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The Preference Bubble

December 11 2014 // Advertising + Marketing + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

A couple of mornings each week I drive down to my local Peet’s for some coffee. There’s a barista there named Courtney who is referred to by her co-workers as the Michael Jordan of baristas. Why? She can remember the names and orders for a vast number of customers.

“Both today AJ?” she asks me as I walk over to the counter.

“Yes, thank you,” I reply and with that I’ve ordered a extra hot 2% medium latte and a non-fat flat large latte.

This is a comforting experience. It’s a bit like the TV show Cheers.

Yet online we seem to think of this experience as something akin to having your foot eaten by a marmot. The person knows my name and what I usually buy? Something must be done! Courtney shouldn’t know any of that. Where’s my Men In Black pen so I and zap away any memory that this event ever occurred.

Men In Black Memory Erasing Pen

Courtney actually knows quite a bit about me. From that drink order she knows I’m ordering for another person. In rare instances she’s seen this other person – my wife. Courtney used to work at another Peet’s years ago that we frequented before we bought our house. So she knows we have a daughter.

The reason Courtney asks whether I want both is because about one out of every ten times or so I’m just getting something for myself. I’m driving off somewhere for a client meeting and not ferrying caffeine goodness back home.

Online some might suggest that it’s dangerous that I’m being presented with the same thing I usually get. I’m in a filter bubble that might perpetuate and reinforce my current life patterns and create a type of stunted stasis where I don’t experience new things. But here’s how this works.

“No, I’m going off the board today Courtney,” I reply. “I’ll take a medium cappuccino today.”

Just like that the supposedly dangerous filter bubble is popped. Of course it’s a bit more nuanced when we talk about it online but as our online and offline experiences become more similar this is an important reference point.

The Filter Bubble

The Filter Bubble

What is the Filter Bubble exactly? Eli Pariser coined the phrase to describe the way personalization and other online filters create a bubble of homogenous content that can have unforeseen and dire consequences in his book, aptly called The Filter Bubble.

The zenith of this personalization phobia was revealed in a remark by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.

I tend to think Mark is right but that’s not what I’m supposed to say. That’s not the ‘right’ thing to say. Yet human behavior just doesn’t work that way.

Similarly, I didn’t want to like The Filter Bubble. And while I disagree with some aspects, and many of the conclusions, I find the book compelling in a lot of ways. Not only that but I genuinely like Eli from an observer point of view. He’s been an activist of causes for which I support and created a framework (twice!) to help get the message out to people about important issues. #badass

My problem is that the filter bubble is increasingly used as a retort of fear, uncertainty and doubt when discussing personalization, marketing and privacy. It’s become a proxy to end discussions about how our personal data can, will and should be used as technology advances. Because despite the dire warnings about the dangers of the filter bubble, I believe there’s potentially more to gain than to lose.

What it requires us to do is to step outside of the echo chamber (see what I did there?) and instead rename this process the preference bubble.

Where Is Information Diversity?

US Geographic Mobility Graphic

Where do we get information from? The Filter Bubble covers the changing way in which information has been delivered to us via newspapers and other mediums. It documents how the Internet was supposed to allow for a flourish of different voices but hasn’t seemed to match that in reality. One can quibble about that outcome but I’d like to back up even further.

Instead of thinking about where we get information from lets consider where we consume that information. How many people in the US live where they were born? According to the 2010 US Census 59% remain in the state in which they were born (pdf) and there is similar evidence from Pew as well.

Not only that but there’s a host of evidence that Americans don’t often travel overseas and that many may never even leave the confines of their own state. The data here is a bit fuzzy but in combination it seems clear that we’re a nation that is largely stuck and rooted.

Most people will reference family and general comfort with surroundings as reasons to stay near where they were born or vacation. But what we’re really talking about is fear and xenophobia in many ways. It’s uncomfortable to experience something new and to challenge yourself with different experiences.

I was fiercely against this for some reason and made it a mission to break out from my northeastern seaboard culture. I moved from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to San Diego to San Francisco. I also traveled to South America, the South Pacific, numerous countries in Europe and a bevy of different states in the US. I am a different and better person for all of those experiences. Travel and moving opens your eyes to a lot of things.

So when we talk about information diversity I tend to think it may not make much difference what you’re consuming if you’re consuming it in the same location. The same patterns and biases emerge, shepherding you to the common mores of your peers.

Your community shapes how you think about information and what information is important. One only has to take a trip into the central valley of California to hear chatter about water redistribution. I have some sense of the debate but because it’s not in my backyard it barely registers.

Notre Dame Football

Taken to another level, your family is a huge filter for your information consumption. We know that bigotry and other forms of hate are often passed down through family. On a trivial level I’ve passed down my distaste for Notre Dame football to my daughter. She actively roots against them now, just as I do. It’s an odd, somewhat ugly, feeling and I’m perversely glad for it because it makes me mindful of more important biases that could be passed on.

Yet taken to a ridiculous extreme, the filter bubble would tell us that we should forcibly remove people from their families. We should rotate through different families, a crazy version of TV’s Wife Swap, where we get a different perspective on our information as seen through the family filter.

I’d argue that the Internet and even TV has helped reduce geographic bias. Our knowledge of the world now must be bigger then the days around the campfire or those of the town crier or when we only had the town newspaper, one source of radio news and idle chatter at the local diner.

How we analyze and digest information may have changed less (potentially far less) because of geographic filters but even the presence of additional stimuli is bound to have made a difference.

Social Entropy

Social Entropy Revealed

One of the places where The Filter Bubble falls apart is the idea that our preferences will largely remain static because of constant reinforcement.

Instead, we know our preferences change as we grow and evolve. It’s something I refer to as social entropy. You are close to your college friends upon graduating and your interests have been formed largely from what you did during that time. Maybe you were totally into Frisbee Golf.

But you get that first job and then another and it’s in a slightly different vertical and now you’re interested in the slow food movement instead. You’ve connected with new people and have new interests. The old ones fade away and no amount of marketing will change that. Might it extend it? Sure. But only for a defined amount of time. Prior nostalgia can’t compete against current interest. I’ve got a shelf full of baseball cards I never look at to prove it.

The issue here is that there are external forces that will change your preferences despite all efforts to personalize your experience through search and social platforms. Who knew I’d be so interested in Lymphoma until I was diagnosed in October? The idea that we’ll simply continue to consume what we always consume is … specious.

You might love pizza, but you’re going to stop wanting it if you eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day for a month. I know, that’s pure hyperbole. Instead lets talk about babies. (Got to keep you on your toes!) You have one and then suddenly you’re part of a mother’s group, women (and some men) thrown together by the happenstance of conception. For a while these relationships are strong but as your children grow these relationships largely dissolve.

Not only that but you aren’t continuing to watch the dreaded and whiny Caillou when your child is now 8 years old. The filter bubble fails to take into account social entropy.

Serendipity

Balsamic Vinegar and Strawberries! Who knew?

From social entropy we can segue nicely into serendipity. At some point, people crave and want something different. Serendipity is the unexpected appearance of something, often in relation to something else, that creates an epiphany or breakthrough. Balsamic vinegar and strawberries? Oh my god, it’s delicious!

Search Engines (pdf) and information retrieval in general has been interested in serendipity (pdf) for quite some time. Not only in the capacity to encourage creativity but to ensure that a balanced view of a topic is delivered to users. The latter is what raises the hackles of Pariser and others when it comes to search results. The left-leaning political user will get different search results than the right-leaning political user.

This seems to be the cardinal sin since we all aren’t seeing the same thing on the same topic. Now, never mind that seeing the same thing doesn’t mean you’re going to change your behavior or view on that topic. We perceive things very differently. Think about eyewitness statements and how the car the bank robbers drove away in was both a red sports car and a dark SUV. Even when we’re seeing the same thing we’re seeing something different.

But I digress.

Google believes in personalization but they aren’t just trying to tell you what you want to know. Search engines work hard to ensure there is a base level of variety. Amit Singhal has spoken about it numerous times in relation to the filter bubble accusation.

At a 2012 SMX London Keynote Singhal was noted to say the following:

Amit agreed, however, that there should be serendipity. Personalization should not overtake the SERPs, but it should be present.

At a Churchill Club event in 2011 I noted how Ben Gomes spoke about search relevance.

Two humans will agree on relevance only 80% of the time. If you looked at that same result a year later, you may not agree with yourself, let alone someone else. The implication (one I happen to agree with) is that relevance is a moving target.

At the same event AllThingsD reported the following quote from Amit Singhal.

Our algorithms are tremendously balanced to give a mix of what you want and what the world says you should at least know.

Then there’s an April 2012 interview with Amit Singhal on State of Search.

Regarding personalization, our users value serendipity in search as well, so we actually have algorithms in place designed specifically to limit personalization and promote variety in the results page.

There’s a constant evaluation taking place ensuring relevance and delivering what people want. And what they want is personalization but also serendipity or a diverse set of results. Just as we wouldn’t want pizza every day we don’t want the same stuff coming up in search results or our social feeds time and time again.

We burn out and crave something new and if these platforms don’t deliver that they’ll fail. So in some ways the success of search and social should indicate that some level of serendipity is taking place and that wholesale social or interest entropy (perhaps that’s a better term) isn’t causing them to implode.

Human Nature

Human Nature LOLcat

One of the things that Pariser touches on is whether humans aim for more noble endeavors or if we seek out the lowest common denominator. This seems to be what pains Pariser in many ways. That as much as it would be nice if people actively sought out differing opinions and engaged in debate about important topics that they’re more likely to click on the latest headline about Kim Kardashian.

So we’ll be more apt to click on all the crap that comes up in our Facebook feed instead of paying attention to the important stuff. The stuff that matters and can make a difference in the world. The funny thing is he figured out a way to hack that dynamic in many ways with the launch of Upworthy, which leverages that click-bait viral nature but for an agent of good.

To be fair, I worry about this too. I don’t quite understand why people gravitate toward the trivial Why “who wore it better” is at all important. I could care less what Shia LeBeouf is doing with his life. I watch The Soup to keep up with reality TV because I could never actually watch it. And I fail to see why stupid slasher movies that appeal to the base parts of ourselves remain so damn popular. It’s … depressing.

But it’s also human nature.

I guess you could argue, as was argued in A Beautiful Mind, that a “diet of the mind” can make a difference. I think there is truth to that. It’s, oddly, why I continue to read a lot of fiction. But I’m unsure that can be forced on people. Or if it can be, it has to be done in a way that creates a habit.

Simply putting something else in front of a person more often isn’t going to change their mind.

One More Facebook Post Makes A Difference?

That’s not how it works. In fact there’s a lot of evidence that it might do more harm than good. A good deal of my time in the last year has been dedicated to exploring attention and memory. Because getting someone to pay attention and remember is incredibly powerful.

What I’ve realized is that attention and memory all gets tied up in the idea of persuasion. The traditional ways we think about breaking the filter bubble do nothing to help persuade people.

Persuasion

Persuasion?

The fact is that being exposed to other points of view, particularly online, doesn’t aide in persuasion. There’s more and more research that shows that the opposite might be true. Simply putting those opposing views in front of someone doesn’t change human behavior. We still select the opinion that resonates with our personal belief system.

There’s a myriad of academic research as well as huckster like advice on persuasion. So I’m not going to provide tips on persuasion or delve into neuromarketing or behavioral economics. These are, though, all interesting topics. Instead I want to address how popping the filter bubble doesn’t lead to desired results.

