Latest PR Gambit: Publishing on Platforms

Back in the day (“the day” being about 10 years ago), we had a simple message for PR shoe-737084_1920clients who wanted to get in on the social media and blogging action.

It was: “Go forth and blog too. Master the channels that are accessible to all.” Those who took the time to produce quality content, nurture social communities and post consistently saw their online influence grow.

Now, the open web is being challenged by the growth of social networking platforms. They’re places we go to connect, and get entertained and informed. Their news clout is growing, as the networks are increasingly publishers and aggregators of content. The social networks reach vast audiences with precise targeting – compelling attributes for marketers.

In short, if you are in the news business or want to promote your own, you are missing out if you are not on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

But there are a number of challenges along the way. It takes PR out of our media-centric comfort zones. It’s not obvious how to use social networking channels to accomplish your goals, which generally include coverage KPIs.

Sure, many in PR have jumped on the social media and content marketing bandwagons. We can handle Tweeting and blogging quite well. But getting your news seen and covered or appreciated by the right audiences, especially if your profile does not already have umpteen million friends/followers, is another matter.

Success generally requires a combination of paid and organic promotion as well as an understanding of the algorithms, those wonky programs that determine what appears in our news feeds. But they are black boxes and constantly changing. Plus, ad options may be unfamiliar, and they’re also moving targets.

How does one figure this all out? Listen, read, and more important, experiment. Dip your toes in. Test, validate, then repeat.

Reading this blog is a good start, as it offers commentary, articles about best practices and links to the right resources. The networks can be opaque, when it comes to specifics about their algorithms – but they do inform about changes and make recommendations.

In short, there are no pat answers, although one could invoke advice similar to the words at the beginning of the article: go forth and publish on Facebook (for example). Learn about the secrets of shareable content and how to get into the news feed.

I’ll close with an example from the world of politics, which seems fitting since the election has been front and center. It’s an article that ran awhile back in the NY Times Sunday magazine.

What do you think? Could a similar approach work beyond the field of politics? What ideas does this give you for PR? See the link and excerpts below, and please share your comments.

Inside Facebook’s… Political Media Machine
[Facebook’s] algorithms have their pick of text, photos and video produced and posted by established media organizations… But there’s also a new and distinctive sort of operation that has become hard to miss: political news and advocacy pages made specifically for Facebook, uniquely positioned and cleverly engineered to reach audiences exclusively in the context of the news feed…

These are news sources that essentially do not exist outside of Facebook… cumulatively, their audience is gigantic: tens of millions of people. On Facebook, they rival the reach of their better-funded counterparts in the political media…

But they are, perhaps, the purest expression of Facebook’s design and of the incentives coded into its algorithm — a system that has already reshaped the web…
Truly Facebook-native political pages have begun to create and refine a new approach to political news…. The point is to get [users] to share the post that’s right in front of them. Everything else is secondary.



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Huffington Post taps Data Science to go Viral

My recent posts have explored how publishers are working with social platforms to expand audience and IMG_2875adapt story telling formats (see Publishers & Platforms In a Relationship, and Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands). They reported the experiences of social teams and editors at some of the largest broadcast, print daily and native web outlets.

Those featured, however, didn’t go into detail on the role of advertising to boost reach.

At last week’s NY Data Science Meetup (at Metis NYC) we learned how the Huffington Post, the largest social publisher, is using data science to better understand which articles can benefit from a promotional push. Their efforts have propelled merely popular stories into through-the-roof viral successes.

The meetup was about Data Science in the Newsroom. Geetu Ambwani, Principal Data Scientist at Huffington Post, recalled the days when their editors monitored searches trending on Google to inform content creation and curation. Since then it is a new game, as more people are discovering and consuming news through social media.

In an age of distributed news, HuffPo needed a new approach.

Data across the Content Life Cycle

Geetu discussed the role of data in the content life cycle spanning creation, distribution and consumption. For creation, there are tools to discover trends, enhance and optimize content, and flag sensitive topics. Their RobinHood platform improves image usage and the all-important headline.

Geetu’s favorite part, she said, was exploring the “content gap” between what they write and what people want to read. It’s a tension that must be carefully considered – otherwise writers might be tempted to focus on fluff pieces vs. important news stories.

When it comes to consumption, data can be used to improve the user experience – e.g. via recommendations and personalization.

Project Fortune Teller: Data Predict Viral Success

Geetu and her team turned to data science to help with distribution. “The social networks are the new home page – we need to be where the audience is,” she said.

Only a small percentage of their stories get significant page views on the web. Performance on social often varies by platform. The team honed the content mix for each to improve engagement. Part of this was determining which articles out of the 1000 daily stories should get an extra boost.

Geetu wondered if they could mine data to spot the ones that have “legs” beyond early popularity. With this info in hand, they could promote these with high value ads, and populate Trending Now and Recommendation widgets to further boost sharing and reach.

