Why I’m abandoning TechCrunch and Techmeme

Farewell TechCrunch and TechmemeI’m separating myself from two old friends today, and it’s pretty painful. TechCrunch and Techmeme have both served me well over the years, keeping me informed on the cutting edge of news in the tech sphere. I can honestly say that these two websites have played a major role in my knowledge level, and I will miss them.

However, I can’t keep up with either. My RSS reader is overwhelmed with the stuff they crank out, most of which, frankly, is completely useless reading.

There is this belief in media that more is better. More produces more page views, and page views produce revenue, and so it goes. But this strategy disrespects customers, because I simply don’t have the time to keep up. And rather than stare at 100 unread items a day from each, I find myself simply marking them all as read and moving on.

Twitter is more than capable of keeping me connected with what’s really important.

I’m not sure if there’s an answer. Perhaps if Michael Arrington would personally oversee a specific RSS feed of “important” content, I would subscribe to that, but as of this morning, I’ve dropped both of these sites, along with The Inquistr, from my RSS reader.

Maybe it’s a sign of changing times. I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that time is the real scarcity in the life of any consumer today, and tactical revenue maneuvers designed to capture more of that scarcity cannot possibly win in the long run.

Farewell, old friends. Farewell.

Twitter handles should be personal brands

your personal brand is everythingWhen the BBC’s chief political correspondent jumped ship to work for a competitor last week, she took her 60,000 Twitter followers with her, and that has raised a few eyebrows in media circles. UK blogger Tom Callow made what I believe is an incorrect assumption when he wrote:

On Thursday 21 July, the BBC lost 60,000 Twitter followers when Laura Kuenssberg renamed her @BBCLauraK account to @ITVLauraK.

Callow wrote that the BBC has an ownership claim on that Twitter account, and suggested that those followers were interested in the views of the BBC’s chief political correspondent,” not ITV’s.

Twitter followers aren’t names in an address book. They are more like subscribers to a blog. We must remember that Twitter is precisely that: a microblogging service. Whilst the microblogs of BBC correspondents are running off Twitter’s servers, the BBC is controlling what tweets go out and must be able to stake a claim on the ownership of each official account — not least because they are now promoted so prominently on screen during news bulletins and even shows like Newsnight and Question Time.

Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman advanced the story, and asked the essential question, “Are people following the person — or the content the person represents?” Cory also smartly suggests that, contrary to what Callow thinks, Twitter does function in important ways like an address book.

This is a very important issue for media companies to get right, because in the world of personal media, personal brands are what matters. People follow people, not institutions, and if we try to practice the opposite, we’re likely to end up without any followers at all. This is why I think Callow is misinformed, because he’s viewing Kuenssberg’s (or any reporter’s) use of Twitter from an entirely old school business perspective.

People jumping ship and taking their followers with them is a necessary part of business in the 21st Century. The way to stop it is to make employment with you so attractive that there’s no incentive to switch, but if and when it does happen, the “loss” of those followers is simply a cost of doing business today. I would argue that we don’t really lose anything when that happens anyway, because to think otherwise underestimates both people and the ease with which technology allows them to change, too.

Moreover, we want to actually encourage the growth of personal brands among our employees. Why? Because without it, there’s no incentive for them to use social media 24/7 in the execution of their jobs. If we “own” those accounts, then we must pay people to use them, and that means on company time. Don’t think so? Press the issue and see how far it goes in the courts. No, we’re MUCH smarter to help individuals grow their brands with the quid pro quo being that they will use their brands to the furtherance of our business while our employees. We gain from their brands, which can include all forms of social media, blogging, personal events and appearances, and anything else they do with “their” brands, as long as they are our employees. When that ends, the cross-promotion ends, and that’s the way it should be.

Don’t think this is viable? Ask Arianna Huffington.

Individual people can go places that institutions can’t, and if we limit that in the name of protecting “our” assets, we effectively limit the potential that goes with it. We can’t have it both ways, folks.

