Sunday, November 13, 2016

A history of clickbait and keyword hijacking, 1750-1999

A friend on Twitter lamented that the shift from printed newspapers to online news has led to a flood of clickbait that wasn’t present before. While it’s true that clickbait—articles whose content and headlines are designed to generate a very high number of pageviews—is a product of the digital media revolution, there is a long tradition in the media world of using attention-grabbing headlines, titles, and graphics to get people to buy a newspaper, magazine, or journal.

In the United States, the tradition goes back to early periodicals of the mid-1700s, which used strongly worded headlines and satire to generate outrage about the British and other issues of the day. The wave of “yellow journalism” in the mid-1800s continued the trend, which saw the establishment of tabloids in the English-speaking world which mastered the art of succinct, irresistible headlines on the front covers of newspapers. The Sun (U.K.) and the New York Post are modern examples of the format. Internationally, the rise of labor nationalism, fascism, anti-semitism, and communism gave rise to hundreds of newspapers and magazines that used bombast and hyperbolic headlines to attract readers and advance their respective causes.

In the 1990s, Jimmy Lai, a Chinese media entrepreneur, brought the tabloid format to Hong Kong with the Apple Daily. When the format was later exported to Taiwan, the boring, conservative Taiwanese newspaper competition didn’t know what hit them. Some newspapers in China tried to follow the format, but with limited success, owing to the Chinese Communist Party’s strict media controls and the power and influence of local politicians and business leaders.

There’s another digital trend that has historical precedence in print journalism: Keyword hijacking. There are a few flavors that pop up in the modern-day world. The first involves marketers exploiting interest in one type of product or service by including related keywords in web pages, advertisements, and social media, even though there is otherwise no direct connection. The second involves a company, organization, or individual taking a trending story on social media and then creating online content such as a post or article that includes keywords related to the trend. The reasoning is, people will be more likely to click the headline or tweet or post because they are interested in following the trending story.

The term “keyword hijacking” has become synonymous with shady marketing. People feel tricked when they click on an ad or a headline or a hashtag and expect to find information about one thing, and instead they are treated to information about something else. In some cases, companies will insert keywords and hashtags to promote themselves even if the issue involves grief, suffering, or something quite serious.

Keyword hijacking is not new. While doing some genealogy research a few years ago, I stumbled upon this advertisement in a Lockport, New York newspaper:

History of keyword hijacking

Some context: This was published in 1904, when tensions between Russia and Japan were heating up and war was anticipated. The store new that putting “war” into the headline would get eyeballs. It was tasteless, but it worked … which is why keyword hijacking is still a thing today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to live-tweet events

Yesterday I had a chance to give an online presentation about using Twitter to cover breaking news or share information about live events. The event was hosted by Mediashift, a media education and training site that used to be part of PBS but is now run as an independent organization.

As I note in the video, I have live-tweeting events since 2008, but I was also able to share some best practices and examples for other scenarios, including breaking news, sports, community events, politics, and more. Many thanks to the staff of the Dallas Morning News for sharing their experiences.

Here's a recording of the presentation. It's about one hour long:

Saturday, March 12, 2016

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?
Last fall The New Yorker published an article about LinkedIn's founder, Reid Hoffman. LinkedIn is a huge social network focused on professional connections. It is used by more than 400 million people worldwide. It was a puff piece that reflected the arrogance of the Silicon Valley elite, but there were was an interesting reference about the source of LinkedIn's revenue and how LinkedIn recruiters help drive revenue. This post will reveal how much LinkedIn job ads cost, but note rates may vary from location to location and it's also possible to get volume discounts.

First, the quote from the The New Yorker:
For the first two years, Hoffman concentrated on growth, so LinkedIn had no revenues. (Today, most of ​LinkedIn’s $2.2 billion in annual income is from fees paid by recruiters for access to extra information about the site’s users.) 
I can give some insight into the source of this revenue. Part of it comes from premium memberships, for LinkedIn recruiters to access data about promising prospects. But there is another component to this revenue, which doesn't reflect the interest of "recruiters" but rather companies who want to list jobs on LinkedIn. The LinkedIn job ads cost a lot.

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?

To list a job on LinkedIn, companies pay through the nose. For one of my consulting clients I created its first LinkedIn recruiting campaign. The company was paying something like $325 for a single job listing for one month (purchased in a batches of 10 ads). Multiply that by millions and you get the idea of where LinkedIn’s billions are coming from!

Keep in mind that this basically means matching recruiters/corporate types with the right candidates and charging a hefty fee to do so. Why do LinkedIn job ads cost so much? Mainly, because it's effective and the competition is terrible. It works because most of the alternatives — ads in the paper, Craigslist, online sites like Indeed or Monster, etc. don’t have the reach or the algorithmic smarts to generate results that are as good.