And thus , Project Fortune Teller was born. The team looked for winners according to a range of data such as web traffic growth, and social consumption and sharing. But it was no easy task. There are many variables to consider. They needed to determine the optimal time window, as some articles take a bit longer to start to trend. Finally, they intentionally excluded hot news stories, instead focusing on evergreen content that was resonating.

Geetu and her team mined historical data, using time series analysis to build a model (for more details, see this SlideShare presentation). They notified the content promotion staff when there was a likely winner. The resulting quick action turned popular articles into viral successes.

The conclusion? Machine learning is a key driver of success for predicted content.



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Publishers & Platforms “In a Relationship” but “It’s Complicated”

Key Takeaways from Digital News in a Distributed Environment

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I enjoyed Columbia Journalism School’s event last week: Digital News in a Distributed Environment. The half day session was divided into two parts.  In the first, Dr. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen,  director of research for Reuters Institute of Journalism (and Columbia alumnus), shared highlights of their 2016 Digital News Study (which you can download from the link), a massive global survey of consumer news habits, attitudes and preferences. Then Claire Wardle presented preliminary results from Tow Center’s Platforms & Publishers report, which will be coming out later this year.  She provided the idea for title of this post in one of her slides.

The session was a great follow-on to last month’s Daily News Innovation Labs Platforms and Publishers session, which I attended and blogged about. It revealed a lot about how we consume news, the influence of tech, and implications and changing realities for journalism.

In this post I share some of the highlights, especially as they relate to the U.S. market.  Tow Center Director Emily Bell opened the session, and Dr. Nielsen moderated. The panelists included:

You can view a video of the event here.

More People are Getting their News from Social Media

That may not surprise, but the numbers and growth tell an interesting story; according to Rasmus, 51% in U.S. now get their news from social media, a number that has doubled since 2013.  12% cite social as their main source of news.

Consumers say that it is less about the social aspect, and more about user experience: they like getting alerts, easier access, and “one stop shop” aspect.  They also appreciate personalized recommendations, above and beyond stories shared by friends.

Facebook is the number one social news destination here.  Twitter is important too.  Fewer are getting their news from aggregators and apps.

Mobile and Social News are Joined at the Hip

The Reuters study revealed the close linkage between mobile and social news. Those who get news on their phones tend to do so through social media, rather rather than by visiting branded mobile news sites or apps. “The smart phone is the defining device of digital news,” said Rasmus.

Despite Video Hype, “Text is King”

Rasmus said that online video news consumption is not as popular or growing as quickly as some might expect from all the hype.  Again, this gets back to user experience: 78% say it is quicker and more convenient to read news  and scroll through headlines rather than watch videos.  Also, they are turned off by pre-roll ads, and feel that video doesn’t always add value to a news story.  People are more likely to watch video on news sites.

It’s the Media Brand, Stupid

Although it would seem that platforms hold all the cards, due to audience reach and deep pockets, Rasmus said their results confirm that media brands are central to how users navigate the digital news world.  The pecking order is: newspaper, broadcast, and native web brands.  Hard news media brands are trusted over individual journalists.

The platforms value cooperation with publishers, as news draws users and drives conversations.

Despite this, journalism “has a PR problem,” he said.  They need to do a better job of differentiation and branding; and social media adds challenges.  The source of news may not always be obvious, and publications lose control in terms of how (and which) stories are presented.

Publisher Challenges and Opportunities 

If you thought things could not get worse for publishers, you were wrong.  Few want to pay for digital subscriptions, and ad-blocking increases revenue challenges.  Yet digital news consumption is growing as older audiences cling to TV. For media, it is not just about distribution – it is about access to new (younger) audiences and experimenting with storytelling formats.

The session was interesting and informative, and I eagerly await the release of the Tow Center report.

A few things that it would be great to learn about in a follow-up study are:

  • The impact of social network ad dollars on organic reach for news brands
  • How trusted are corporate brands as sources of online news?
  • What about the role of influencers in news distribution?
    • Are they more or less trusted than friends and editors?
    • Do people prefer algorithmic selection over news recommended by influencers?
  • Is native advertising offsetting revenue declines in other areas?

I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks on implications for PR and marketing.



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Platforms as Publishers: 6 Key Takeaways for Brands

I checked out a NY Daily News Innovation Labs event last week: Platforms As Publishers: where are We news-644847_1920Now? A panel of experts spoke about their work with the social media platforms, and implications for the news business.

Claire Wardle of Tow Center moderated the session, which included Samantha Barry, of CNN; Allison Lucas, from Buzzfeed; Vox Media’s Choire Sicha; and Carla Zanoni of Wall Street Journal.

The timing was interesting, given all the excitement about Facebook Trending News.  Also, there was a reference to BuzzFeed’s exploding watermelon video that recently went viral (yes, they did use safety goggles).

You will only learn so much at an event like this.  News is a competitive business, and they likely keep most of their cards close. Still, I found it to be interesting, a friendly and apparently open dialog.

Some say that the platforms are the present and future of the news, content and marketing arenas.  Publishers need to go where audiences are, and marketers should be right there too. It was great for this PR guy to have a front row seat on the conversation, and learn more about how some of the top names regard and work with the social media platforms.

