The power of the personal brand (in a social world)

Kim KardashianIn a recent Nieman Journalism Lab article on the possibility of newspapers making money by selling ads on Twitter, Justin Ellis notes the successful efforts pioneered by celebrities and athletes. The fact is that the reach of certain celebrities far exceeds that of traditional media companies, so why shouldn’t advertisers pay them instead of media companies to get their word out? Besides, there’s that whole illusion of endorsement thing.

Mr. Ellis says much in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a certain reality show “star.”

Not to mention non-news outlets like, um, Kim Kardashian, for whom pay-per-tweet is a long-standing phenomenon.

Kardashian may be a “non-news outlet,” but she is so only in the sense of a traditional view of “news.” Prior to social media, celebrities required the filter of news organizations in order to be promoted, but much of that is now in their own hands. Are they “media companies?” Of course they are. And just as Wal-Mart has a bigger advertising platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post combined, Hollywood and our athletic fields are cranking out new platforms regularly. It’s into this environment that the efforts of newspapers to play copycat look just a little weak in comparison.

In the last few weeks, The Hartford Courant and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune have experimented with using Twitter as a new advertising channel. At the Courant, they’ve started offering twice-daily deals to local businesses — think Groupon by tweet — to their followers. The Times-Picayune, more controversially, used Twitter to advertise itself — or at least its website, as the online division of its parent company, Advance Publications, paid New Orleans Saints players to tweet about the newspaper’s relaunched Saints site on

Mr. Ellis notes that the hashtag #spon, which appears at the end of some tweets is a “semi-legible indicator of a sponsored tweet.”

“A Twitter search for #spon is an enlightening look,” he adds, “into what sorts of companies are paying people to tweet: at the moment, Verizon, Clorox, Pepperidge Farm, and Q‑Tips.”

I like what Advance Publications did in employing NFL celebrities to promote its website, but the use of a mass media Twitter news stream is problematic. It’s is a part of what I dubbed “unbundled advertising” in a 2005 essay about how to make money in the unbundled universe of the Web. It was written prior to Twitter.

If unbundled media is where we’re headed, then unbundled advertising must necessarily follow. This is a scary concept, however, for there is no command and control mechanism or manipulable infrastructure in the unbundled world. The upside, though, is that it costs very little to participate. All that’s necessary is the release what I call “ad pieces” into the seeming chaos of the Internet, where other businesses will take those pieces and reassemble them when summoned by customers who are trading their scarcity for information they actually want.

So while I fully support the concept here, we need to go back to the comparison with Kim Kardashian to understand why media companies using this particular application — in their own streams — is suspect strategically. The problem is that Kim Kardashian is a real person; The Hartford Courant is not. Ms. Kardashian’s brand is personal and as transparent as a reality star can be. Followers and fans connect with her on a visceral level. They experience emotions in their vicarious relationship with her. When Ms. Kardashian tweets for a sponsor, there’s an inference that she wouldn’t try to “fool” her fans. The endorsement also benefits her directly, and fans understand, accept and appreciate that. The few seconds it takes to “see” the endorsement isn’t wasted; it supports a real person with whom fans are connected.

Moreover, the purpose of following a celebrity on Twitter is different than the purpose of following a news organization’s stream. For Ms. Kardashian, it’s about the connection. With The Hartford Courant, it’s about the news feed. To the former, therefore, a sponsored tweet is about the person, but to the latter, it’s about noise, an interference. A sponsored tweet in the midst of a stream of news is an interruption. It’s, well, advertising.

Nevertheless, it’s good strategic thinking, because it gets us into the world of unbundling, where aggregation is the real value proposition. We’d do much better, however, if we would take up the challenge of developing the personal brands of our news people and helping them create the relational types of connections with fans enjoyed by others with celebrity. This would directly conflict with the core value proposition of mass media — the maintenance of a sterile stage from which to place advertisements — so it’s not likely a concept that media companies will enthusiastically embrace. Moreover, media companies think of employees as “theirs,” so the idea of trumpeting a brand that might one day quit and go elsewhere seems counterintuitive. This is, however, precisely the kind of thinking we need to employ, for today’s media is increasingly unbundled and social, and people follow people, not institutions.

But Mr. Ellis nails the real problem. “Newspapers,” he wrote, “are trying to insert themselves as a middleman in a medium that doesn’t require one.” He’s right. With the possible exception of aggregators, there’s just no market for middlemen online. Advertising is the new content king, because they can place that content directly in front of people in the same way we can. The people formerly known as the advertisers are now competing with us for the same eyeballs.