LinkedIn has been able to achieve scale by providing a great place to post online resumes and connect with current/former colleagues, and then building a whole bunch of extra services on top of that - company profiles, job search engines, premium services, etc. I imagine they also increase the value of that data by building (or buying) profiles of the millions of companies associated with LinkedIn members, and then assigning value to them based on various criteria (age of company, number of employees, market value, hiring/turnover trends, etc.) It's very powerful, and it will be very difficult for other companies to catch up with LinkedIn in terms of quality or revenue generated.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The evolution of reading in the digital age

In the past few years, a lot of people have remarked about how their reading habits have changed. Here’s an example I saw on Hacker News earlier this week:
I was a good reader throughout my childhood, youth and academic years. Lately, and after a couple of decades, it's becoming increasingly challenging to focus, consume and finish books. I'm becoming the modern age illiterate. I'm usually squeezed for time - but even if I find some, I don't pick up where I left.

Does anyone encountering the same challenge? Any ideas/tips that could help overcome the cycle? Do you think it's caused by modern information overload, distraction addiction, or perhaps dealing with short cryptographic lines of code?
I know exactly what he or she is talking about. I loved reading when I was younger, everything from newspapers to novels. I took a long break from reading for pleasure when I started my first graduate degree in the mid-2000s, and never really got back into it. Part of the reason is I don’t have enough time to read. I am very busy with work, even on the weekends and in the evening (after dinner is actually my most productive writing time). When I do have free time, I like to spend time with my family. I can watch TV with them or even play video games with my son. But it’s hard to share a book.

But there’s something else. My reading habits have really changed. What I find myself doing now with most long-form Web or mobile content, as well as printed magazines and newspapers, is skimming to get the basic facts or quotes and then moving on. I just don't have the time or attention to stay focused anymore.
e-readers and digital text - Kindle Fire, iPad and Kindle paperwhite 

As for books (fiction and nonfiction), I find myself skimming when I use the Kindle. The Kindle Fire is even worse because of the easy access to other distractions. For printed books I can focus but I have found my threshold for abandoning a book is much lower. I did this recently with a novel by an author I used to love (Martin Cruz Smith if anyone is curious). I just felt the characters in the new novel were wooden and I noticed some basic editing errors. I returned the book to the library after about 40 or 50 pages.

One of the commenters in the Hacker News thread speculated that the community focus on programming in bursts while looking at snippets of code all day may explain the change. But that hypothesis doesn’t hold for me … I don’t look at much code. Indeed, a large part of my day job involves looking at or writing long pieces of text for the In 30 Minutes series.

Rather, I believe the change in habits results from a combination of information overload, easy access to screens, and training our minds (through exposure to text messages, tweets, online updates, short video clips, etc.) to prefer condensed communication.

It’s an uncomfortable trend. On the other hand, I also see it as part of the evolution of media and society. If we look back through history, we can see how other new media had a similar impact. Newspapers, film, and television changed styles of writing and peoples' preferences for reading materials and storytelling. Then, as now, there was great discomfort in the way media and storytelling evolved. A 1961 speech by the then-chairman of the FCC called television a "vast wasteland." If you go further back, there was negative reaction to the introduction of radio, the use of photos in newspapers, certain types of stage plays, and even opera, which was seen by 17th-century British intellectuals as "chromatic torture."

There has been a lot of thoughtful expository writing about this; if you are interested (and can manage to read an entire book) I recommend checking out Mitchell Stephens "The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word" and Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy". They are somewhat dated now, but I think they really documented important transitions from antiquity to the end of the 20th century.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The numbers that help explain why Gigaom failed

(Updated) Gigaom abruptly failed yesterday. This was a respected organization with lots going for it, including a talented editorial staff, a slate of impressive events, and (by its own admission) a growing research business.

What happened?

A lot of the analysis I have seen centers on the growth of mobile, the decline of Web CPMs, the crazy competitive landscape, and the rise of clickbait. Tom Foremski concludes "Unless you are Buzzfeed, Gawker or Business Insider – you can't make a living as an independent publisher from ads because the traffic numbers required are out of reach."

So far, I haven't seen anyone talk about Gigaom's business and the costs associated with running a tech news site. Founder Om Malik and the company didn't reveal any details yesterday, but we can take a look at some earlier documents including Gigaom's media kit and 2014 funding announcement to flesh out the story of Gigaom the business.

First, a summary of costs for advertisers from the media kit:

Display advertising:
  1. Charging $35-$45 CPMs, depending on the channel. 
  2. Rates dependent on campaign duration, budget and targeting. 300x250, 300x600 and 970x250 ad units available.
  3. Flipboard campaign: $55 CPM, over 1.5 million readers/month
"1-week channel takeover"
  • Gigaom homepage channel (1M+ impressions per week) $22K per week - includes two sponsored postss
  • Mobile channel $15k
  • Cloud $8k.
Sponsored posts:
  • $3,000 250-word sponsored post
  • $5,000 800-word sponsored post
Event sponsorships:
  • $5K–$85K, depending on branding/activity
  • Annual cost for subscribers appears to be $10k (NOTE: Digiday reports a much lower cost)
Translation: Gigaom was targeting expensive corporate sponsors, mostly in the tech and business verticals -- the media kit claimed 37% of the audience had C-level job titles, 29% were in companies that had more than 1000 employees, and 53% were "IT decision makers." These numbers seem a little low to justify $45 CPMs, and it's not clear if anyone actually paid that rate (discounts could be offered, or they might have been selling unused inventory for a much lower price through ad networks). On the other hand, because the company was not in the consumer advertising space (where rates are much lower) and it's targeting a different set of sponsors, it can get more revenue for the same number of visits to the website.

