so much success while other news outlets, like the New York Times and Boston Globe, scaled back their audio offerings in favor of video?

To hear about Slate’s entry into podcasts is to learn about the genesis of the medium itself, because the magazine was a participant almost from the very beginning, entering the scene not long after Dannie Gregoire first coined the word “podcasting.” Bowers had been working for nearly a decade as a correspondent for NPR, serving on beats ranging from the London bureau to the White House, when, in 2003, he was brought on to work on a collaboration between Slate and NPR — a news magazine show called Day to Day. “I joined Slate as their person on the staff of Day to Day,” said Bowers. “So I actually kept the same desk at NPR but changed employers. And as part of that, my job was to get the Slate people caught up about how to do radio, to build studios at our various bureaus at Slate so they could appear on NPR.”

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This put Bowers in the perfect position to usher Slate into podcasting. He began experimenting with the platform by just simply reading out Slate articles so readers could listen to them on-the-go. Even with this rudimentary offering the publication was able to amass about 10,000 regular listeners. He also hosted a weekly discussion with John Dickerson, Slate’s political correspondent, but Bowers’s real insight came while listening in on weekly editorial meetings. “John and his colleagues in Washington had hilarious conversations that sounded like how I was used to hearing reporters talk at the bar or after they appeared on the Sunday talk shows,” he said. “And I thought, ‘If I just put microphones in the conference room, this would be really entertaining. People would hear the honest conversation that reporters have.’” That insight eventually became the Political Gabfest, an hour-long show — hosted by Dickerson, former editor David Plotz, and Emily Bazelon — that’s among Slate’s most popular podcasts.

The adoption was so swift that when NPR decided to end Day to Day, Bowers was in a position to shift all his efforts to growing Slate’s podcast network. What astonished him was the level of intimacy inherent in the form. After spending a decade in radio he had assumed that it was the most intimate medium, but he found podcasting to be one step deeper, in that listeners actively subscribe to a show and in doing so feel like they’re joining a club. At no point was this more evident than at the first recording of Political Gabfest that Slate opened up to a live audience. “I believe the first one was right around the inauguration of Obama in 2009,” he recalled. “We decided to do a live show thinking there would be a lot of people in town for the inauguration. So we booked a venue and we literally had no idea if 10 people or 100 people would show up. It ended up having a line around the block.”

This fervent fandom is why Slate and other podcast networks are able to charge such high advertising rates, much higher than what you could typically demand for online display advertising. Because the ads are often read out by the hosts themselves, often in some creative way, listeners don’t feel the urge to skip ahead. “During one of our earliest live shows that had been sponsored by Audible.com, David Plotz was doing the Audible ad in front of the audience,” said Bowers. “He said , ‘Political Gabfest is sponsored by … well you know who it’s sponsored by,’ and the whole audience yelled ‘Audible.com!’ When that happened I was like, OK, that’s pretty effective advertising.”

Because Slate doesn’t have to deal with the constraints of traditional radio broadcasting, it’s been able to experiment with the form over the past decade. In addition to its regular shows, it also tried unofficial audio tours of popular tourist attractions. One was recorded by an art critic in the MET. “I was listening to it the other day because I’m here in New York,” said Bowers. “And it still makes me crack up, like when he starts talking about how worthless a particular Picasso is. We got emails from people saying they were standing at the museum cracking up and the guards were looking at them like they’re crazy.” Slate even experimented with a one-to-one connection between hosts and fans; with the success of the live shows, it started selling tickets to private cocktail meetings with the hosts that take place prior to the recordings. They now sell out within minutes.

Still, even while being open to experimentation, Slate has limited resources and so must be choosey when deciding to devote staff to a new show. I wondered whether the magazine makes calculations about the potential audience size of a particular niche and whether that audience would attract advertisers. “There isn’t nearly as much pre-podcast audience analysis as your question suggests,” said Slate editor Julia Turner, who also co-hosts the magazine’s Culture Gabfest. “A big part of the success of the Serial podcast was because we’re all podcast listeners, and so we all think about what we like and less so in a strategic way, and that helps us determine what would be a fun podcast to listen to.”

One of its most recent show launches is the magazine’s most ambitious yet. In February 2014, Mike Pesca, a longtime NPR correspondent who once reported for Day to Day, announced he was leaving public radio to start a daily Slate podcast called The Gist. “As soon as I met him I had the same conclusion that many in public radio had, which is that this guy was a unique talent behind the microphone and should have his own show,” said Bowers. “And for some reason NPR didn’t give him a show.” The Gist is a sort of daily news magazine, one on which Pesca displays a unique talent for language play while poring over current events. Aided in part by an excerpt in This American Life, The Gist has quickly become Slate’s most popular podcast.

Any consistent listener of podcasts has likely noticed that most podcast sponsors are direct-response advertisers — it’s easy to track the ROI of their sponsorships because listeners are encouraged to plug in a special promo code to receive discounts. The challenge Slate has now is to lure brand advertisers — the kind that are trying to raise brand awareness rather than direct sales. According to Bowers, Slate is in a unique position to attract these companies because, unlike other podcast networks, Slate’s is affiliated with a magazine. “Because we’re connected to a larger website, for many years we have had advertisers who were on the Slate site and on the podcasts.” For instance, Acura sponsored a recent live tour of Gabfest, in some cases offering test drives to audience members. Another podcast hosted by Plotz was sponsored by Delta.

There’s another way that Slate benefits from being both a podcast network and an online magazine — cross pollination of two audiences. This has allowed it to both widen its reach and also strengthen its brand, converting casual readers into hardcore fans that will follow it into almost any medium. “I’ve definitely gotten emails from people who say, ‘Hey, I’ve been listening to your podcast for years and I’ve finally clicked over to the site to read an article you talked about, and there’s so much good stuff here and I’m going to come back every day,’” said Turner. “And I also get letters from people who say, ‘Oh my gosh I’ve been reading the site every day and you’re always talking about podcasts and I finally listened to one and I’m a convert.’”

In a world where advertisers are less interested in pageviews and more focused on audience loyalty, it’s hard to imagine a more loyal audience than that.

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