You Are Browsing The Social Media Category

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.

Twitter Analytics

August 11 2014 // Analytics + Social Media // 21 Comments

What if Twitter launched the most awesome analytics dashboard and no one really noticed? Well, that’s pretty much what happened nearly a month ago. I’ve been waiting for the posts that detail how much you can get from the tool and the different types of analysis you can perform.

But … I’m tired of waiting.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard

The dashboard provides a decent overview of activity over the last 28 days.

Twitter Analytics Dashboard Overview

The major statistics it provides are Impressions, Engagements and Engagement Rate for each tweet and the trend for those over time. That’s not too shabby but lets poke at what lurks under Engagements.

Twitter Engagements

Click on a specific Tweet and you get to see how people engaged with that specific Tweet.

Twitter Analytics Tweet Engagements

Now if you’re not quietly swearing under your breath at this point I don’t know what’s wrong with you. There’s so much awesome information here. A sliding scale of engagement for you to pour over.

In particular, you can see which Tweets produced User profile clicks and actual Follows. Not shown here but also tracked are the number of times the Tweet was Shared via email. But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the best part.

Export And Analyze

Twitter Analytics Export Data Button

At the top right hand on the dashboard is an Export data button. This might as well be colored gold and in the shape of a treasure chest. Click and suddenly you have one of the richest sets of data you could wish for on your Tweets.

Twitter Analytics Export Data in Excel

This eyesore of data is a goldmine. You get the actual text of each Tweet along with the timestamp coupled with all of the engagement metrics. So what could you learn from this data?

A bit of data manipulation and I can find out which days I have the most engagement.

Tweets by Day of Week Chart

Monday and Thursday for the small amount of time I have data. But maybe I just want to see the overall engagement rate by day.

Twitter Analytics Engagement Rate by Day of Week Chart

Friday and Saturday suddenly look pretty good from an engagement efficiency standpoint. I could drill down here and get to the hour and come out with one of those popular ‘best time to Tweet’ posts if I wanted. But I won’t.

Twitter Analysis Smorgasbord

Instead I’ll look for better insights. I happen to use hashtags as a way to classify my Tweets. Two of the more popular ones I use are #seo and #ux. Now with a bit more data manipulation I can look at how these two different themes of Tweets perform.

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Hashtag

I get a lot more impressions and engagements overall with the #seo hashtag but my engagement rate on #ux is twice as high. I could dig even deeper and do a pivot table to see what type of engagement I’m getting on each.

Twitter Analytics Types of Engagement by Hashtag

It’s hard to see, I know, but here I can tell that I get more retweets per Tweet on #seo but that many of the other metrics skew towards #ux in terms of engagement efficiency. This makes sense to me since I’m more of an authority in SEO than in UX. But it shows that with the right type of Tweets I am moving the needle in the latter. (Engagement efficiency – that has a nice ring to it doesn’t it?)

The analytic opportunities here are nearly endless. Particularly if you’ve adhered to some sort of pattern in your Tweets (thank you latent OCD).

Twitter Analytics Engagement by Prefix Graph

So here I can see that my particular Tweet pattern of using a prefix gives me some interesting results. Do people pay more attention and interact with my Tweets when I say I’m saving the piece of content I’m referencing? Maybe. But there’s also a huge bias involved in the value of that content. Either way it’s something I can track over time.

So what are you waiting for?

How To Get Twitter Analytics

I think part of the problem is that the analytics feature is buried under the Ads interface. Maybe folks think you need to be running ads to get all of the organic Tweet data. That’s not true. I haven’t been running ads on my account. Never have. All I did was click the Get Started link and jump through a few hoops. Free!

If you’re having trouble check out Dan Shure’s post about how to set up Twitter Analytics on Evolving SEO.

Flabbergasted LOLcat

Hopefully you’re ready to jump in with both feet and try this out. I know i’d appreciate others providing some insight and potentially some macros to make the analysis even easier. Step to it Excel gurus!

[Updated August 22nd, 2014] Dan Shure at Evolving SEO also has some tips on using Favorited Rate to predict content success.

[Updated September 24th, 2014] Paul Shapiro at Search Wilderness also pointed me at Twitter Analytics for Websites. I implemented this a month ago and have had it in a Chrome tab ever since. What’s cool is that it gives you information about everyone Tweeting about your website.