One of the major areas of contention is the exposure to opposing political viewpoints on a variety of issues. The theory here is that if I only see the Fox News content I won’t ever have an opportunity to get the opposing point of view and come to a more reasoned decision. The problem? When we engage on these charged topics we don’t reach consensus but instead radicalize our own opinion.

From research referenced in this Mother Jones piece on comment trolls we get this interesting nugget.

The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.

Exposure didn’t move people toward the middle, it polarized them instead. This dovetails with additional research that shows that people often don’t want to be right.

Not all false information goes on to become a false belief—that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge—and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct. Take astronomy. If someone asked you to explain the relationship between the Earth and the sun, you might say something wrong: perhaps that the sun rotates around the Earth, rising in the east and setting in the west. A friend who understands astronomy may correct you. It’s no big deal; you simply change your belief.

But imagine living in the time of Galileo, when understandings of the Earth-sun relationship were completely different, and when that view was tied closely to ideas of the nature of the world, the self, and religion. What would happen if Galileo tried to correct your belief? The process isn’t nearly as simple. The crucial difference between then and now, of course, is the importance of the misperception. When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

The piece (which is just brilliant) goes on to underscore the problem.

In those scenarios, attempts at correction can indeed be tricky. In a study from 2013, Kelly Garrett and Brian Weeks looked to see if political misinformation—specifically, details about who is and is not allowed to access your electronic health records—that was corrected immediately would be any less resilient than information that was allowed to go uncontested for a while. At first, it appeared as though the correction did cause some people to change their false beliefs. But, when the researchers took a closer look, they found that the only people who had changed their views were those who were ideologically predisposed to disbelieve the fact in question. If someone held a contrary attitude, the correction not only didn’t work—it made the subject more distrustful of the source. A climate-change study from 2012 found a similar effect. Strong partisanship affected how a story about climate change was processed, even if the story was apolitical in nature, such as an article about possible health ramifications from a disease like the West Nile Virus, a potential side effect of change. If information doesn’t square with someone’s prior beliefs, he discards the beliefs if they’re weak and discards the information if the beliefs are strong.

The emphasis is mine but it is vital to understanding that the areas where Pariser and others show such concern for the application of the filter bubble – in those areas where the issues are going to matter to our society – that popping that bubble might actually be detrimental.

If you’ve chosen to make the fact that vaccinations cause autism a part of your belief system and have responded by not having your children vaccinated it won’t be easy to change that viewpoint. #dummies

Another post on Facebook from a friend telling you how the vaccination link to autism has been completely debunked won’t have any impact. The numerous results on Google that point to this fact won’t help either. Instead, you’ll wind up distrusting those sources and falling back on others that conform to your beliefs.

Popping the filter bubble will not persuade people to think differently.

Oddly enough the one thing that seems to open the door to change is feeling good about yourself.

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would. On all issues, attitudes became more accurate with self-affirmation, and remained just as inaccurate without. That effect held even when no additional information was presented—that is, when people were simply asked the same questions twice, before and after the self-affirmation.
Still, as Nyhan is the first to admit, it’s hardly a solution that can be applied easily outside the lab. “People don’t just go around writing essays about a time they felt good about themselves,” he said. And who knows how long the effect lasts—it’s not as though we often think good thoughts and then go on to debate climate change.

Another study detailed in a NiemanLab post shows that people feel more positive when an article proposes a solution instead of just presenting a problem.

After reading one of these six possible articles, respondents answered a survey about what they’d read. Did the article seem different from typical news articles? Do you feel more interested in the issue, or better informed? Have you gained knowledge from reading the article? Was your opinion influenced? Were you inspired? Do you feel there’s a way that you could contribute to a solution?
The results were somewhat surprising. Across all 16 measures, those who had read the solutions journalism article felt more satisfied, Curry found. “Often, doing research, you don’t get results where something works so well,” he said.

Not only that but those people were more willing to share those stories.
Solutions Journalism Leads To Sharing

“We are intrigued by the finding that people seem to want to share these stories more, and want to create conversation around them,” Hammonds says. “So we may build on that in the way we strategize with our papers.”

People are most open to change when they feel good about themselves and are more positive. In addition, those reading solutions journalism feel better and are more likely to share those stories – perhaps as a way to extend that good feeling and to feel like they’re doing something.

It makes Upworthy seem devilishly smart doesn’t it? #kudoseli

Soylent Green is Filters

Gay Pride Colors

Obviously real life experiences can transform our interests and beliefs.

I once had the idea for a story where a gay pride group would recruit a large number of homosexuals (10,000 or so) from urban environments and have them move to traditionally conservative areas where they’d pass themselves off as heterosexuals. Over the course of two years they’d join the community in all ways possible. They’d be churchgoers, friends, barbers, cube mates, insurance agents, softball players, you name it.

Then on the same day, after two years, they’d all ‘come out of the closet’ in these conservative communities. The idea being that knowing someone who is gay might be the best way to transform beliefs about homosexuality. Suddenly it’s not those ‘sodomites in San Francisco’ but Larry who helped get you a replacement car when you were in that bad accident.

Of course the idea is flawed because a movement that large would be noticed and then everyone would feel fleeced and duped. No one likes to feel that way and it retards our ability to change our opinion. But the idea here is that people and interaction is what transforms the filter bubble.

So how does this work online? Because some argue that the people you ‘friend’ online are too like you to bring new ideas into your orbit. If you were just relying on those friends you might be right. But more and more social graphs bring content liked by your friends. In other words, it’s a friend of a friend that might bring new ideas and perspectives. This is something referred to often as FOAF.

The idea here is that I might have a friend who shares certain things but if she likes something that she hasn’t shared explicitly then that content might still get passed along to me as well. I wrote about how I consciously friended people because I knew they were interested in a certain subject and would likely bring content I wouldn’t see otherwise into my universe. But even if you’re not doing this consciously, a FOAF implementation can help introduce serendipity.

Astronautalis

Instead of all this theory I’d like to present a real life example. I recently discovered Astronautalis, a really excellent songwriter/storyteller/rapper. Here’s how I wound up finding him.

I follow Wil Wheaton in large part because of his science-fiction leaning (both Star Trek TNG and Eureka) and then Table Top (which is why I play a lot of Ticket To Ride). Wil shared some content from April O’Neil, a porn star (for lack of a better term) who is also a huge science-fiction fan. I followed April’s Tumblr and she wound up sharing some of her music tastes, one of which included, you guessed it, Astronautalis.

Wrap your head around the chain of events that connects a digital marketer and father from suburban San Fransisco with Astronautalis!

So am I an atypical user? Perhaps. But even if my information diverse diet isn’t the norm this type of discovery happens naturally. You go out with your friends to a new restaurant and it’s there that you run into someone one of your friends knows who says they’re just back from an awwwwwwesome trip to Hungary.

Hearing about this gets you interested in learning more and suddenly you’re searching for information and your next vacation is to Budapest where you happen to meet another traveler from England who designs wool sweaters for a living on some green moor, which is where you wind up living as husband and wife two years later.

There’s a fear that our online activity translates into isolation, or that the only vector for information discovery is through that medium. But that’s just not the reality.

As our online and offline experiences converge and the world gets smaller we’re going to slam into the new with greater frequency, producing sharp sparks that are sure to puncture the filter bubble.

The Preference Bubble

Ham Sandwich

So for the moment lets agree that the filter bubble might not be a bad thing and that trying to eliminate it through traditional means is Sisyphean due to human nature and life experience. Instead lets talk about what it really is – a preference bubble. This is a bubble that represents what you currently prefer and will change (as I’ve noted) over time through a variety of ways.

For good or for bad there are people who are mining the preference bubble. Those people are marketers and advertisers. As in every field there are some that will exploit the preference bubble and take things too far. But that doesn’t mean we should reject it outright.

My dad told me a story once about how you don’t stop liking a ham sandwich because Richard Nixon loves ham sandwiches. The idea being that you can still enjoy something even if there are tangential parts of it that are distasteful.

From my perspective there’s a small anti-marketing bias throughout The Filter Bubble. But perhaps, as a marketer, I’m just a bit too sensitive and on the watch for this attitude. Don’t get me wrong. I have a severe distaste for many (if not most) fellow marketers who seem more than happy to spit out a few buzzwords and feel good when they make a vendor decision on their latest RFP. #CYAmuch

Yet, there are other marketers who combine creativity and data and are passionate about both the fundamentals and the details of their craft – and it is a craft. In the very general sense marketing is about finding a need and filling it. The preference bubble gives marketers the ability to find those needs far quicker and with more accuracy.

Marketers want to save you time and effort, read and buy things you desire as quickly as possible. Do we want to make a buck doing it? Absolutely. But the good ones aren’t out to use the preference bubble to sell you stuff you don’t want. Sure we might make some assumptions that your penchant for kayaking might also indicate that you’d want some rugged outdoor wear. But would we be wrong?

There’s been numerous instances where people can show when these models do go awry. Even now at Amazon if you buy something as a gift for someone but don’t mark it as such, that can have some pretty interesting consequences on your recommended products. Marketers are not perfect and the data models we’re using are still evolving. But they’re getting better every day. And that’s important.

Privacy?

Elbow Fetish and Privacy

As marketers get better at mining the preference bubble we have an opportunity to engage instead of obfuscate.

Chris Messina wrote about this recently where he discussed the very real trade off that takes place with the preference bubble.

Ultimately I do want companies to know more about me and to use more data about me in exchange for better, faster, easier, and cheaper experiences. 

That’s what the preference bubble is all about. We want this! If you’re a vegetarian and you’re looking for a place to eat out wouldn’t it be nice if the results presented didn’t include steak houses? But we need to understand what and when we’re giving our preferences to marketers. We need to know the personal ROI for providing that information.

I often tell people that privacy is far more bark than bite. How quickly do we provide name, address and phone number on a little comment card and slip it into the window of a Ford Mustang sitting at the local mall, hoping that we’ll be the lucky winner of said car. Pretty quick.

How often do we mindlessly hand over our driver’s license to cashiers to verify our credit cards when there is no such law saying we need to do so. Every damn time right? It’s just easier to go along with it, even if you’re grumbling under your breath about it being bunk.

But here we’re making conscious decisions about how we want to share our private information. It may not always be the most noble exchange but it is the exchange that we are willingly making.

The change that Chris Messina rightly asks for is a data-positive culture. One were our ‘data capital’ is something we marshall and can measure out in relation to our wants and needs. We might not want our elbow fetish to be part of our public preference bubble. That should be your right and you shouldn’t be bombarded with tweed elbow patch and skin cracking ointment ads as a result.

It would be nice if the things we feel so self-conscious about didn’t come under such scrutiny. You shouldn’t be ashamed of your elbow fetish. That would be really data-positive. Many have written that a transparent society might be a healthier society. But there are many ways in which transparency can go wrong and we’re clearly (perhaps sadly) not at the point where this is a viable option.

Instead we should be talking about how we engage with privacy. The consternation around personalization is that people don’t know what type of private information they’re giving up to deliver that experience. But lets be clear, based on the advertising they receive users do know that they’re giving up some personal information. You don’t get that retargeted ad for the site you visited yesterday unless you’ve been tracked.

Speed Boat Wake

People know, on some level, that they’re providing this personal information as they surf. Fewer people understand that they leave behind a large digital wake, waves of data that mark their path through the Internet. What is missing is exactly what is tracked and how they might limit the amount of information being used.

The problem here is that Messina and others are asking people to participate and take what amounts to proactive action on shaping their public preference bubble. In the realm of user experience we call that friction. And friction is a death knell for a product.