Media companies, especially television stations, seem to hyper-react whenever somebody leaves. Their bios are immediately removed from websites with no explanation, and on-air goodbyes are often completely missing, depending on the reasons for departure. We do this despite that fact that it’s an affront to our audiences, who’ve gotten to know these people during the years of their service. Social media changes that dynamic, because true fans can follow them wherever they go. This is a good thing, I think, and another reason why my advice to any active or budding news person is to use their own name as their Twitter handle and not associate it with any media outlet.

Media companies who insist that call letters, for example, be included in Twitter accounts miss the point of social media by assuming it’s simply a way to extend their brands. Why we do this is a mystery, for the online world is not the airwaves; there are far more than four or five antennas in the ground here.

Dallas celebrates — local media misses an opportunity

This is a story about the value of the hashtag, that little Twitter phenomenon that everybody seems to get except media companies. Nobody seems to understand that Twitter will sell you a hashtag, which gets you an ad with a link at the top of the display on whatever software is being used to view Twitter searches. This is a significant opportunity for anybody, but especially for media companies covering a big event.

The Mavs sing 'We are the champions' from the balcony of the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Photo courtesy AP via the Denver Post

We had ourselves a huge (300,000 people estimated) public celebration this morning of the Dallas Mavericks victory in the NBA Finals, and it all began with a little parade. The hashtag #mavsparade was jumping with constant tweets from those attending the celebration. As a big Mavs fan, I sat here and watched live coverage on TV, but it was monitoring that hashtag that really allowed me to “feel” the event itself, to participate in the celebration. People put up pictures and videos and made wonderful comments. I’m not sure who originated the hashtag, but the local media companies blew a fleeting opportunity by not paying to sponsor the thing.

During the revolution in Egypt, Al Jazeera English bought the hashtag “#egypt. That meant they controlled the top of that hashtag. Here’s how it looked:

Al Jazeera English uses Twitter

Al Jazeera English had a problem with reach in the U.S. It’s only available in three cities here. By employing this strategy — and by consistently delivering high quality content on the ground — the company’s online live stream jumped 2,500% in a matter of days, and they’ve become a major global player in the news industry. Al Jazeera English used Twitter to report the news, position itself as the authority on the hashtag and drive viewers to its livestream. It was, frankly, brilliant strategy.

Media companies here use Twitter as a notification system, and it’s great for that. But it also affords opportunities for good old fashioned marketing, if we can think and move quickly. But isn’t that the real challenge for news organizations these days anyway, to be nimble, fleet of foot, adaptive and flexible?

So the celebration here in Dallas is over, and it’s been a lot of fun for the fans. To the media companies here in Dallas: store this missed opportunity away for some other day. It’ll come in handy.

Make it easy for me, please

In my morning reading, I once again came across something that is increasingly causing me frustration: having to research a writer’s Twitter handle in order to do them the favor of advancing a link of their work. Not only does this make me angry; it’s also damned foolish.

Here’s the article in question. It’s by Julie Moos of Poynter. Yes, THAT Poynter, a place that certainly should know better. I don’t follow Julie on Twitter, so I don’t know what handle she uses (turns out it’s @juliemmoos). I thought the article was worth passing along to others, but I wasn’t able to give @Julie the link love she deserved, because I didn’t have the time to look it up.

Poynter's automated sharingBut here’s what bites: why should I have to? If Twitter is so important to creating inbound links for content, why aren’t we making it as easy as possible for people to do just that? No, that’s not precise, for many media companies — Poynter included — automate the process (see the image to the right).

They do so, however, by tying the tweet to the company without mentioning the writer. This may seem like a good branding practice, but it disrespects best practices for the medium itself. It’s just one of many ways companies refuse to acknowledge the importance of personal branding, and that needs to change. I want to promote Julie, and in so doing, promote Poynter. That’s the way it works, folks, and I, for one, am tired of looking up Twitter handles when those who stand to gain should do it for me.