Twitter Analytics for Websites

So implement both to gain insight into how both you and your site is performing.

TL;DR

Twitter is giving you an amazing dashboard and data on your organic Tweets that allows you to perform an insane amount of powerful social analysis.

Social Signals and SEO

April 07 2014 // SEO + Social Media // 110 Comments

Do social signals (Tweets, Likes and Pluses) impact search rankings? The answer to this question is yes, but not in the traditional sense. That’s why so much misinformation exists on the topic.

So before you run off and get all your friends to Tweet your post (or worse yet buy Likes etc.), read on to understand the math and real reason why social works.

Social Signals Are Not Part Of The Algorithm

Cat On A Leash

No matter how much we want it, or how many times we think it would make sense, it’s just not happening.

Social is not currently part of Google’s search algorithm.

At SMX West 2014 Amit Singhal stated that Google+ doesn’t have an impact on the relevance of non-personalized search results. (I was there and heard those words come out of his mouth.)

That’s the head of Google’s search effort telling you that they’re not even using their own social signals to improve search. So they sure as heck aren’t using Twitter or Facebook, sources in which they have less visibility and trust.

Using social signals in the algorithm is wicked hard for a number of reasons. While I’m sure smart people at Google and Bing are working on ways to use them, they aren’t currently being used. Period. End of story.

But … Correlation!

Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

Of course you’ve seen all the correlation studies that seem to show that social improves rankings. Now, the thing is, social is correlated with improved rankings, just as ice cream consumption and amount of clothing worn are correlated.

The key is to find the confound or confounding variable, that thing that explains why those two things are correlated. In the case of ice cream and clothing the confound is (of course) temperature. This is what is generally missing in the conversation around social signals and SEO.

Finding The Confound

It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity. 

One of the best things that can happen is if your content is seen by creators, the 1% of users who create all the content floating around the Internet.

Before we continue, you might want to acquaint yourself with the concept of participation inequality, something I talk about frequently, most recently as it relates to blog commenting. Because I’m going to mash-up social, participation inequality and the link graph to make my point.

Creators power the link graph and that’s why social can be so important if you follow the math.

Social SEO Math

How Social Signals Impact SEO

Say I get 100 Tweets on a blog post. Those 100 Tweets are seen by 10,000 people. I’m using round numbers here to make the math easier. But the idea is to understand the reach of those social shares.

If we use the standard distribution of participation inequality we determine that 1% of those 10,000 people are creators who might decide to include your brand or site in a future piece of content.

So, if 10,000 people see your content and (on average) 1% of those are creators then you’ve reached the eyeballs of 100 creators (10,000 x 1%), the folks who power the link graph.

Some of those creators will follow through and include you (links and mentions) in their content. It’s something I’ve referred to as the ‘Social Echo‘ in the past. But how do we measure and steer our efforts with this math in mind?

All Social Shares Are Not Equal

Does the share from your buddy with 10 followers (half of which are actually accounts for his pets) mean as much as a share from an industry leader with 20,000 followers? Of course not.

This is one of the reasons why buying Tweets or Likes just for the sake of pumping up that number is a waste of money. Shares that fail to find an audience with the appropriate creator mix will do nothing for SEO … or your marketing efforts in general.

Even the size of the following might not help you. It all depends on the creator mix.

Creator Mix of Followers Matters

For instance, 50,000 followers with a creator mix of .1 (a tenth of a percent) would only give you the opportunity to get in front of 50 creators. On the other hand, 10,000 followers with a 3% creator mix would give you the opportunity to get in front of 300 creators. (Note to self. Someone should come up with a way to quantify the creator mix of someone’s followers.)

The caveat here is that some of those 50,000 followers might re-share that content and they might have a better creator mix and get you to more creator eyeballs. You can see how this can quickly get complicated.

Long story short, the number of creators following someone who shares your content is important.

Did They See It?

Polar Bear Covering Eyes

You’ll notice that I say that you have the opportunity to reach a certain number of creators with those social shares. But there’s no guarantee that those creators actually see that one specific share amid all the other content passing through their social feeds. And there’s an argument here that creators might be more difficult to reach based on their time constraints.