It makes any opt-in only program, where nothing is tracked unless I specifically say so, a non-starter. We know that defaults are rarely changed so the vast majority wouldn’t opt-in and nearly all of us would be surfing the Internet looking at the ‘one trick to get rid of belly fab’ ad.

Not only that but your online experiences would be less fulfilling. It would be harder for you to find the things you wanted. That increased friction could lead to frustration and abandonment. And the added time taken to navigate is time taken away from other endeavors. Life gets less happy.

Point of Purchase Privacy

Shut Up And Take My Money

Is there a solution? (Because you clearly want one so you feel better about this piece and wind up sharing it with your colleagues.) One of the ideas I’ve mulled over is to deliver the data-positive message at the time of purchase. What if when you clicked on that retargeted ad and wound up buying that product that during the transaction the data transacted would also be revealed.

I’m not talking about whether you’re agreeing to opt-in to that site’s email newsletter. I’m talking about a message that would state that your purchase was made by tracking your behavior on two other sites, interacting with a Facebook ad and through a prior visit to the site in question.

It’s during that time when you’re most satisfied (you’ve just made a purchase) that you are most likely to engage in a positive way with your data capital. There’s an educational aspect, where you’re told, almost Sesame Street style that today’s purchase was brought to you by pixel tracking, search history and remarketing. But there’s also a configuration aspect, an option to access your data capital and make changes as appropriate.

If my personal data tracking led to this purchase, do I feel okay with that and do I want to double-check what other personal data might be out there or not? So it would be my time to say that my tastes have changed from a latte to a cappuccino and that while I love Astronautlis I’m not a Macklemore fan. #notthesame

So maybe I do want to zap away any memory of how that transaction occurred. That would be your right. (A bad choice I think but your right nonetheless.)

I doubt you could leave this up to each site so it would likely have to be something delivered via the browser, perhaps even a add-on/extension that would be cross-browser compliant.

I’m not an engineer but I sense there’s an opportunity here to have sites provide markup that would indicate that a page or purchase was made based on personalization and that the specific set of preferences and tracking that led to that can then be displayed in a pleasing way to the user as a result. I’m not saying it would be easy. It would need to avoid the annoying ‘this site uses cookies’ message that buzzes like a gnat across UK websites.

But I think it could be done and you could even think of it as a type of customer satisfaction and feedback mechanism if you were a smart marketer.

Are We Ourselves

Our lives are increasingly reflected by our digital wake. We are what we do online and that’s only going to grow not decline. Why not embrace that rather than deny it? I’m a perfect example of why embracing it would make sense. As a digital marketer I work with a number of clients and often visit sites that I have no personal interest in whatsoever.

Being able to quickly adjust my preference bubble appropriately would make sure my experience online was optimized. In a far flung future the cost of goods could even be reduced because the advertising and marketing spend would drop through preference bubble optimization (PBO). The maxim that advertisers are wasting half their spend, they just don’t know which half would be a thing of the past.

Beyond the crass commercialization I’m amped up about as a marketer are the societal aspects of the preference bubble. And while I share Pariser’s concerns about how people can receive and digest information I think the answer is to go through it instead of avoid it.

I remember playing Space Invaders for days on end, my thumb burning with a soon to be callus. But at some point I got bored of it and went out to count wooly caterpillars under the Japanese Maple in our front yard. This is who we are.

Our preferences are influenced by more than just what flows through our social feeds and what’s returned in search results. And while I wish we could force a ‘diet of the mind’ on people the fact is that people are going to consume what they want to consume until they decide not to.

I’d prefer to make it easier to show who we are when they’re most open to seeing it. We need to point them to their own Japanese Maple.

TL;DR

The filter bubble is not something terrible but is a product of human nature and geographic bias. It has been around before the Internet and will be there long after because it simply reflects our preferences.

Our preferences are a product of more than our digital diet and trying to change that digital diet externally may actually backfire. So as we express and conduct more of our life online we should embrace the preference bubble and the privacy issues that come with it so we can gain better, faster experiences.

StumbleUpon Remarketing

July 21 2014 // Marketing // 7 Comments

For years I’ve used a combination of StumbleUpon and Google Remarketing to cheaply and efficiently open the top of the funnel for start-ups.

I don’t hear much about this tactic (though perhaps I’m not looking in the right places) so here’s a little explanation on this handy growth hack.

StumbleUpon

StumbleUpon Logo

You remember StumbleUpon right? A darling of the Web 1.0 world, it was purchased by eBay in 2007 where it was largely ignored until it was bought back in 2009. It doesn’t get a lot of press but it’s still a well-trafficked property and product.

I’m not saying it’s in some sort of renaissance or anything. But it delivers traffic and has benefits many overlook.

Paid Discovery

You can buy ‘Stumbles’. That shouldn’t be news to you since you’ve been able to do that for ages. But … StumbleUpon has been overshadowed by other platforms so I often get a furrowed brow and a ‘you learn something new everyday’ response when I tell people this.

The paid StumbleUpon product is called Paid Discovery. Like nearly any paid ad product today you can target StumbleUpon users by geography, age, gender and interest. This is important since you only want to find people who are interested in your site or product.

StumbleUpon Ad Targeting and Costs

The news gets even better because you can buy these targeted visits on the cheap from anywhere from $0.10 to $0.20 a click. It used to be cheaper but it’s still a bargain for guaranteed targeted visits.

Now, there is often some discrepancy between paid Stumbles and what shows up in Google Analytics due to various issues. You can obsess about this or simply shrug your shoulders and move on. I recommend the latter.

I figure I’ll make up the difference based on earned Stumbles, those StumbleUpon visits you get for free because your content has been well received.

Low Engagement

If you’re familiar with StumbleUpon you know that the product itself encourages low engagement. You ‘Stumble’ from one site to the next in a Tumblr for websites like fashion. It’s sort of like channel surfing on TV when you’re bored and looking for something interesting, yet not really having the time to watch for long anyway.

Marketers complain that StumbleUpon traffic has a 90%+ bounce rate and 1.1 page views per visit. And they’re not wrong. Here’s a look at the metrics for the campaign I launched to show how this works.

StumbleUpon Low Engagement Numbers

This is why most marketers write off StumbleUpon as a viable channel. Yet, if you’re creative, you can use the limitations of StumbleUpon to your advantage.

And I have, time and time again.

Forced Brand Exposure

Clockwork Orange Eye Scene

The first thing to recognize is that StumbleUpon essentially forces visits to your site. This means you don’t have to deal with ad blindness or click-through rate issues to get exposure.

The problem with many StumbleUpon campaigns is that they don’t create a page that will work at a glance. Because it’s not about engaging on that visit. Don’t try to encourage an activity that is antithetical to the product. User engagement metrics should be largely ignored when using StumbleUpon.

The job of a StumbleUpon visit is to ensure that the user leaves remembering your site and what you’re offering. So the page has to be designed with five foot web design in mind and should be laser focused, passing any five second test with flying colors.

StumbleUpon is about getting brand and marketing message exposure.

You’re hoping that they’ll return later via another channel. I’ve seen strong correlations between an increase in direct traffic in the weeks after a StumbleUpon campaign. This would indicate that some people do remember that exposure and come back directly as a result.

But it’s awful hard to prove with all the mitigating factors.

Stumble Remarketing

Cat Looking Through Blinds

The good news is that there is a better way to get those brand exposures to come back to your site. Remarketing!

All you need to do is set a remarketing tag on that specific StumbleUpon page and you suddenly have the ability to market to a specific and relevant group of people who already have a nascent idea of your site or product.

I like having a dedicated StumbleUpon campaign page so you can isolate this group from other groups when you’re doing more complicated remarketing campaigns. It’s just far simpler to manage and measure.

Easy To Set Up

It’s a snap to set this up now that you can create Google remarketing lists (aka Audience) using Google Analytics.

Setting Up Remarketing Lists in Google Analytics

Here I’m simply targeting those users who visit my new search volume trend page. You do have to tweak your Google Analytics code to enable remarketing, which isn’t that hard if you’re willing to tinker. It’s even easier if you’re using Google Tag Manager.

Then you create your StumbleUpon campaign and watch as users ‘Stumble’ to your page and fill up your new Audience. At that point you can then go to AdWords and build a remarketing campaign using that Audience.

I won’t give the step-by-step instructions here unless there’s an outcry of folks for this level of detail.

StumbleUpon+Remarketing=Win

Funnel Cake

Even at $0.20 a visit I can take $5,000 and turn it into a list of 25,000 targeted users that I can target via remarketing for a loooong time.

Yes, the remarketing will also cost you some money but those clicks will be qualified clicks and will convert at a high rate. Not only that but if you’re smart you can use remarketing to gain extra brand exposures that produce additional view-through visits and conversions.

Stumble remarketing opens and fills your funnel with relevant users.

All you have to do is combine a remarketing tag with this targeted traffic source!

First This, Then That

Green and White Dominos Set in Spiral

My idea was to demonstrate this with a new page on my site dedicated to monthly updates to US desktop search query volume. I’ve tracked this metric for a long time and figured I would create a dedicated page for it and use StumbleUpon to announce and launch it. Then I’d use remarketing when the next month’s data was live and the graph was updated.

I screwed a few things up though so the test didn’t work quite as I’d planned. (User error!) And I haven’t seen new June numbers from comScore yet and was getting itchy to post this. But the idea was solid.

Have a defined plan behind the two exposures.

In my case I was looking to get people’s attention with one interesting graph and commentary. Then I’d bring them back with a remarketing ad when the graph was updated with a new month’s data. The ad could be the graph with a ‘see updated search trend’ call-to-action or any number of creative treatments. In a best case scenario I would also have created a subscribe option for the page itself once users got there again.

If you have a product you’re trying to sell you might have the first ‘Stumble’ exposure introduce the product and brand. The second ‘remarketing’ exposure could be a benefit message, a free white paper download or a coupon for a product trial. In some ways the first exposure is advertising and the second is marketing.

You’re a marketing boxer hitting users with a combination one-two punch.

TL;DR

By combining StumbleUpon Paid Discovery with Google Remarketing you can quickly and efficiently open and fill the top of the sales funnel. Use StumbleUpon’s low-engagement context to your advantage and deliver a memorable first impression that you then build on through additional remarketing exposures.

You Won’t Remember That Infographic

June 25 2014 // Marketing + SEO // 43 Comments

Infographics are (still) popular. Clients ask me about them all the time. I ask them to tell me about the last three infographics they remembered.

The response is generally full of stammering as they grope for an answer. Rarely do I get specifics. Even when I do they say things like ‘that infographic about craft beer’. When I ask where the infographic came from? Crickets.

Can you name the brands associated with infographics? The brands that come up most often are Mint and OK Cupid. Everyone else is an also ran. And that’s the thing. For all of their popularity, you won’t remember that infographic.

Or, at least, you won’t remember it the right way.

Triangle Of Memory

To understand why infographics are so problematic we need to look at how we remember content.

Triangle of Memory

The triangle of memory is a variant of the project management triangle that includes better, faster and cheaper attributes, of which you can only have two at any given time. You can have a project fast and cheap but it won’t be better. You can have a project fast and better but it will cost you an arm and a leg.

In terms of memory, we don’t have a massive tag based annotation system in our brains. (That’s what Delicious is for.) Instead, we remember content at a very basic level: site, author and topic. This is why I tell clients to make their content cocktail party ready.