It’s a battle we’ll lose, because they have the money.

Driving traffic (that doesn’t want the ride)

Nobody wants to be drivenThe new Pew study revealing that media companies use Twitter almost exclusively for spreading links to their own content comes as no surprise.

…mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.

Back when Twitter first came along, I predicted that media companies would immediately become big users, because they could easily see it’s one-to-many functionality. It’s what we know and what we practice. The strategy became:

  1. Get a lot of followers
  2. Feed them breaking news and weather
  3. Feed them promotional content
  4. Feed them stories, many stories
  5. Put a link in everything

Twitter is a terrific notification system, so it’s hard to blame media companies for this practice, but it points to a serious weakness that media has today: its mission can’t help but come across as hypocritical. What appears to be one of disseminating information and being society’s watchdog is actually a commercial mission to make money. There’s nothing inherently evil about that, but think about it. If influencing public life is the goal, then readership is what matters, and there are many ways to efficiently deliver unbundled content via the Web. When forcing people to read our content within our infrastructure, then it’s clear that monetizing that content is more important than anything else.

Using Twitter this way is easy, but it’s also lazy and sells short a tool for newsgathering and news dissemination. When I talk to clients about Twitter, the stumbling block question is always “How many people do YOU follow?” The answer is simple — none or very few. This means that Twitter is to them, in fact, nothing more than a notification system.

However, some individual employees of news organizations use Twitter in a myriad of ways, including to participate in its unique discussions. These employees seem aware of the new reality that their personal brands are everything in the world that’s ahead, so they participate in social media. These smart people may include links to their work as well, but that isn’t necessarily the sole purpose of their accounts. It gets very tricky for some media companies when they try to control the personal accounts of employees, because they cling to the notification system paradigm and the ethical (and profitable) mechanism of an opinion-less stage.

Twitter is also very useful on mobile device, so the practice of only spreading links — that then lead to a fully-packed website and not an HTML5 landing page — is ultimately self-defeating. This is a different playing field with different rules, and we risk our own relevancy by insisting that it’s best used to drive traffic to our advertiser-fed websites.

And nobody ever asked to be driven to such a place in the first place.

My personal viewing space

YouTubeI find that after I get caught up with my reading, I’m increasingly spending Sunday mornings with YouTube, just aimlessly drifting but finding myself genuinely satisfied. The place is amazing, and if you’ve never done so, just start a search and let the site guide you on a serendipitous path of discovery.

In so doing, I’ve discovered something about “lean back” TV versus “lean forward” TV: the former can be done with a group, but the latter is most certainly a singular experience. This is why I wonder about mixing the two and whether that will ever be the success that some hope it will.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong believer in unbundled TV, but I do think it’s much more something you do by yourself, because we all have different tastes. My Sunday morning journey through unbundled video is likely not to be the same as yours. It’s more than, “Honey, what do you want to watch;” it’s more like, “I want to watch this clip or that one. Go find your own.” If I want to share, I can use Twitter, or I can send a link to my wife across the room. The point is that the new serendipity can’t be planned by some programmer; it has to come from one’s own curiosity. The best that media can do is make everything available and put it in a place where it can be discovered.

Up to a point, Hulu’s the same way, but the variety’s simply not there. Plus, there’s that pay thing. This morning, John Hagel turned me on to Bridget Bardot, the French actress who awakened those adult thoughts in this adolescent boy. I then searched for James Brown’s Superbad, because I’d been hearing the thing during the NBA Finals. Then to the Blues Brothers. Finally, thanks to Eric Deggans, the drum solos from Letterman last week. I’m not sure that any of that could have been shared in the same room with my family. They would’ve just looked at me funny.

In this environment, the marketers of the world need something different to reach me, for unbundled clips aren’t conducive to 15-second TV ads. We’ve simply got to find something that moves the serendipitous adventure along, because if I see Geico, I’m bailing — immediately.

Although I did watch a bunch of Dos Equuis ads (that I chose for myself). YouTube’s like that. goes full-feed RSS

TMZ logoSomething extraordinary happened in the world of online media this week, and nobody seems to have noticed., that entertainment news and gossip juggernaut, became the biggest site on the planet to offer full-feed RSS. As of this writing, TMZ has not gotten back to me for comments, so the best I can do is speculate. As a person who has followed TMZ since its humble beginnings — and reported extensively (here) on their model, which we call “Continuous News” — I can assure you that full-feed RSS from them is significant.

What is full-feed RSS and why is it so important?