So while I’m not in love with the idea of timing your social shares, it actually make a bit of sense. Because you want to maximize the potential for creators to see your content. Be warned, this is highly dependent on your vertical and will change over time so don’t get lazy and rely on cookie-cutter data.

You must win the attention auction. That means optimizing your social snippets, using paid organic amplification to get things off the ground and sharing your content more than once (second chance Tweets etc.) among other things. At the end of the day you want to do everything you can to ensure creators are seeing your stuff.

Optimize and maximize creator impressions.

Creator Conversion Rate

Red Neon Yes No Maybe So

The last variable in the equation might be the most important one of all – the percentage of creators who wind up linking to you as a result of a social impression.

So lets go back to my initial math: 100 shares produce 10,000 impressions of which 1% or 100 are creators. How many of them are going to do something with your content that will impact the link graph?

I don’t have any hard data on this and, frankly, it is super dependent on the content. Really awesome content that’s relevant, timely and memorable might have a high conversion rate. Content that makes creators roll their eyes and curse themselves for clicking through in the first place may not get a single link.

I tend to use a 1% conversion rate when discussing this with clients. So in my example, those initial 100 shares would net 1 link.

That’s it folks. Links are the confound in the correlation between social shares and rankings.

Content that hits that sweet spot, getting a high number of shares that creates downstream links from creators (particularly in a short period of time), produces wildly successful results. Those additional references by creators often creates a tailwind of sharing on the original content, reinforcing the correlation we all recognize exists.

Fuzzy Math

Evil Distribution Plushies

Now, I’ve provided math on why I believe social is a valuable part of SEO. Downstream links matter. No doubt about it.

But it’s more than just a mathematical equation of links. Social drives more people to your site who might convert and become a reader or customer. Those people might wind up sharing in the future and the traditional math above kicks in again.

You’ll gain additional followers and true fans who help to distribute your future content. Guess what? You’re just optimizing the top of the Social SEO funnel. More shares lead to more impressions lead to more creator impressions and more opportunities for gaining authoritative references (i.e. – links).

You also might get more direct traffic as a result, as the mere exposure effect takes hold and they begin to associate you with specific topics and visit your site as needed. Even this could probably be reduced to math if you really wanted to go down the rabbit hole.

Good things happen when your brand is seen by more people.

TL;DR

Social has an indirect but powerful impact on search rankings. It’s not the actual social activity that matters, but what happens as a result of that activity. Optimizing and maximizing creator impressions increases the chance of obtaining links from the group of people who power the link graph.

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.

Closing Google Reader Is Dangerous

March 14 2013 // Social Media + Technology // 39 Comments

I’m a dedicated Google Reader user, spending hours each day using it to keep up on any number of topics. So my knee-jerk reaction to the news that Google will close the service as of July 1, 2013 was one of shock and anger.

I immediately Tweeted #savegooglereader and posted on Google+ in hopes of getting it to trend or go hot. These things are silly in the scheme of things. But what else is there to do?

I’ve written previously that the problem with RSS readers is marketing. I still believe that (it’s TiVo for web content people!) but in the end that’s not why closing Google Reader is so dangerous. And it is dangerous.

Google Reader Fuels Social

Google Reader Is The Snowpack of Social

Photo via double-h

The announcement indicates that, while having a loyal following, usage has declined. That’s a rather nebulous statement, though I don’t truly expect Google to provide the exact statistics. But it’s who is still using Google Reader that is important, is it not?

Participation inequality, often called the 90-9-1 principle, should be an important factor in analyzing Google Reader usage. Even if you believe that the inequality isn’t as pronounced today, those that are contributing are still a small bunch.

Studies on participation on Twitter have shown this to be true, both from what content is shared and who is sharing it. That means that the majority of the content shared is still from major publications and that we get that information through influencers. But where do they get it?

Google Reader.

RSS readers are the snowpack of social networks.

Organizing Information

Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces

Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. By extension that is what Google Reader lets power-users do. Make no mistake, Google Reader is not a mainstream product. Google (and many others) have screwed up how to market time-shifted online reading.

The result is that those using Google Reader are different. They’re the information consumers. They’re the ones sifting through the content (organizing) and sharing it with their community (accessible) on platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Google+ (useful).

Google Reader allows a specific set of people to help Google fulfill their mission.