Because you remember ‘that post on Moz about Hummingbird‘ or ‘Danny Sullivan’s analysis of New York Times subscription costs‘.

It’s site and topic, but not the author. It’s author and topic but not site. Rarely it is author and site but not topic. Examples of this might be ‘the latest column by Krugman in the New York Times’ or ‘last week’s episode of John Oliver on HBO’.

I’m not saying you never get all three. You hit the three cherries jackpot once in a while. But it’s rare. Counting on it is like counting on winning at the casino.

The Infographics Monster

Infographics Monster

The problem with infographics is that they destroy the triangle of memory. They gobble up one of those three memory attributes leaving you with only one left to use. It’s always ‘that infographic’. And like it or not the attribute most people select is the topic, resulting in the phrase ‘that infographic about …’.

That means your site or brand disappears! And no. No one remembers (and may not even see) your logo that you’ve slapping on there.

‘That infographic about AdWords conversion rates’ is done by who exactly? Where do I find it again? Ah, never mind. Or worse yet they search for it and they find something or someone else instead.

If users don’t remember that it’s your brand or site, have you really succeeded?

Wasted Attention

Chocolate Covered Donut

Not only are infographics often costly (both in time and money) but you’ve wasted that sliver of attention you’ve worked so hard to earn.

Here you’ve got the eyeballs of a user and they leave without remembering who you are or where they saw it. Heck they might even attribute it to the platform where they discovered it such as Facebook, Pinterest or Google+.

Winning the attention auction isn’t easy and when you do win it you better ensure you’re using that attention wisely. I’d argue an infographic is wasted attention. It’s attention without any lasting value. It’s empty (branding) calories.

When Infographics Work

LOL Cat vs OMG Cat

By and large I steer clients away from infographics and prefer to have them work on other content initiatives where they’ll build brand equity. But that’s not to say that infographics can’t work. They can. But it takes a serious commitment and attention to execution.

Doing one or two infographics is like flushing a fist full of hundred dollar bills down the toilet. If you’re going to do infographics, do infographics. Commit to producing one every month for 18 months.

Consistent engaging infographics is what makes your brand stick. It’s why Mint and OK Cupid succeeded where so many others failed.

I’d also argue that infographics must make users LOL or OMG. If they don’t provoke one of those two reactions then you’re not going to gain traction or attention.

The other way to go is to leverage the infographic into other channels and make it repeatable. Search Engine Land’s Periodic Table of SEO Success Factors (a bit of a mouthful) was printed and handed out at SMX Advanced and has been updated three (?) times now.

It’s an iconic piece pushed through multiple marketing channels to reinforce the site and brand. That’s how you do it.

Don’t Talk To Me About Links

I know some of you are about flexing your fingers about to type out a comment about how your infographic obtained 12 links with an average DA of 49.

Velma Says You Stop That!

Links aren’t the goal of your infographic campaign. Your customers don’t care if you’re on some cheesoid infographic aggregator site. Instead I want to know if that infographic won the brand more true fans. Did it increase the brand’s visibility? Because those things will lead to long-term authority and, by the way, downstream links.

If you’re in such desperate need of links there are far better and cheaper ways to earn them than the branding black hole known as the infographic.

Visibility

Zero Visibility

Another argument for infographics is that they provide you with more visibility. If I see an infographic and then I see a Slideshare deck and then I search and I find a blog post over the course of weeks or months, then perhaps the brand or site begins to sink in.

In principle, I agree. But that only works if I associate that infographic with the other pieces of content and that I have those other pieces of content, which all support my site or brand.

In other words, you better have a comprehensive content strategy (including promotion) that doesn’t rely on just one tactic or medium. I like Jason Miller’s idea around Big Rock Content, though I think the missing ingredient is being memorable.

TL;DR

Infographics are a poor way to build your brand and earn true fans because they destroy the triangle of memory. A successful infographic campaign must be part of a larger content strategy, focusing on repeatable efforts that make people LOL or OMG and can be pushed through multiple marketing channels to reinforce the site or brand.

The Ridiculous Power of Blog Commenting

March 25 2014 // Marketing + SEO // 141 Comments

Blog commenting is the not-so-secret weapon to building your brand and authority. I’m not talking about comment spam or finding do follow blogs and littering them with links. No, the blog commenting I’m talking about lets you cut through the clutter and tap into the attention of creators.

Participation Inequality

To understand why blog commenting is so powerful you first need to grasp the concept of participation inequality.

In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

You might also hear this concept referred to as the 90:9:1 Principle or The 1% Rule. You could even stretch a bit and mention the Pareto Principle in this discussion. The idea here is that the vast majority of people lurk and never participate. They are consumers of content.

A small minority, the 9%, may comment, share or participate in other ways. But it’s the 1% left that actually create the content that is consumed. When I explain it to people I refer to these groups as lurkers, reactors and creators respectively.

Participation Inequality Pyramid

What’s surprising (to me at least) is that many people still haven’t caught on to this idea. They remain shocked and appalled that 90%+ of Yelp reviews come from 1% of users. They use low activity (defined as contributing) on services like Twitter and Google+ to argue that they’re not viable.

Twopcharts Twitter Activity by Year

Now what type of person do you think was more likely to sign up and use Twitter back in 2008?  Lurker, reactor or creator? Give yourself a gold star if you answered creator. And that’s why the percentage still Tweeting from those years is higher. As the service became more mainstream, more lurkers joined the service.

And that’s okay!

Trying to ‘fix’ participation inequality is a losing battle against human nature. Most people simply aren’t going to create content for a wide variety of reasons. Sure, technology may slide the percentages a small amount but material changes to this dynamic won’t happen.

Creators

Hand Painted Saucer

If creators are responsible for nearly all of the content we consume, that makes them … pretty powerful. I dare say, you might call them influencers. Now, I don’t particularly like that term but there’s a certain amount of truth in it.

The sad thing is that most of the ‘influencer outreach’ content I’ve seen talks about how to identify (zzzzzz) and email these people or ways to interact with them on Twitter. I suppose that can work once in a while but the odds of securing their attention in these ways is limited and inefficient.

People continue to do this type of outreach because of the huge upside in gaining the attention of a creator. Creators often have a large audience so a mention or link in the content they create can provide a real boost to your brand and authority.

If you didn’t put the pieces together already, creators power the link graph.

Attention

Hangout Cat

Attention is at a premium and it’s your job to win the attention auction as many times as you can. It’s even more important to win the attention of creators. Yet, creators may have a more limited amount of attention to give. Why? They’re busy creating content! Seriously, it takes time (and lots of it) if you’re doing it right.

Not only that but if they’re a successful creator, the demands on their time increase. They get more email, more requests, more clients.

So how do you get the attention of a creator? Funny thing, there’s actually a really easy way to hack the attention of a creator. That’s right. Blog commenting.

You know that creators are going to be paying attention to the comments on their content. They worked hard to produce it and they’re looking to see how it’s received. Make no mistake, creators thrive on feedback and validation.

Creators hang out in the comments section. So take advantage of the implicit focus creators have on comments.

Blog Commenting

Blog Commenting

The problem with blog commenting is that most people suck at it. I’m not even talking about the cesspool of comments that often overwhelms YouTube videos or the comment spam with their ever present and overly complimentary prose clogging up moderation queues.

Commenting is your chance to get the undivided attention of that creator, if only for a few seconds as they determine whether the comment is interesting.

“Nice post. Very helpful.”

Is that comment interesting? Nope. Is it memorable? Nope. Comments like this do absolutely nothing for you. In fact, if a creator associates you with these types of moronic bland comments, you reduce your chances of securing their attention in the future.

Remember, attention is a habit. You figure out which people are worthy of your attention and which are not. The more times I choose not to pay attention to you, the more likely I am to do that in the future.

When you comment, your job is to add value to that content. That means you come with an opinion and point of view. You come with other related content that you’ll link to in your comment. Those links should not always be to your own site. No one likes the person who always talks about me, me, me.

Most creators want a reaction. They want a debate. They want a conversation. They want to learn. They want to be challenged. They want to be mentally stimulated.

Who Is This Person?

Thought Bubble

If you’ve done your job right and provided a comment that engages the creator, a thought bubble should appear over their head reading ‘who is this person?’

At that point they’re clicking on the links in your comment or on the ‘site’ link you provided in the comment meta that’s on nearly every comment platform.

A good comment gets a creator curious about that person.

They click around and do some research. Maybe you have a blog yourself and they read your latest post (or more). Maybe they like it enough they add it to their RSS reader or they find your Twitter handle and follow you there.

Of course this means you need those exploratory clicks to land somewhere that showcases your brand. Don’t make the mistake of leaving a great comment and then have the creator come through to a site that hasn’t been updated in over a year or a half-ass product page with a broken image.

If you’ve engaged the creator enough to garner more attention, don’t squander it with poor content assets.

Putting It All Together

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a few months but it wasn’t until I bumped into Larry Kim (who is a great guy) at SMX West that everything fell into place. I was chatting with Larry about this topic and he gave me a perfect example of the power of blog commenting in practice.

On February 25th the talented Elisa Gabbert compiled the opinions of SEO experts on the ‘dwindling value of links‘ (bollocks, but that’s another story.)

Wordstream PageRank Post

The post was popular and garnered 37 comments, many from other notable creators. One of those was a very comprehensive comment by Russ Jones from Virante.

Comment by Russ Jones on Wordstream PageRank post

On February 28th (three days later) the indomitable Rand Fishkin released a Whiteboard Friday video that not only linked to the Wordstream post but referenced comments by Russ Jones.

Whiteboard Friday on Link Value

And if you watch the video or read the transcript it’s crystal clear that Rand has read the comments. Heck, he uses them as the basis for a material amount of this video! It might have been nice if Moz had also linked to Virante but c’est la vie.

Do you see what just happened here!? Have I convinced you how powerful blog commenting can be in getting the attention of creators? That those creators can then provide your brand, site or product exposure by including them in their content.

But … Reasons Excuses

Cheese

I know some of you are going to complain that blog commenting like this is too time consuming. Oh? Can I offer you some cheese for that whine?

Seriously! There are few better ways to interact with creators. Not every one will result in a mention or link in three days time but done right you’re going to build your expertise and authority with the ‘right’ people.

Would you rather send out a bunch of email pitches to influencers which are essentially interruptions and attacks on their attention or instead build lasting content assets (comments my friend) while gaining exposure with said influencers? Choose wisely.

Others are rightly frustrated with comment censorship, both human and algorithmic (i.e. – spam filters). But the answer is not to remove comments (and chase away creators) but to figure out a better way to have these discussions.

TL;DR

A small amount of creators are responsible for the vast majority of the content we consume. They have a limited amount of attention yet wield a lot of influence through their ability to reference sites, products, brands or content in the content they produce.

Creators hangout in (aka devote their attention to) the comments section of their content and that of others. Thus, memorable blog comments that provoke creator curiosity (and clicks) build your authority and improve your chances of gaining a mention or link in their content in the future.

Are You Winning The Attention Auction?

January 20 2014 // Marketing + SEO + Social Media // 30 Comments

Every waking minute of every day we choose to do one thing or another.

For a long time we didn’t have many choices. Hunt the mammoths or mind the fire. Read the bible or tend the crops. I can remember when we only got six television stations on an old black and white TV.

But as technology advances we’re afforded more choices more often.

Freedom of Choice by Devo

We can decide to talk about the weather with the person next to us in the doctor’s waiting room or stare into our phone and chuckle at a stupid BuzzFeed article. We can focus on that Excel spreadsheet or we can scroll through our Facebook feed.