The Tow Center ran a nice recap, as did NY Daily News.

So can brand publishers get in on the action too?  What if you want your news to run on social media?

Below I include key takeaways for brands.

  • Don’t just focus on traffic; use social media to build relationships and create a news and content habit that makes the brand relevant.
  • Listen to the audience, use social media to learn new storytelling ways
  • Size does matter, platforms make deals with the largest publishers; who in turn hire small armies of editors, and content, social, engagement and revenue experts. Unless you are a major brand with similar clout and budgets, you need to find other ways.
  • The only constant is change – if you are doing the same thing you were six months ago, you’re probably losing, in the words of CNN’s Samantha Barry.  Experiment and innovate, or be left behind.
  • Have “cool kids” AKA early adapters blaze a trail with new projects and then bring others along
  • Vary strategies and metrics based on goals, features and audiences of each platform

See below for curated tweets on Storify.

 

 

 



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How to Pitch an Algorithm

android-161184_1280 calculator-695084_1280The Wall Street Journal had an interesting op-ed this week. The Algorithm is the EditorJeffrey Herbstandroid-161184_1280 android-161184_1280wrote: “Social media companies quickly are becoming the dominant news providers… Four in 10 adults in America now get news from Facebook and one in 10 from Twitter.”

Similarly, WGBH News posted an article: How Facebook Became our Biggest News Publisher – and Why we Should be Worried.

The articles warn about the implications of tech companies becoming news organizations, vs. the distribution channels they claim to be; their newsfeeds increasingly determine what we see.

If the algorithm is now the editor, how long will it be before PR people become code-driven bots (cue up sarcastic comments about PR)?

I have not tried to pitch an algorithm recently (well, ever); and it might not be obvious for many of us in the field how to deal with these new realities.  Does our job as PR pros end after we get our clients in an article?  What if the story does not make the feed?

The New York Times argues that media need to become more data-driven to survive:

“Hooking people on your… news  is [hard]… But news organizations have ways they never had before to figure it out… Through real-time analytics, reporters and editors know how many people are reading their work and through which devices and sites, how long those readers are sticking with it, and what they’re ignoring.”

In other words, online media are now getting ratings… and publishers can learn from them. So, what gets attention and survives the social filter?  The article continues:

“Videos, podcasts, short items of interest that can be read easily on smartphones, and almost anything with ‘Trump’ rate well. Perhaps counterintuitively, deeply reported features and investigative pieces…  draw readership levels that were never possible in the print-only era.”

The last part validates my post Wonky Articles Trump other Forms of Content.

Despite the title of this post, I do not suggest that you go out and pitch an algorithm.  I do recommend becoming more data driven.  Get smart about the new ways in which content and news get shared and consumed.  Apply this insight to make sure that your coverage makes the cut.

 



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What Does it mean to Hack a Feed, and why Should PR Care?

So what does it really mean, to “hack the feed”? Here are some of the key ideas, from articles that I wrote wireless-155910_1280for Flack’s Revenge, MarketingProfs and Entrepreneur.

This is an excerpt from the first:

“If you are interviewing PR agencies, a good question to ask is: ‘what business are you in?’ If they say: ‘Getting you media coverage, building visibility,’ politely show them the door.

The reason is that any agency worth its salt knows that press coverage will happen.  But in a sea of noise and info choices, it is the ability to break through and connect with audiences that makes the critical difference. In short, the correct answer is the ‘attention business’.  And getting attention – quality attention – is getting more challenging every day.”

The second story said:

“Sure, many still turn on the TV to stay on top of current events, pick up a newspaper or magazine, or type in the URL of their favorite news site. But, more often than not, they are getting news from aggregators, sharers, and curators—whether via algorithms (in the case of LinkedIn and Facebook), from their friends on Twitter, or via professional curators such as Huffington Post and BuzzFeed.

Where does that leave you if you are readying a launch or you have news to promote? To get the attention of your intended audience, you need to understand how and where they get information—and work hard to ensure that your news is right there.”

The third piece further explains:

“Much of the problem has to do with information overload. How do people cope? We scan. We prioritize. We note what’s trending. Google and the social networks track our content engagement, and adjust news feeds accordingly. People stir the content soup in myriad ways and, in doing so, affect their popularity.

The result is that the architecture of content and news distribution has changed. It’s no longer primarily top down. Sure, big media still has reach and influence, but the revolution is by and large user-driven, with a healthy dose of platform and algorithmic selection thrown in.”

The challenges are clear – info overload, media fragmentation, changing information flows and consumption trends – what is the solution? The above stories provide some answers.  I urge you to click the links and read them.

But if it were so easy, we wouldn’t need a whole blog like this to break it down – right?!!

The Hack the Feed ethos is not about hacking in the black hat sense. It embraces technology solutions – but is driven by an understanding that you must start with information consumer – and communicate on their terms.  It is about earning a place in increasingly inundated attention spans, breaking through with content that is read, makes an impression and inspires action.



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