Losing Identity

AJ Kohn Cheltenham High School ID

There are replacements to Google Reader such as Feedly. So you can expect that the people who fuel social networks will find other ways to obtain and digest information so they can filter it for their followers. Problem solved, right? Wrong.

Why exactly does Google want to hand over this important part of the ecosystem to someone else? With Google Reader they know who I am, what feeds I subscribe to, which ones I read and then which ones I wind up sharing on Google+.

Wouldn’t knowing that dynamic, of understanding how people evaluate content and determine what is worthy of sharing, be of interest to Google? It should be. It’s sort of what they want to excel at.

Not only that but because Google Reader has product market fit (see how I got that buzzword in there) with influencers or experts, you’re losing an important piece of the puzzle if you’re thinking about using social sharing and Authorship as search signals.

Data Blind

Data Blind

In the end, I’m surprised because it makes Google data blind. As I look at Unicorn, Facebook’s new inverted-index system, I can’t help but think that Facebook would love to have this information. Mining the connections and activity between these nodes seems messy but important.

What feeds do I subscribe to? That social gesture could be called a Like in some ways. What feeds do I read? That’s a different level of engagement and could even be measured by dwell time. What feeds and specific content do I share? These are the things that I am endorsing and promoting.

By having Google Reader integrated into the Google+ ecosystem, they can tell when I consumed that information and when I then shared it, not just on Google+ but on other platforms if Google is following the public social graph (which we all know they are.)

Without Google Reader, Google loses all of that data and only sees what is ultimately shared publicly. Never mind the idea that Google Reader might be powering dark social which could connect and inform influencers. Gone is that bit of insight too.

Multi-Channel Social

Daft Punk Discovery

As a marketer I’m consumed with attribution and Google Analytics clearly understands the importance of multi-channel modeling. We even see the view-through metric in Google Adwords display campaigns.

The original source and exposure of content is of huge importance. Google might have Ripples but that only tells them how the content finally entered Google+ not how that content was discovered.

I’m certain that users will find alternatives because there is a need for this service. Google just won’t know what new sites influencers might be reading more of or which sites might be waning with subject matter experts. Google will only see the trailing indicators, not the leading ones.

TL;DR

Google Reader allows information consumers – influencers and subject matter experts – to fuel social networks and help fulfill Google’s core mission. Closing Google Reader will put that assistance in the hands of another company or companies and blinds Google to human evaluation data for an important set of users.

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.

Twitter Will Win The Social Brand Advertising War

November 26 2012 // Advertising + Social Media // 44 Comments

Twitter will steal Facebook’s bacon and become the most powerful brand advertising platform on the planet.

That’s saying a lot since I previously called Twitter the Underpants Gnomes of the Internet. But Twitter has changed and is no longer simply an altruistic agent of social change with revenue as a side gig. In 2013, Twitter means business.

That’s Entertainment

That's Entertainment

Those who have been on Twitter the longest probably still think of Twitter as an information source. You may remember back in 2009 when people began talking about how Twitter was their replacement for RSS feeds.

I was not one of those people. Don’t get me wrong, I found some value out of Twitter from an information perspective (and still do), but the signal to noise ratio was never that good.

But here’s what I’ve realized. Twitter is not about information anymore. It’s meta-entertainment.

Mark Cuban recently called Facebook a time waster, an alternative to boredom that looked far more like TV than a Google search. I think he’s right and his description applies to both Facebook and Twitter.

Supporting the idea of social media as entertainment is a March of 2012 The Hollywood Reporter study.

Nine of 10 respondents view social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as a new form of entertainment, and more than half say social media sites are important tastemakers in determining what to watch and buy. Perhaps more surprising, 80 percent of television viewers visit Facebook while they watch.

Of course I have to believe these numbers might be a bit over-inflated based on who commissioned the study, but the general thesis resonates and seems solid.

Mobile Is Where It’s At

Twitter was mobile before it was sexy to be mobile. Mind you, it wasn’t really Twitter who figured out mobile. They had a robust community of third-party developers who led them to that conclusion over the course of many years. With all that data staring them in the face they moved quickly to double down on mobile. And it’s paid off.

Oh, did you notice the hashtag in that Tweet? Hello McFly!