You can sit on the couch and watch The Blacklist or you can sit on that same couch and read Gridlinked by Neal Asher on a Kindle. You could go out and play tennis or you could go out and play Ingress and hack some portals.

I was going to overwhelm you with statistics that showed how many choices we have in today’s digital society, such as the fact that the typical email subscriber gets 416 commercial emails every month. That’s more than 10 a day!

I could go on and on because there’s a litany of surveys and data that tell the same story. But … we all know this from experience. We live and breath it every day.

We all choose to look, hear and do only so many things. Because there are only so many hours in each day.

Our time and attention is becoming our most valued resource. (Frankly, we should really guard it far more fiercely than we do.) As marketers we must understand and adapt to this evolving environment. But … it’s not new.

The Attention Auction

Content Doge Meme

There’s always been an auction on attention. That critical point in time where people decide to give their attention to one thing over the other.

Recently, there’s been quite a kerfluffle over the idea of content shock. That there’s too much content. There are some interesting points in that debate but I tend to believe the number of times content comes up in the auction has increased quite a bit. We consume far more content due to ubiquitous access.

Sure there’s more content vying for attention. But there are more opportunities to engage and a large amount of content never comes up in the auction because of poor quality or mismatched interest.

There are hundreds of TV channels but really only a handful that are contextually relevant to you at any given time. Even if there are 68 sports channels the odds that you are in the mood to watch sports and that there will be something on each of those stations at the same time that you want to watch is very small. If you’re looking to watch NFL Football then Women’s College Badminton isn’t really an option.

More importantly, I believe that we’ve adapted to the influx of content. It’s knowing how we’ve adapted that can help marketers win the attention auction more often.

We Are Internet Old!

Sample Geocities Page

Adolescents often do very reckless things. They run red lights. They engage in binge drinking. They have unprotected sex. While some point to brain development as the cause (and there’s some truth to that), I tend to believe Dr. Valerie Reyna has it right.

The researchers found that while adults scarcely think about engaging in many high-risk behaviors because they intuitively grasp the risks, adolescents take the time to mull over the risks and benefits.

It’s not that adolescents don’t weigh the pros and cons. They do and actually overestimate the potential cons. But despite that, they choose to play the odds and risk it more often than adults. In large part, this can be attributed to less life experience. They’ve had fewer opportunities to land on the proverbial whammy.

As we grow older we actually think less about many decisions because we have more experience and we can make what is referred to as ‘gist’ decisions. From my perspective it simply means we grok the general idea and can quickly say yea or nay.

So what does any of this have to do with the Internet, attention or content?

When it comes to consuming digital content, we’re old. We’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience all sorts of content to the point where we don’t have to think too hard about whether we’re going to click or not. If it fits a certain pattern we have a certain response.

Nigerian Email Scam

Nay! A thousand times nay.

The vast majority of content being produced is, to put it bluntly, crap. Technology has a lot to do with this. It is both easy and free to create content in written or visual formats. From WordPress to Tumblr to Instagram, nearly anyone can add to the content tidal wave.

Of course, the popularity of ‘content marketing’ has increased the number of bland, “me too” articles, not to mention the eyesore round-up posts that are a simulacrum of true curation.

People have wasted too much time and attention on shitty content. The result? We’re making decisions faster and faster by relying on those past experiences.

We create internal shortcuts in our mind for what is good or bad. It’s a shortcut that protects us from wasting our time and attention, but may also prevent us from finding new legitimate content. So how do we address this cognitive shortcut? How do you win the attention auction?

You can ensure that you fit that shortcut and you can add yourself to that shortcut.

Fit The Shortcut

Getting Attention

Purple Goldfish

Fitting the shortcut is simple to say, but often difficult to execute. Make sure that, at a glance, you get the attention of your user. There are plenty of ways to do this from writing good titles to using appropriate images to leveraging social sharing.

When ’1-800 service’ pops up on caller ID you’re probably making a snap decision that it’s a telemarketer and you’ll ignore the call. When it’s the name of your doctor or someone from your family you pick up the phone. This same type of process happens on nearly all social platforms as people scan feeds on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Recently Facebook even admitted to the issues revolving around feed consumption.

The fact that less and less of brands’ content will surface is described as a result of increased competition for limited space, since “content that is eligible to be shown in news feed is increasing at a faster rate than people’s ability to consume it.”

Now this is a bit disingenuous since Facebook is crowding out legitimate content for ads (a whole lot of ads) but the essence of this statement is true. Not only that but your content is at a disadvantage on Facebook since much of the content is personal in nature. Cute pictures of your cousin’s kids are going to trump and squeeze out content from brands.

So with what space you’re left with on these platforms, you better make certain it has the best chance of getting noticed and fitting that shortcut. The thing is, too many still don’t do what’s necessary to give their content the best chance of success.

If you’re not optimizing your social snippet you’re shooting your content in the foot.

Be sure your title is compelling, that you have an eye catching image, that the description is (at a minimum) readable and at best engages and entices. Of course, none of this matters unless that content finds its way to social platforms.

Make sure you’re encouraging social sharing. Don’t make me hunt down where you put the sharing options or jump through hoops once I get there.

Ensure your content is optimized for both social and search. And when you’re doing the latter rely on user centric syntax and intent to guide your optimization efforts.

Your job is to fit into that cognitive shortcut by making it easy for users to see and understand your content in the shortest amount of time possible.

Keeping Attention

Bored One Ear To Death LOLcat

Getting them to your content is the first step in winning their attention. At that point they’re giving you the opportunity to take up more of their time and attention. They made a choice but they’re going to be looking to confirm whether it was a good one with almost the same amount of speed.

When you land on a new website you instantly (perhaps unconsciously) make a decision about the quality and authority of that site and whether you’ll stick around.

A websites’ first impression is known to be a crucial moment for capturing the users interest. Within a fraction of time, people build a first visceral “gut feeling” that helps them to decide whether they are going to stay at this place or continue surfing to other sites. Research in this area has been mainly stimulated by a study of Lindgaard et al. (2006), where the authors were able to show that people are able to form stable attractiveness judgments of website screenshots within 50 milliseconds.

That’s from a joint research paper from the University of Basel and Google Switzerland about the role of visual complexity and prototypicality regarding first impression of websites (pdf).

Once they get to the content you need to ensure they instantly get positive reinforcement. Because at the same time there are other pieces of content, other things, battling for attention.

Grumpy Cat Nope

So if they don’t instantly see what they’re looking for you’re giving them a reason to say nope. If what they see on that page looks difficult to read. Nope. If they see grammatical errors. Nope. If they feel the site is spammy looking. Nope.

There is a drum beat of research, examples and terms that underscore the importance of reducing friction.

Books On Reducing Friction

Call it cognitive fluency or cognitive ease, either way we seek out things that are familiar and look like we expect. Books such as Barry Schwartz’s Paradox of Choice and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think make it clear that too many choices reduce action and satisfaction. And we should all internalize the fact that the majority of people don’t read but instead skim articles.

That doesn’t mean that the actual content has to suffer. I still write what are considered long-form posts but format them in ways that allow people to get meaning from them without having to read them word for word.

Do I hope they’re poring over every sentence? Absolutely! I’m passionate about my writing and writing in general. But I’m a realist and would prefer that more people learn or take something from my writing than have a select few read every word and laud me for sentence construction.

I still point people to my post on readability as a way to get started down this road. Make no mistake, those who optimize for readability will succeed (even with lesser content) than those that refuse to do so out of ego or other rationalizations (I’m looking at you Google blogs).

I will shout in the face of the next person who whines that they shouldn’t have to use an image in their post or that they only want people who are ‘serious about the subject’ to read their article. Wake up before you’re the Geocities of the Internet.

Tomato

The one thing I do know is that being authentic and having a personality can help you stand out. It can help you to at least get and retain attention and sometimes even become memorable. Here’s a bit of writing advice from Charles Stross.

Third and final piece of advice: never commit to writing something at novel length that you aren’t at least halfway in love with. Because if you’re phoning it in, your readers will spot it and throw rotten tomatoes at you. And because there’s no doom for a creative artist that’s as dismal as being chained to a treadmill and forced to play a tune they secretly hate for the rest of their working lives.

The emphasis is mine. Don’t. Phone. It. In.

Add To The Shortcut

Using Attention

Dude Where's My Car?

When you do get someone’s attention, what are you doing with it? You want them to add your site, product or brand to that cognitive shortcut. So the next time a piece of that content comes up in the attention auction you’ve got the inside track. They recognize it and select it intuitively.

For instance, every time I see something new from Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal, I give it my attention. He’s delivered quality and memorable content enough times that he doesn’t have to fight so hard for my attention. I have a preconceived notion of quality that I bring to each successive interaction with his content.

Welcome to branding 101.

Consistently creating positive and memorable interactions (across multiple channels) will cause users to associate your site, product or brand as being worthy of attention.

Let me be more explicit about that term ‘interactions’. Every time you’re up in the attention auction counts as an interaction. So if I choose to pass on reading your content, that counts and not in a good way. We’re creatures of habit so the more times I pass on something the more likely I am to continue passing on it.

Add to that the perception (or reality) that we have less time per piece of content and each opportunity you have to get in front of a user is critical.

Now, if I actually get someone to share a piece of content, will it be presented in a way that will win the attention auction? If it isn’t not only have I squandered that user action but I may have created a disincentive for sharing in the future. If I share something and no one gives me a virtual high five of thanks for doing so will I continue to share content from that source?

Poor social snippet optimization is like putting a kick-me sign on your user’s back.

Memorable

Make A Short Cut

If you want to be added to that cognitive shortcut you need to make it easy for them to do so. You need them to remember and remember in the ‘right’ way.

I’ve read quite a bit lately about ensuring your content is useful. I find this bit of advice exceedingly dull. I mean, are you creating content to be useless? I’m sure content spammers might but by in large most aren’t. Not only that but there’s plenty of great content that isn’t traditionally useful unless you count tickling the funny bone as useful.

Of course you’ve also probably read about how tapping into emotion can propel your content to the top! Well, there’s some truth to that but that’s often at odds with being useful such as creating a handy bookmarklet or a tutorial on Excel. I suppose you could link it to frustration but you’re not going to have some Dove soap tear-jerker piece mashed up with Excel functions. Even Annie Cushing can’t pull that off.

Story telling is also a fantastic device but it’s not a silver bullet either. Mind you, I think it has a better chance than most but even then you’re really retaining attention instead of increasing memory.

Cocktail Party

You have to make your content cocktail party ready. Your content has to roll off the tongue in conversation.

I read this piece on Global Warming in The New York Times.

I heard this song by Katy Perry about believing in yourself.

I saw this funny ad where Will Ferrell tosses eggs at a Dodge.

Seriously, when you’re done with a piece of your content, describe it to someone out loud in one sentence. That’s what it’ll be reduced to for the most part.

As humans we categorize or tag things so we can easily recall them. I think the scientific term here is ‘coding’ of information. If we can’t easily do so it’s tough for us to talk about them again, much less find them again. As an aside, re-finding content is something we do far more often than we realize and is something Google continues to try to solve.

Even when we can easily categorize and file away that bit of information, we’re not divvying it up into a very fine structure. Only the highlights make it into memory. We only take a few things from the source information. A sort of whisper down the lane effect takes place. You suddenly don’t remember who wrote it, or where you saw it.

We’re trying to optimize the ability to recall that information by using the right coding structure, one that we’ll be able to remember.