(Note: My Twitter handle appears at the bottom of every post here.)

An open letter to television managers

Dear Television Manager,

This letter is offered in good faith and asks some fundamental strategic questions that have probably already been on your mind. If not, this might be eye-opening. Either way, it’s my hope you will act on what’s stated here.

When I first began consulting nearly ten years ago, I was known for little sayings about news that people dubbed “Heatonisms.” Here’s the very first: “Revenue isn’t the problem; audience is the problem. Fix the problem.” What television did back then is the same thing we’re doing today, we’re trying to fix a secondary revenue problem while the real problem just keeps getting worse.

Television news just isn’t what it used to be, and it never will be again. We look at research proving we’re still the best advertising bang for the buck and completely miss the point that it won’t matter soon, because the trend lines are unmistakable. Viewing has been dropping for many years, and nothing is going to change that, absent some totally different way of presenting some local product.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s annual “State of the News Media” report earlier this year was straightforward about this:

The most basic problem facing local television news is that its traditional audience is shrinking. In 2010, audiences continued to decline in all three key time slots: morning, early evening and late night.

…A pattern noticed a year ago continued in 2010. Our analysis found that ratings dropped more sharply than share (emphasis mine) for all key time slots in most sweeps periods. Ratings measure the percentage of households with TVs that are tuned to a particular program. Share measures the percentage of people who actually have their TVs on at a particular time and who are tuned to a specific program. A ratings decline, while share holds steady, means a program has fewer total viewers but the same percentage of the available audience. To put it another way, one reason local TV news in the traditional time slots is losing viewers is because people are turning off their sets when the news is on (emphasis mine).

Why are they turning TV sets off during news time? Because “the news” is already known by the people formerly known as the audience. So we fiddle with managing revenue in an environment that needs — but doesn’t get — attention. Well, Terry, it is what it is. What would you have us do?

We are promoting a decaying strategy, so the first thing we need to do is to stop that, and nowhere is this worse than on the Web. We have websites. We use Twitter. We use Facebook. But our essential purpose in so doing is to be a better TV station online. Make no mistake about it, this is a dreadful error, for AR&D’s own research shows that up to 90% of a TV station website’s traffic is comprised of the station’s own viewers. We’re talking to a closed and shrinking universe. We brag when we beat our competition online with absolutely no sense of who that competition really is. We’re still competing with the other TV stations online, and how foolish is that? This is the same strategic flaw that produces convergence sales. The brand of a TV station is today both a blessing and a curse.

So, Mr. and Ms. Managers, lead the local TV cheers for your sales departments, because they won’t be inspired to sell otherwise, but let’s work on fixing what’s really broken: the loss of audience. Let’s begin with four simple acknowledgements.

  1. Television news as it’s currently presented is a dying beast. We can do lots of things to be top dog in our markets, but even the top dog is the equivalent of the last buggy whip maker. At AR&D, we’re working on some prototype program concepts, because we know that nobody’s going to come back for that from which they fled. Those people turning their sets off will never reverse themselves for the same old good-looking people with boxes over their shoulders. Online is the future (I consider mobile to be “online”), so let’s look there.
  2. Our online competition is not the other TV stations; it’s all the pureplay revenue grabs that aren’t bound by the rules of being a TV station online. The most important current and future use of our TV stations is to use them to promote our online offerings, and that’s smart strategy. That and feet-on-the-street are the only competitive advantages we have over those pureplays. Doing news online is a smart thing, but it needs to be in real-time across-the-board and not just Twitter and Facebook. News also needs to be aggregated and curated, and that means acknowledging the other news producers in the market. That’s what the pureplays do. They’re not encumbered by a local brand.
  3. We need to embrace the reality that content isn’t our “business;” advertising is our business, and we need to be immersed in the latest from the revolution in advertising. The biggest, most fruitful shift in advertising today is the sharing of risk. Google pioneered it (pay only for clicks); Groupon raised it to an art level (split revenue; no customers, no deal). However, I think the greatest innovations in this area are still ahead. Advertisers are the new media companies, and the idea of money for simple placement alone is slowly dying, unless you’re the Superbowl. Results are what the new advertising world wants, provable results, and unless we’re in there with those who are offering such, we’re simply going to be left behind. But this is an advertising problem, not a content problem, so content solutions won’t do much. If you believe that advertisements adjacent to content is the best business model for the Web, I feel sorry for you.
  4. Our content will be aggregated, and this is where we will compete with traditional and other forms of local media. We resist this at our own peril, and so the smart thing to do is develop strategies that make it profitable to completely unbundle our content from our owned infrastructure. We want our content aggregated. We want ours to shine among the rest. We want users to take our content with them and to interact with that at their convenience. We want to find new advertising opportunities within an aggregated environment.