Multi-Screen Viewing

Twitter’s lead in mobile has allowed them to capture the multi-screen viewing market. Make no mistake, this is the future of content consumption. Twitter understands that they can play a huge part, perhaps the connective tissue, between TV and other screens.

Multi-Screen Viewing

These are not this or that experiences but this and that experiences. Twitter is adding value to mass media content.

Pew found that 52% of adult cell phone owners use their phones while watching television. That’s the popular stat but it gets even more interesting if you look at just smartphone users.

Fully 74% of smartphone owners reported using their devices in one way or another while watching television in the preceding 30 days, compared with 27% of non-smartphone owners.

Of course, smartphones comprise the majority of phones (and rising), making this even more important. Yet, an April 2012 Forrester report shows that smartphones are already being displaced in many ways by tablets.

Tablets are displacing PCs and smartphones as the “couch computer” of choice: 85% of US tablet owners use their tablets while watching TV, and according to Nielsen, 30% of total tablet time is spent while watching TV.

The real takeaway here isn’t which screen is winning but that we’re entering a multi-screen viewing environment. Twitter, not Facebook, seems best positioned to capitalize on this new reality.

Owning The Hashtag

 

Twitter Hashtags

The hashtag is Twitter’s secret weapon.

While anyone can use a hashtag most consumers see it as synonymous with Twitter. I have to say I wasn’t a huge fan of the hashtag at first. Or, rather, I didn’t like the way many abused it, using more hashtags than normal words in a Tweet. (I still think that’s moronic.)

But hashtags are clearly a great way to aggregate content on a topic or event. Just watch a stream of Tweets from a conference and you’ll begin to understand the value of hashtags.

What’s more, when you’re attending a multi-track conference you often use the stream of Tweets from the sessions you don’t attend as a comparison and cheat sheet. It’s not unusual to hear someone complain that they were in the wrong session based on a comparison of Tweet streams.

Yet, I was still annoyed by hashtags until I read a piece by Denton Gentry on the use of hashtags to improve communication. Sure hashtags were great functionally but Denton made me realize that they were also ways to add expression.

Why does this matter in this context? The hashtag became entertainment. Hashtag memes were born and those brands who understood how to tap into this dynamic could create entertainment.

Collaborative Entertainment

We Are The Entertainment

The hashtag and Twitter’s short form anti-conversation content has created an opportunity for collaborative entertainment. It’s not about conversations it’s about the ever-changing aggregate of opinion, insight and snark.

I was recently down in Los Angeles on business and happened to be in the airport during the second Presidential debate. How did I wind up ‘watching’ it? On Twitter using the #debate stream. It was actually quite easy, interesting and fun to follow the debate this way.

I wasn’t going to wade into the mess of politics with my own Tweets but it was an entertaining way to view the debate and how others were interpreting it.

Pages vs Hashtags

Since the introduction of the Open Graph I really thought that Facebook wanted to kill Pages. In the last few years Facebook has made it more and more difficult for brands and businesses to make Pages worthwhile.

Yes, yes, I know you have a client or a case study that shows they’re killing it on Facebook but from the reduced functionality and reach I think most are swimming upstream on Pages.

I actually think it’s a smart idea to get rid of Pages but that’s a post for another day. The problem is Facebook has no alternative place to aggregate brand conversations. Unfortunately, Facebook doesn’t support the hashtag.

Facebook conversations are with brands. Twitter conversations are about brands.

This is really the functional difference between the two platforms right now. Many still cling to the notion that people want to have conversations with brands. I simply don’t think that’s true. Conversations with brands are not social. Yet that’s the implicit goal of Facebook Pages.

Conversely you need not follow a brand on Twitter to view that stream of hashtag content. I can tune in when I want and it doesn’t even need to be explicitly brand centric. Examples are littered over our television screens. Think of the hashtags on Survivor (#rewardchallenge and #immunitychallenge) or The Soup (#satanstoaster) to name just a few.

The hashtag is both a connection and platform for multi-screen collaborative entertainment.

User Centric Engagement

You don’t have to follow CBS or Survivor. You tune in when you want to tune in. Think about how scary and powerful that is!

The brand account could still be a valuable part of the ecosystem but it wouldn’t need to be the center of the brand experience. That might allow accounts to add value instead of incessantly trying to collect followers and figure out ways to break through the noise or crack the EdgeRank algorithm.