Shh Armpit

It’s the reason you need to be careful about if or how you go about guest blogging. This is also why I generally despise (strong word I know) Infographics. Because more often than not if you hear someone refer to one they say ‘That Infographic on Water Conservation’ or ‘That Infographic on The History of Beer’.

Guess what, they have no clue where they saw it or what brand it represents. Seriously. Because usually the only two things remembered are the format (Infographic) and the topic. When I ask people to name the brands behind Infographics I usually get two responses: Mint and OK Cupid. Kudos to them but a big raspberry for the rest of you.

“But the links” I hear some of you moan. Stop. Stop it right now! That lame ass link (no don’t tell me about the DA number) is nothing compared to the attention you just squandered.

I’m not saying that Infographics can’t work, but they have to be done thoughtfully, for the right reasons and to support your brand. Okay, rant over.

Ensuring people walk away with a concise meaning increases satisfaction. And getting them to repeat it to someone else helps secure your content in memory. The act of sharing helps add your site or brand to that user’s shortcut.

If there were a formula you could follow that would guarantee great content, why is there so much crap? If we all knew what makes a hit song or a hit movie why isn’t every song and film a success? This isn’t easy and anyone telling you different is lying.

Consistent

Janet Jackson

You can also add to the shortcut by creating an expectation. This can be around the quality of your content but that’s pretty tough to execute on. I mean, I completely failed at generating enough blog content last year. I’m not advocating a paint-by-numbers schedule, but I had more to say and at some point if you’re name isn’t out there they begin to forget you.

There’s a fair amount of research that shows that memory is a new mapping of neurons and that the path becomes stronger with repeated exposure. You inherently know this by studying. The more you study the more you remember.

But what if the memory of your site or brand, that path you’re creating in your user’s mind, isn’t clear. What if the first time you associate the brand with one thing and the next time it’s not quite that thing you thought it was. Or that the time between exposures is so great that you can’t find that path anymore and inadvertently create a new path. How many times have you saved something only to realize you already saved it at some point in the past?

Now, I’m out there in other ways. I keep my Twitter feed going with what I hope is a great source of curated content across a number of industries. My Google+ feed is full of the same plus a whole bunch of other content that serves as a sort of juxtaposition to the industry specific content.

One of the more successful endeavors on Google+ is my #ididnotwakeupin series where I share photos from places around the world. It’s a way for me to vicariously travel. So every morning for more than two years I’ve posted a photo tagged with #ididnotwakeupin.

The series gets a decent amount of engagement and if I tried harder (i.e. – interacted with other travel and photography folks) I’m pretty sure I could turn it into something bigger. I even had an idea of turning it into a coffee table book. I haven’t though. Why? Because there’s only so much time in every day. See what I did there?

Another example of this is Moz’s Whiteboard Friday series. You aren’t even sure what the topic is going to be but over time people expect it to be good so they tune in.

Or there’s Daily Grace It’s Grace on YouTube where people expect and get a new video from Grace Helbig every Monday through Friday. Want to double-down on consistent? Tell me what phrase you remember after watching this video from Grace (might be NSFW depending on your sensitivity).

Very … yeah, you know.

That’s right. Repetition isn’t a bad thing. The mere exposure effect demonstrates that the more times we’re exposed to something the better chance we’ll wind up liking it. This is what so many digital marketing gurus don’t want you to hear.

Saturation marketing (still) works because more exposure equals familiarity which improves cognitive fluency which makes it easier to remember.

It’s sort of like the chorus in a song, right? Maybe you don’t know all the words to each verse but you know the chorus! Particularly if you can’t get away from hearing it on the radio every 38 minutes.

In some ways, the number of exposures necessary is inversely proportional to the quality of the content. Great content or ads don’t need much repetition but for me to know that it’s JanuANY at Subway this month might take a while.

Climbing Mount Diablo

And the biggest mistake I see people make is stopping. “We blogged for a few months and saw some progress but not enough to keep investing in it.” This is like stopping your new diet and exercise regimen because you only lost 6 pounds.

You always have to be out there securing and reinforcing your brand as a cognitive shortcut.

Does Pepsi decide that they just don’t need to do any more advertising? Everyone knows about Pepsi so why spend a billion dollars each year marketing it? You just can’t coast. Well, you can, but you’re taking a huge risk. Because someone or something else might fill the void. (Note to self, I need to take this advice.)

Shared

Everywhere

The act of sharing content likely means it will be remembered. To me it’s almost like having to describe that content in your head again as you share it. You have that small moment where you have to ask questions about what you’re sharing, with who and why it’s interesting.

So sharing isn’t just about getting your content in front of other people it’s helping to cement your content in the mind of that user.

Of course, having the same piece of content float in front of your face a number of times from different sources helps tremendously. Not only are you hitting on the mere exposure effect you’re also introducing some social proof to the equation.

To me the goal isn’t really to ‘go viral’ but to increase the number of times I’m winning the attention auction by getting there more often with an endorsement.

You might not click on that ‘What City Should You Actually Live In?‘ quiz on Facebook the first time but after four people have posted their answers you just might cave and click through. (Barcelona by they way.)

Examples

Breaking Bad

Walt and Jessie Suited Up on The Couch Eating

How did Breaking Bad become such a huge hit? It wasn’t when it first started out. I didn’t watch the first two seasons live.

But enough people did and AMC kept the faith and kept going. Because enough people were talking about it. It was easy to talk about too. “This show where a chemistry teacher becomes a meth dealer.” Bonus points that the plot made it stand out from anything else on TV.

And then you figured out that you could watch it on Netflix! People gave it a try. Then they began to binge watch seasons and they were converts. They wanted more. MOAR!

Of course none of it would have happened if it weren’t a great show. But Breaking Bad was also consistent, persistent, memorable and available.

BuzzFeed

BuzzFeed Logo

I know what you’re thinking. BuzzFeed? Come on, their content sucks! And for the most part I’d have to agree. But it’s sort of a guilty pleasure isn’t it?

Here’s why I think BuzzFeed works. You’ve found yourself on a BuzzFeed ‘article’ a number of times. It’s not high quality in most senses of the word but it does often entertain. Not only that it does so very quickly.

If I’m ‘reading’ the 25 Times Anna Kendrick Was Painfully Accurate post I’m only scrolling through briefly and I do get a chuckle or two out of it. This has happened enough times that I know what to expect from BuzzFeed.

I’ve created a cognitive shortcut that tells me that I can safely click-through on a BuzzFeed post because I’ll get a quick laugh out of it. They entertain and they respect my time. For my wife that same function is filled by Happy Place.

Blind Five Year Old

Blind Five Year Old Logo

How about my site and personal brand? I’ve done pretty well but it took me quite a while to get there, figuring out a bunch of stuff along the way.

Seriously, I blogged in relative obscurity from 2008 to 2010. But over time the quality of my posts won over a few people. But quality wasn’t enough. I also got better and better at optimizing my content for readability and for sharing.

I use a lot of images in my content. And I spend a lot of time on selecting and placing them. I still think I botched the placement of an image in my Keywords Still Matter post. And it still irks me. No, I’m not joking.

The images make it easier to read. Not only do they give people a rest, they allow me to connect on a different level. Sometimes I might be able to communicate an idea better with the help of that image. It helps to make it all click.

I use a lot of music references as images. Part of it is because I like music but part of it is because if you’re suddenly singing that song in your head, then you’re associating my content with that song, if even just a little. When I do that I have a better chance of you remembering that content. I’ve helped create a tag in your mental filing system.

I try to build more ways for you to connect my content in your head.

TL;DR

We have more choices more often when it comes to content. In response to this we’re protecting our time and attention by making decisions on content faster. Knowing this, marketers must work harder to fit cognitive shortcuts we’ve created, based on experience, for what is perceived as clickable or authoritative content.

Alternatively, the consistent delivery and visibility of memorable content can help marketers create a cognitive shortcut, giving themselves an unfair advantage when their content comes up in the attention auction.

Stop Carly Rae Content Marketing

December 17 2013 // Marketing + SEO // 12 Comments

Lately I’ve gotten a few too many Carly Rae content marketing emails, which makes me both sad and grouchy. This is not the way to promote content, gain fans or build a brand. Stop it.

What Is Carly Rae Content Marketing?

Carly Rae Content Marketing

The term comes from Carly Rae Jespen’s popular Call Me Maybe song which contains the following lyrics.

Hey I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my number
So call me maybe

I’ve changed the lyrics slightly to reflect the emails I’m increasingly receiving from folks.

Hey I just met you
And this is crazy
But here’s my content
So promote me maybe

Carly Rae content marketing are out of the blue outreach emails from people you have no relationship with asking you to promote their content or engage in some other activity. In the end it’s just shoddy email spam.

It’s An Honor To Be Nominated?

The Oscars

I’m sure some of you are thinking that I’m ungrateful. The fact that I’m getting these emails shows that people want my endorsement. Perhaps it is better to be noticed than not but if I am some sort of influencer wouldn’t you want to put your best foot forward?

First impressions matter and this one isn’t going to win me over. In fact, I might remember you, your site or brand for the lousy outreach instead.

Win Over The Persnickety

I might demand a higher level of quality than others. So you could simply write me off as some anal-retentive prat with outrageous expectations and a self-inflated ego. But that would be a mistake.

Mr. Fussy

Because if you can put together a pitch that doesn’t make me vomit in my mouth a little bit then you’re likely going to have better luck with everyone else too. In short, win over your toughest critic and you’ll have a powerful outreach message.

Content Marketing Basics

Johns

If you’re doing outreach there are a few things you must get right. A recent post by Tadeusz Szewczyk about the perfect outreach message covered some of the basics. (It’s not perfect in my view but it’s certainly above average.)

You must be relevant, have a decent subject line, get my name right, respect my time and show that you’ve done some rudimentary homework about me. The sad part is that 50% of people fail to even get my name correct. Yup, somehow AJ Kohn is transformed into John. (Clicks trash icon.)

Respect My Time And Brain

Do or Do Not Dumbledore

One of the things that has bothered me lately is the number of people asking me to take time to provide feedback on their content. Feedback! Some of these people might actually want feedback but I’m going to call bullshit on the vast majority. You don’t want feedback. You want me to share and promote your content.

Do you really want me to tell you that your infographic is an eyesore and then not share or promote it? Probably not. I mean, kudos if you really are open to that sort of thing but I’m guessing you’re in promotion mode at this stage and you won’t be asking for a redesign.

Getting me (or anyone) to do something is a high-friction event. Don’t waste it asking them to do the wrong thing.

Honest Teasing

Teased Hair with Aqua Net

Being transparent about what you’re trying to accomplish is almost always the best way to go. If you’re looking for a link, tell them you’re looking for a link. Stop beating around the bush.

I’d also argue that you should be applying marketing principles to outreach. Half the battle is getting me to actually click and read the content. So tease me! Get me interested in what you have to say. Give me a cliff-hanger! Don’t put me to sleep or ask me to promote the content without reading it.

Get me interested so that I view or read your content. At that point you have to be confident that the content is good enough that I’ll share and promote it. Stop trying to do everything all at once in your outreach email.

TL;DR

Stop Carly Rae content marketing! Fast and shoddy outreach might get you a handful of mentions but it won’t lead to long-term success and may actually prevent it in many cases.

Finding A Look As Well As A Sound

October 28 2013 // Life + Marketing // 9 Comments

(This is a personal post. While it does have a lot of marketing insight it’s also a bit introspective so you’ve been warned if that’s not your thing.)