In theory, Gigaom wouldn't have to hit the insanely high traffic numbers that sites such as Buzzfeed shoots for, but even $45 CPMs aren't enough. Assuming 6 million page views per month, with each page generating one impression at $45 CPMs, the monthly revenue would total just $270,000. This helps explain why Gigaom (and many other blog-based media companies) have branched into other sources of revenue such as research and events. (UPDATE: Digiday reports that only 15% of Gigaom's revenue came from advertising, compared to 25% for events and 60% for research) 

There's another set of numbers that can help explain the Gigaom story. Om posted last year when it received an $8 million funding round (bringing the total to $22 million) that the company had 70 staffers.

I've worked in tech media, and this is a huge number more often associated with mature media companies. Om didn't break out what all of these people were doing, but I know in addition to a healthy newsroom the company had an events staff and a growing research business. I would expect there would be at least 10-15 people associated with ad sales and ad operations.   

Assuming an $80k average annual salary + benefits package, the company would be paying $5.6 million/year just on staff costs. Factor in rent, expenses, operational costs, etc. and Gigaom has to be going full-bore on revenue and growth targets to generate enough cash flow to stay afloat ... or it would have to line up more funding. 

That's what Buzzfeed ($96M in funding to date, according to Crunchbase) and BI ($55M) are doing to fund their operations -- clicks and revenue simply aren't enough to scale the business, so they take VC cash. The VCs are going along with the plan, too.  
Gawker is a different animal: It claims growth and operations are funded by sales. I don't know if the company had early investors (Crunchbase doesn't list any) but it is taking a far different approach to making the business work.

I'm interested in learning more about Gigaom's finances and funding in the weeks ahead, but it's possible we may never know the details. The creditors now running the company are staying mum, as is Om.

If I made any mistakes or am missing part of the story, please let me know in the comments below.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, Digiday's Lucia Moses has been able to put some more numbers behind the story.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Buzzfeed and LinkedIn go wide, but what about local news and commentary?

The Monday Note is one of the best media commentaries online. The two authors, Frédéric Filloux and Jean-Louis Gassée, have very intelligent and informed perspectives on legacy media and new technology. This week, they delved into the valuations of struggling old media companies (The New York Times et al) vs. unprofitable new media companies such as Buzzfeed, and the increasing visibility of social media companies such as LinkedIn in the news/commentary space (which many users access through the LinkedIn homepage).

One line that really jumped out at me was this one from Frédéric Filloux:

"The problem for legacy media is their inability to propose disruptive or scalable perspectives. Wherever we turn -- The NYT, The Guardian, Le Monde -- we see only a sad narrative based on incremental gains and cost-cutting. No game changing perspective, no compelling storytelling, no conquering posture. Instead, in most cases, the scenario is one of quietly managing an inevitable decline."

I wouldn't be so negative on the storytelling of publications such as The New York Times, but I agree with the sentiment that news publications are in decline. I realize this every time I look at my local paper, or certain sections of the Times, such as Business ... which at one time tried to compete with the Wall Street Journal. Now the Times has retrenched around its core national news/commentary/arts coverage while the second-tier sections limp along. 

One thing I would like to add: These companies -- and their digital competitors -- are playing in the national/international space. In local news/commentary, there are no players. AOL/Patch tried and failed. Can the big digital/social players such as Buzzfeed or LinkedIn find an effective way to go local?

LinkedIn commentary in the form of a user-created post
LinkedIn commentary in the form of a user-created post

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

QBO user interface improvements: A step in the right direction

I am small business owner. Last year, on the advice of my accountant, I began a subscription to Quickbooks Online. At first I really hated it -- the QBO user interface was confusing and it took a long time to do basic things, such as approving expenses or generating invoices. One of the few positive aspects of QBO was the fact that it was online software, so I didn't have to update it on my desktop -- I just open the browser, log in, and QBO shows all updates automatically.

QBO had a major update earlier this year. I have to give Intuit credit for really improving the user interface at that time -- the navigation is much easier to get around, and the basic reporting options are solid. There some solid visualizations, too:

I still have trouble figuring out (or remembering) certain key functions, but I can always turn to my accountant if things get too bad. And that's the way the accountants (and Intuit) like it -- very few small business owners do their own bookkeeping and taxes, so it's common to work closely with an accountant through Quicken or Quickbooks.

For what it's worth, I looked into other small business accounting systems last year but there are very few on the market. The reason: Almost every accountant uses Quickbooks, and they won't recommend anything else because they would have to learn how to use a new software package.