Traditional media companies all have RSS feeds, but the distributed XML portion of new items is capped at a headline and one or two sentences. This is driven by strategy: the media companies want people to read their content on their own websites, because that’s where the money is (they think). This type of feed requires people click on a link to be taken to the company’s own website. It makes sense if mass media is your model, but it makes no sense in the world of distributed (unbundled) media. Traditional media companies have, therefore, used RSS only as a marketing toy, a notification system, of sorts.

But it wasn’t created for that, and every blogger knows it. And apparently, now knows it, too. Here’s the way their feed looked in my RSS reader this week. Before this week, the only thing I’d see in the viewing panel was a headline and a sentence. Now, the entire story is available for viewing WITHOUT me bringing up their website in the browser associated with my reader.

TMZ's RSS feed

Let’s say your TV station carries the syndicated TMZ program. You can now create an RSS widget that brings all of their news into your window. If you’re creating an aggregator of entertainment news using RSS, TMZ’s content will stand out, because it will all “be there.” This is the beauty of place-based distribution, because it doesn’t care where it’s posted; it simply wants to be seen.

This flies in the face of traditional mass media thinking. Who would be so crazy, the thinking goes, as to “give” their exclusive content away like that? The proverbial “crazy like a fox,” that’s who.

Let me state clearly why this is so important.

  • Distributed or unbundled content IS the future of news content. It “fits” the handshake, the touchpoint, the missing puzzle piece of the Web. Downstream, every piece of exclusive content will be unbundled, because if it’s not, it won’t be a part of the coming aggregation plays, those business that SERVE users by filtering or curating the content of the many for the consumption of the one. This is inevitable, no matter how much traditional media kicks and screams against it.
  • Advertising “as items” in an RSS feed are where the real future money is, although it’s only there in a trickle today. These ads are visible. There’s no “banner blindness.” And they provide real SEO value (see below). Look at the image of my reader again. Above the viewing panel is, like any email software, the headlines of the feed. If I see a headline I like, I can read its content below. Now imagine if, say, every 10th headline began with: “ADVERTISEMENT” or “SPONSOR.” I could look at it or not. Ads done this way are of very high value. As I noted a few weeks ago, John Gruber of the geek blog “Daring Fireball” sells a weekly sponsorship for his blog for $5,500 (that’s $22k a month). He’s currently sold out through mid-July. Here’s the way that looks in my reader:Daring Fireball's RSS feed
  • An advertisement as a part of content on a media website is worth another $250 a month, simply due to search engine optimization (SEO) value. It’s a permanent piece of content with a link or multiple links back to the sponsor, and it has significant value back to the advertiser. I know one advertiser who buys the cheapest ad deals possible simply to get his ads (with links) “on” the pages of big websites. Why? He doesn’t care if people actually “see” the ads; for him, it’s all about SEO.
  • There are ad networks that will populate your RSS feed with banners, including all the standard IAB sizes. The problem with these in a viewing panel of a headline-and-sentence feed is that the banner dominates everything, and frankly, that’s an insult. For example, here’s what TMZ competitor Enews Daily’s feed looks like:Enews Daily RSS feedYou can see how ridiculous (and transparent) that looks compared to a whole story with an ad.

RSS advertising hasn’t taken off for the same reason RSS hasn’t fully taken off: the media industry doesn’t see the value (or like it), but I expect that to be changing sooner than later. When that happens, we’ll discover even more about how to monetize that distributed content. There’s been a lot of talk lately about RSS “dying” due to social media, but RSS is the mechanism by which unbundled media moves around the Web, and contrary to dying, I think it’s just moved from the bottle to solid food. pioneered the Continuous News model by proving that they could produce compelling news content in blog format, item by item and bit by bit. They saw the demand and had the courage to go with the “latest item on top” concept of Web display, something traditional media companies have a hard time grasping. It has served them well

What about you and your company? Are you going to wait until somebody else writes the rules about unbundled advertising, or do you have the courage and conviction to do that yourself?

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,


Preparing for Unbundled Television

Last week’s big news about Netflix acquiring rights to a potentially big hit program prior to production – and in the process outbidding even HBO – ought to get our attention. Unbundled television is the future of television, and it’s a scary thought for those of us who’ve spent our lives exploiting the linear “broadcast” paradigm. No one would argue that unbundled consumption is THE current reality in the music world, and it’s just a matter of time before the same can be said of video. This won’t happen overnight (although it might seem that way one day), but what can we do now? How do we prepare for such a shift? That’s the essence of this essay.

Preparing for Unbundled Television

I believe this essay is especially important today and that you’ll use the information contained here to begin the unbundled discussion at your station.