In the past year I’ve been interviewed by a number of folks. One of the questions that often comes up is who has influenced my work.

I get the sense that thy want me to reference other people in SEO or the marketing industry overall. And don’t get me wrong, there are a number of smart folks out there but most of my influences come from outside the industry.

Artists

At the end of the day I am influenced and inspired by artists. Musicians are often at the top of my list and I regularly listen to music as I do my work, whether it’s Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers to get me through large chunks of analysis or Adam Ant, Kasabian, Cake or Siouxsie and the Banshees as I put together blog posts or conference decks.

I am continually impressed by artists who go out on that ledge with their own work. Of course nearly everything is derivative in some form, but I admire those that are able to express something in their own way, to put their twist on it with passion. I connect with those that aren’t afraid to be authentic.

Adam Ant Full Costume

I mean, Adam Ant ladies and gentleman! Sure, he’s been a bit off the map psychologically but it doesn’t change his music and his appearance.

“I grew up in the glam era and, for me, every album should have a look as well as a sound.”

See, I appreciate that sentiment. That’s what I think about when I’m working, when I think about what I stand for and what I want people to remember. A fair amount of what I’ve written lately connects to this central theme.

Expression

Ominous Van Gogh

Artists are investing something of themselves into their art, or at least the ones that matter do. You have to find your own voice, not someone else’s voice if you’re going to make an impression.

Will what you express always find an audience? Nope. Sometimes it just might take a long time for you to finally get that recognition, for people to understand what you’re trying to communicate. Or maybe it never happens. Face it, not everyone is expressing something of value. #truestory

But it is the attempt, on your own terms, that matters I think. Or at least that’s what I’ve embraced. This is slightly different then the failing your way to success mantra. I believe that, but I think what you’re failing at matters a lot.

For well over two years I blogged here in relative obscurity. Did I get better over those two years? Hell yes! I still think some of those early posts are solid but it took time for me to put together that my content had to ‘have a look as well as a sound.’

Authenticity

Ubik Book Cover Art

But I also try to put as much of myself into this blog, both in normal posts and the more personal ones.

I’m not talking about the ‘the mistake I made that turned out to change my business for the better’ posts that seem to be so en vogue lately. Yeah, we get that you can learn from your mistakes but it’s all too … tidy.

But reality is messy and I feel like it’s exposing that reality that resonates. A better representation of this is my Google+ feed where I share things that I find funny, interesting or poignant along with my normal industry content. It could be the IPA I’m drinking at Beer O’Clock or a picture of some Sleestaks.

And many of my blog posts are actually just me documenting stuff that I’m figuring out, because there’s always something more to learn.

Periods

Violator Depeche Mode Album Cover

The trite thing to say is that I’ve been lucky to have such success, but that type of humble brag isn’t authentic. I worked hard (and continue to) and am very happy for the recognition. While I can’t reveal many of my clients due to NDAs I’m damn proud to count 2 of the top 50 websites as clients.

I had a plan to develop my personal brand and I attacked it with 50% of my time. One of the things that worked out early on was exploring Google+ and Authorship. I didn’t do this because I thought I could make it into something but because I truly did see something interesting.

But should I just continue to blog about those things even if my interest has waned? I think many people, sites and brands get stuck doing what has brought them success in the past. And that makes sense in many ways. Marketing is often about finding what works and repeating that.

Not only that but the fans and followers you’ve garnered provide a huge boost to your confidence to say nothing of their ability to amplify your content. I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to have that support. I don’t take that for granted for a second.

But if you’re an artist, you evolve and grow.

What you want to express changes. In talking about writing this post with my wife she told me about how she and her friend listened to Depeche Mode’s Violator album when it first came out. They hated it. It was a departure from their prior work. It took her time to embrace the new album but today it’s still one of her favorites.

So I did write about Authorship again recently but I feel like that was an ending. I doubt I will again. Instead I’ll continue to write and explore what I’m passionate about. Maybe that won’t be as popular and that’s … okay.

Don’t get me wrong, I hope it is! No artist doesn’t want to achieve success. But just as importantly, success doesn’t define them.

Inspiration

Drive's Scorpion Jacket

So in the end I am influenced by those who inspire me to do better, who challenge me to get out of my rut.

It’s those that I read, look at or listen to and make me feel something. It’s that photo of Los Angeles that brings back a flood of memories. It’s the mood that Wang Chung’s To Live and Die in LA instantly creates. (Seriously folks the entire album is incredible.)

So maybe I’ll get up in this jacket at a conference and turn my presentation into a performance. Or maybe I’ll just work to encourage my clients to be authentic and to find a look and sound for their content.

No matter what it is, I’m energized by the idea of putting myself out there (again) and taking those risks and seeing how people react.

2013 Internet, SEO and Technology Predictions

December 31 2012 // Advertising + Marketing + SEO + Social Media + Technology // 15 Comments

I’ve made predictions for the past four years (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012) and think I’ve done pretty well as a prognosticator.

I’m sometimes off by a year or two and many of my predictions are wrong where my predictions were more like personal wishes. But it’s interesting to put a stake in the ground so you can look back later.

2013 Predictions

2013 Predictions Crystal Ball

Mobile Payment Adoption Soars

If you follow my Marketing Biz column you know I’m following the mobile payments space closely. Research seems to indicate that adoption of mobile payments will take some time in the US based on current attitudes.

I believe smartphone penetration and the acceptance of other similar payments such as app store purchases and Amazon Video on Demand will smooth the way for accelerated mobile payment adoption. Who wins in this space? I’m still betting on Google Wallet.

Infographics Jump The Shark

Frankly, I think this has already happened but perhaps it’s just me. So I’m going to say I’m the canary in the coal mine and in 2013 everyone else will get sick and tired of the glut of bad Infographics.

Foursquare Goes Big

The quirky gamification location startup that was all about badges and mayorships is growing up into a mature local search portal. I expect to see Foursquare connect more dots in 2013, making Yelp very nervous and pissing off Facebook who will break their partnership when they figure out that Foursquare is eating their local lunch.

Predictive Search Arrives

Google Now is a monster. The ability to access your location and search history, combined with personal preferences allows Google to predict your information needs. Anyone thinking about local optimization should be watching this very closely.

Meme Comments

A new form of comments and micro-blogging will emerge where the entire conversation is meme based. Similar to BuzzFeed’s reactions, users will be able to access a database of meme images, perhaps powered by Know Your Meme, to respond and converse.

Search Personalization Skyrockets

Despite the clamor from filter bubble and privacy hawks, Google will continue to increase search personalization in 2013. They’ll do this through context, search history, connected accounts (Gmail field trial) and Google+.

The end result will be an ever decreasing uniformity in search results and potential false positives in many rank tracking products.

Curation Marketing

Not content with the seemingly endless debate of SEO versus Inbound Marketing versus Content Marketing versus Growth Hacking we’ll soon have another buzzword entering the fray.

Curation marketing will become increasingly popular as a way to establish expertise and authority. Like all things, only a few will do it the right way and the rest will be akin to scraped content.

Twitter Rakes It In 

I’ve been hard on Twitter in the past and for good reason. But in 2013 Twitter will finally become a massive money maker as it becomes the connection in our new multi-screen world. As I wrote recently, Twitter will win the fight for social brand advertising dollars.

De-pagination

After spending years and literally hundreds of blog posts about the proper way to paginate we’ll see a trend toward de-paginating in the SEO community. The change will be brought on by the advent of new interfaces and capabilities. (Blog post forthcoming.)

Analytics 3.0 Emerges

Pulling information out of big data will be a trend in 2013. But I’m even more intrigued by Google’s Universal Analytics and location analytics services like Placed. Marketers are soon going to have a far more complete picture of user behavior, Minority Report be damned!

Ingress Becomes Important

I’m a bit addicted to Ingress. At first you think this is just a clever way for Google to further increase their advantage on local mapping. And it is.

But XM is essentially a map Android usage. You see a some in houses, large clusters at transit stops, movie theaters and doctor’s offices, essentially anywhere there are lines. You also see it congregate at intersections and a smattering of it on highways.

Ingress shows our current usage patterns and gives Google more evidence that self-driving cars could increase Internet usage, which is Google’s primary goal these days.

Digital Content Monetization

For years we’ve been producing more and more digital content. Yet, we still only have a few scant ways to monetize all of it and they’re rather inefficient when you think about it. Someone (perhaps even me) will launch a new way to monetize digital content.

I Will Interview Matt Cutts

No, I don’t have this lined up. No, I’m not sure I’ll be able to swing it. No, I’m not sure the Google PR folks would even allow it. But … I have an idea. So stay tuned.

Content Recall

September 19 2012 // Marketing + SEO // 39 Comments

“Produce great content.” No doubt you’ve heard this phrase over and over again as content marketers bask in the sun of Google’s animal algorithm updates. You’ve probably even heard it from me.

But what is great content? It’s a dreadfully fuzzy term that often disintegrates into a less that satisfactory ‘I know it when I see it’ explanation. Maybe our focus on great is misplaced.

Instead of creating great content, create memorable content. 

Recall

Peter Gabriel I Don't Remember

The definition of recall is fairly straightforward.

A measure of advertising effectiveness in which a sample of respondents is exposed to an ad and then at a later point in time is asked if they remember the ad. Ad recall can be on an aided or unaided basis. Aided ad recall is when the respondent is told the name of the brand or category being advertised.

Advertisers are keen on recall because it’s a measure of mind share and true reach. It doesn’t matter (as much) if your ad was seen by millions of people if no one really remembers it. Particularly if they can’t connect that ad to your brand.

Ads are just another form of content. So shouldn’t content recall work the same way?

Memorable Content

Online, we can’t easily identify those who saw a specific piece of content and then ask them whether they recall it two weeks later. (Though that’s an interesting little product idea.)

Yet, the absence of this data doesn’t mean we can’t begin to think about what type of content is memorable. Bill Sebald wrote something that struck a chord for me recently.

I tweeted that out after reading another “top x link building tactics” list. A fluffy, chewed up piece of tactics we’ve all seen before. It didn’t claim to be written for beginners – which would have at least described the intended action of the content – but it was just more noise that wasn’t helpful for a reasonably experienced SEO. It was also praised in the comments and shared quite a bit … but so are the annual “SEO is dead” posts, and I’ve yet to find a new takeaway from that topic either.

I shared this post with a headline of ‘124 Reasons This Post Could Save the Internet in 7 Seconds‘. Because I’m tired of these cookie-cutter posts too.

Mind you, we see them because they do well by some measures. I’d argue it’s because of the perceived value and not the real value. Too often we think more is better. So getting 96 tips must be hugely valuable right?

I believe very few of those tips are actually read. People aren’t going to read all of them so they scan and maybe they think a few are good. But how many are really remembered?

I suppose you could argue that this shotgun method ensures that some of the tips are found. Users simply cherry-pick the ones that matter to them. But that’s a lot of work for the user. Instead, the Paradox of Choice kicks in, people decide not to engage at all and it gets sent to some read-it-later hell where it collects dust until it’s ultimately deleted or succumbs to bit rot.

Those long list of posts may get you kudos but I think it’s a ‘I should think this is awesome so I’ll say it is awesome’ type of reaction. Maybe that’s okay for you, but it isn’t for me.

Because it speaks to the real problem with this kind of content. If you didn’t read it you’re not going to remember it.

Can you honestly recall that specific list versus another one? How often are you trying to find a list of content you saw a few months ago?