The paradox of working in media today is that it’s both brutal and exciting at the same time, kind of like being at sea during a storm. The advice there is to keep your focus on the horizon dead ahead, for attention to the waves is will make you sick. Here, that focus must be on the truths made apparent by acceptance of certain big trends. Follow those and hang on for the bumpy ride.

There is a future, and it is bright.

Thanks for reading,

Terry

Personal branding continues to advance

personal branding is the thingPoynter asks this week, “How important is your brand?” It’s the thing that really matters today and a question about which I’ve been writing for many years. Jason Fry’s question is based on the reality that people read articles these days or watch videos, not sections of newspapers or TV newscasts.

The age of the individual brand was inevitable, a natural consequence of the way digital media has remade our reading habits. In print, columns have a home on a section front or on the opinion page, but online the basic unit of reader consumption isn’t the section or page, but an article — or a video or podcast.

Jason is absolutely right, and the world of individual brands is far different than the one traditional media has known all these years. The reason media companies don’t go down this path is a fear that by empowering their employees, they lose control of them. That’s understandable but of questionable leadership logic in the new world. Fry also offers “four questions to consider that might help you fix the value of your own brand against that of your institution:”

  1. Are you someone’s habit?
  2. Where is the value of your stuff accruing?
  3. Does the institutional brand mean more to you than you think?
  4. How hard are you prepared to work?

Fry notes that the issues for traditional media companies are trickier and offers “four ways to build better bonds between your institutional brand and those valuable but potentially irksome individual brands:”

  1. Identify your most valuable individual brands (and take care of them).
  2. Turn centrifugal force into centripetal (tending to move toward a center) force, or at least balance them.
  3. Make your individual brands into institutional gateways.
  4. Get really good at building brands.

Jason has some really good advice here, but there’s much more. As traditional media companies, we tend to use applications such as Twitter and Facebook to “broadcast” notifications to our followers. That’s missing the point, and personal branding is a big part of how and why.

George Siemens, Founder and President of the research lab Complexive Systems Inc., published an interesting story on, among other things, the reasons people tweet. Notice that it is almost entirely about personal branding:

a) to express agreement
b) to express outrage
c) humour
d) social grooming (I have an iPad, I met person X today, I went for a run, I ate fruit for breakfast)
e) self-promote
f) raise awareness – general information sharing about topics that might be relevant for network members

As institutions, Twitter is one of the ways we tell people to come look at our content, but people don’t follow institutions, not really. They follow people, and so reporters, anchors, anybody that uses Twitter, must realize that the application is more a personal branding mechanism that you think and that we should all be using it accordingly.

Jason Fry’s Poynter article rightly points out that media companies should “get really good at building brands.” I strongly second that recommendation, even if it may seem like we’re setting ourselves up for future problems. The winners tomorrow will be those who aggregate the winning personal brands in the community, and the sooner we get to working WITH that, the more secure we are for our tomorrows.