Reading Is Fundamental

Reading Rainbow with Levar Burton

The first obstacle to memorable content is getting it read. You can’t remember something if you haven’t read and understood it.

While there’s certainly a component of reach involved (getting people to the content), I’m more concerned with whether those who actually view the content are truly reading and comprehending it.

That’s why readability is so critical. Making your content more accessible – more scannable – actually helps it get read. They might not read it word for word, but you’ll increase the chance of them reading important passages that will stick.

This excerpt on why we mangle quotes shows how the brain craves readability.

Our brains really like fluency, or the experience of cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive strain) in taking in and retrieving information. The more fluent the experience of reading a quote—or the easier it is to grasp, the smoother it sounds, the more readily it comes to mind—the less likely we are to question the actual quotation. Those right-sounding misquotes are just taking that tendency to the next step: cleaning up, so to speak, quotations so that they are more mellifluous, more all-around quotable, easier to store and recall at a later point. We might not even be misquoting on purpose, but once we do, the result tends to be catchier than the original.

Don’t you want your content to be easier to store and recall? I sure do.

How We Remember

Memento Polaroid

It’s not just about getting your content read, but remembered. Yet, memory is a tricky thing. Here’s an excerpt from UX Booth on the concept of ‘Roomnesia‘ applied on a macro-level.

Recent research suggests the Internet is becoming an external part of our memory and that we are experiencing “reduced memory for the actual information, but enhanced memory for where to find the information.” In other words, we can’t remember the name of the director of Memento but we can remember where to find that information. It’s easier to remember one “room” (IMDb) rather than the many actors and directors that inhabit our world. By delivering high quality content through a trustworthy website you help to make your site memorable as the store of relevant information.

The concept of remembering one “room” is incredibly important when extended to content marketing. Obviously you must be focused and stay on topic. A reader has to be able to easily attach a phrase to your content. How do you want them to describe that post to a friend? If you can’t do it in a sentence you’re in trouble.

But think about how this applies to guest blogging. What room am I going to put a guest post in? The one that provides the most cognitive ease, right?

So your post on the power of evergreen content on SEOMoz? Odds are that’s going to go in the ‘SEOMoz’ room and not the ‘author’ room. At some point you might have enough pull, but Rand and team have done a pretty stellar job of branding, haven’t they?

This isn’t just theory. You can see how this plays out as people respond to guest content. Mackenzie Fogelson recently blogged on John Doherty’s site. Here’s the first comment on her piece.

Comment to Publisher, Not To Guest Author

So even with prominent text telling readers it was a guest post, it seems like an engaged reader associated this content with John and not Mackensie. I don’t think this is the fault of the reader (nor John or Mack). It’s just cognitive ease at work.

That’s not to say that guest blogging can’t be part of the mix. If I didn’t make it clear before, find publishers that are in a different and complementary vertical. Content recall goes up since users are more likely to put that content in the ‘right’ room based on the unusual topic.

Even if they don’t, you don’t want a lot of competition when people are searching for or re-finding this content. It’s a lot easier to find a specific piece of content about SEO on Bloomberg than it might be on Search Engine Land.

Modified Branded Search

I’d argue that when we remember content we’re using a root modifier strategy. The root is usually what the content is about – the topic. The modifier is usually the room where you stored that memory – the author, publisher or brand. So our content searches look something like this:

“hacking Jeff Atwood”

“Old Spice viral video”

“scamworld The Verge”

You can measure content recall by looking at your modified branded search terms and traffic.

Modified Brand Search Terms

Are people remembering and associating specific content I produced with my brand? Now, mind you I’ve got some odd things going on with my name versus my brand and a brand that can include a number or a word but I’m following Tim Gunn’s advice and making it work.

Monitor these metrics when embarking on a content marketing effort. Is your modified branded search traffic going up? Are the breadth of terms in your modified branded search traffic expanding? What content (and syntax) is getting the most traction?

Memorable content leads to brand awareness.

Spontaneous Mentions 

I know that content has been memorable when it is spontaneously mentioned in another piece of content. The number of Tweets, Likes, +1s and comments all show a certain amount of popularity but it’s these mentions and links that truly matter.

It’s funny how this resolves down to contextual citations, the real backbone of most search algorithms.

Of course the link is nice but it’s the knowledge that it was read, understood and remembered that counts. Your content and brand is a meme of sorts and those spontaneous mentions show how far it’s reached.

My post about the decline in US desktop search volume wasn’t particularly popular in comparison to other posts. Yet I was able to get a spontaneous mention from TheStreet. That’s pretty awesome in my book.

That’s why this focus on numbers, on the volume of Tweets or Likes, may be a false positive. That minute of fame feels good! Gamification 101 right? It’s so good you might try to replicate it again and again. But producing 15 posts that meet these numbers adds up to 15 minutes of fame and nothing more.

Track spontaneous mentions (not total backlinks) as a way to measure the strength of your content.

Fill In The Blank

Mad Libs Logo

Gabriel Wienberg recently put a different spin on recall.

He’s the _______ guy. That’s the _______ startup. Isn’t that the __________ search engine?

Unfortunately, the way we are wired means we generally don’t like to put more than one thing in those blanks even though most people and companies would prefer more words.

In other words, people often make poor choices of leading characteristics. They take the path of least resistance, insert their own biases, repeat hearsay, etc.

Once again we see cognitive ease at work here and the importance of recall. Are you using your content to continually play to your leading characteristic? Do you know how people are remembering your brand?

Memorable content can help ensure the right words go in those blanks.

Multi-Content Stories

A real content strategy should be about storytelling. It should promote your brand (personal or corporate), message and value proposition. Not every piece of content has to do everything at once, but together they should be moving your brand forward.

I think about each piece of content as an opportunity to tell a story and reinforce brand.

It’s not that our memory is a glitchy wetware version of computer flash memory; it’s that the computer metaphor just doesn’t apply. Roediger said we store only bits and pieces of what happened—a smattering of impressions we weave together into feels like a seamless narrative. When we retrieve a memory, we also rewrite it, so that the time next we go to remember it, we don’t retrieve the original memory but the last one we recollected. So, each time we tell a story, we embellish it, while remaining genuinely convinced of the veracity of our memories.

While this passage from Scientific American is about specific memories I think it can also apply to your memory of a person or brand. I want to ensure that each new piece of content shapes how other pieces of content are remembered and retrieved.

Because not every piece of content deserves to have the same level of recall. They’ll have different goals and meet different types of user intent. Not every piece of content has to be some epic War and Peace tome. But they should all fit your narrative and help perserve or improve the memory of the content corpus.

We’re constantly rewriting the memory of that person or brand or site. Your job is to shape memory through content.

Have A Take, Don’t Suck

Animotion Obsession

Recent posts seem to indicate that creating controversy or, at a minimum, provoking emotion is the pathway to success. To me this is focusing on the result instead of the product. The goal isn’t to make someone cry, create controversy or generate enemies.

Despite what you’ve heard, any press is not good press. Not only that, but usually those trying to force these emotions are far too transparent. (Remember, don’t feed the trolls!)

Instead, follow Jim Rome’s advice: “Have a take, don’t suck.”  Have an opinion and back it up with solid reasoning and logic. Have a point of view, but make it your point of view, not someone else’s point of view or one specifically created to generate a desired reaction.

Don’t obsess about whether your content is going to elicit emotion, bring your own to the table. Create passionately not programmatically.

TL;DR

Great content is only great when it’s read and remembered. Track metrics that measure content recall so you can produce a content marketing strategy that ultimately leads to increases in brand equity and awareness.

The Knuckleball Problem

December 08 2011 // Marketing + Rant + Web Design // 4 Comments

The knuckleball is a very effective pitch if you can throw it well. But not many do. Why am I talking about arcane baseball pitches? Because the Internet has a knuckleball problem.

Knuckleball

Image from The Complete Pitcher

The Knuckleball Problem

I define the knuckleball problem as something that can be highly effective but is also extremely difficult. The problem arises when people forget about the latter (difficulty) and focus solely on the former (potential positive outcome).

Individuals, teams and organizations embark on a knuckleball project with naive enthusiasm. They’re then baffled when it isn’t a rousing success. In baseball terms that means instead of freezing the hitter, chalking up strikeouts and producing wins you’re tossing the ball in the dirt, issuing walks and running up your ERA.

If a pitcher can’t throw the knuckleball effectively, they don’t throw the knuckleball. But in business, the refrain I hear is ‘X isn’t the problem, it’s how X was implemented‘.

This might be true, but the hidden meaning behind this turn of phrase is the idea that you should always attempt to throw a knuckleball. In reality you should probably figure out what two or three pitches you can throw to achieve success.

Difficulty and Success

The vast majority of pitchers do not throw the knuckleball because it’s tough to throw and produces a very low success rate. Most people ‘implement’ or ‘execute’ the pitch incorrectly. Instead pitchers find a mix of pitches that are less difficult and work to perfect them.

Yet online, a tremendous number of people try to throw knuckleballs. They’re trying something with a high level of difficulty instead of finding less difficult (perhaps less sexy or trendy) solutions. And there is a phalanx of consultants and bloggers who seem to encourage and cheer this self-destructive behavior.

Knuckleballs

In general I think mega menus suck. Of course there are exceptions but they are few and far between. The mega menu is a knuckleball. Sure you can attempt it, but the odds are you’re going to screw it up. And there are plenty of other ways you can implement navigation that will be as or even more successful.

When something has such a high level of difficulty you can’t just point to implementation and execution as the problem. When a UX pattern is widely misapplied is it really that good of a UX pattern?

Personas also seem to be all the rage right now. Done the right way personas can sometimes deliver insight and guidance to a marketing team. But all too often the personas are not rooted in real customer experiences and devolve into stereotypes that are then used as weapons in cross-functional arguments meetings. “I’m sorry, but I just don’t think this feature speaks to Concerned Carl.”

Of course implementation and execution matter. But when you consistently see people implementing and executing something incorrectly you have to wonder whether you should be recommending it in the first place.

Pitching coaches aren’t pushing the knuckleball on their pitching staffs.

Can You Throw a Knuckleball?

Cat Eats Toy Baseball Players

The problem is most people think they can throw the online equivalent of the knuckleball. And unlike the baseball diamond the feedback mechanism online is far from direct.

Personas are created and used to inform your marketing strategy and there is some initial enthusiasm and some minor changes but over time people get tired of hearing about these people and the whole thing peters out along with the high consulting fees which are also conveniently forgotten.

The hard truth is most people can’t throw the knuckleball. And that’s okay. You can still be a Cy Young Award winner. Tim Lincecum does not throw a knuckleball.

How (and When) To Throw The Knuckleball

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taking risks or attempt to throw a knuckleball once in a while. Not at all.

However, you shouldn’t attempt the knuckler simply because it is difficult or ‘more elegant’ or the hottest new fad. You can take plenty of risks throwing the slider or curve or change up, all pitches which have a higher chance of success. In business terms the risk to reward ratio is far more attractive.

If you’re going to start a knuckleball project you need to be clear about whether you have a team that can pull it off. Do you really have a team of A players or do you have a few utility guys on the team?

Once you clear that bit of soul searching you need to be honest about measuring success. A certain amount of intellectual honesty is necessary so that you can turn to the team and say, you tossed that one in the dirt. Finally, you need a manager who’s willing to walk to the mound and tell the pitcher to stop futzing with the knuckleball and start throwing some heat.

TL;DR

The Internet has a knuckleball problem. Too many are attempting the difficult without understanding the high probability of failure while ignoring the less difficult that could lead to success.