In fact, brands can participate in the hashtag stream along with everyone else, supplying ‘official’ announcements or insider content when appropriate. The role of an official account is to egg on your fans to provide that meta-entertainment.

Sure, the number of fans or followers seems comforting but we’ve all seen how little engagement results from these massive numbers. In the end it comes down not to who you follow but what content you’re engaging in.

Viewers Like You 

Red View-Master

Imagine knowing which hashtag streams a user has viewed! How valuable would that information be? How easy would it be to advertise to lapsed viewers? Or to understand the other programming or products you might be losing out to based on viewing behavior. This isn’t about the brands I say I like but the ones I’m actively consuming.

The hand-wringing over active users as defined as those who Tweet or how many people they follow may be completely specious. The pure ‘lurker’ may be just as valuable, particularly for brand advertisers. I’d be far more interested to know about interaction based how many hashtag streams users viewed and the dwell time on those streams.

And there’s a really interesting opportunity to map hashtags to brands and categories, not to mention crawling the public social graph of accounts to develop demographic data. It would become relatively easy to match advertisers to users who frequently view a variety of hashtag streams.

The discussion around viewers makes me think about traditional TV advertising. Twitter seems to think so too if comments by Joel Lunenfeld at IAB MIXX are any indication.

A campaign on Twitter, he said, is “the ultimate complement to a TV buy.”

Can they make it any more clear?

Beyond Text

Twitter Gets Visual

Twitter is doing a lot to make the experience more visual which is critical not just to keep up with competitors but to get mainstream adoption. And the new email Tweet feature continues to push them to a broader audience.

Again, I think Twitter is being relatively transparent in how they’re approaching this issue.

People tell incredible stories on Twitter through photos and videos. When you search for a person, an event or a hashtag, you can now see a grid of the most relevant media above the stream of Tweets.

You can also see media instantly in your search results stream on iPhone and Android. Photos and article summaries automatically show previews to give you a bird’s eye view on what’s happening.

This makes Twitter far more visual, compelling and … entertaining. The need for a consistent experience is also the reason why Twitter pulled back on the third-party apps and ecosystem as a whole.

You need a reliable, safe and consistent platform when securing major brand advertisers.

Context Matters

Facebook has a lot of advantages in being able to capture attention and profile interests. But there’s a fundamental problem with Facebook. It’s far more about navel gazing than anything else. The context is still largely personal.

Facebook aggregates your social graph while Twitter aggregates everything around a specific topic.

Even when someone shares something on Facebook it’s as much about who shared it with you as what is shared. You’re connected with the person not the content. Twitter is the other way around, with content coming first and people reduced to a filter.

Twitter Hashtag Filter

Both platforms deliver a type of social voyeurism as entertainment, but the context is different.

Checking out the photos from a friend’s marathon run is not the most effective time or place to advertise running shoes. Sure the topic is right but the context is all wrong. I’m not looking at the marathon photos with shopping in mind. Heck I could hate running. Instead, I’m doing so because I want to keep up with my friend.

The person is important, the content isn’t. That’s not an optimal environment for advertising, even for intent generation.

Twitter Advertising

Twitter has been busy building out different advertising opportunities culminating recently in interest targeting. I’m not sure how this will all work for small businesses, but I don’t think anyone has fully solved that one yet.

However, I believe Twitter is laying the groundwork to catch traditional offline brand advertising dollars moving online. Twitter is creating a comfortable and recognizable entertainment platform that allows advertisers to connect and extend traditional channels.

Not only will brands and businesses want to advertise against these new forms of meta-entertainment, but they’ll seek out ways to create their own. There’s been a lot of talk about content marketing lately but what I see is the dawn of content advertising.

TL;DR

Twitter has quickly evolved into a collaborative entertainment platform that serves as the glue of multi-screen viewing. Their focus on mobile, visual makeover and tacit ownership of the hashtag puts Twitter and not Facebook in a position to capture the lion’s share of brand advertising dollars moving online.

The Future of Twitter is Twumblr

August 02 2012 // Advertising + Social Media // 19 Comments

Twitter is changing and a lot of people don’t like it. Developers are howling at being cut out and users are concerned about change. But the fact of the matter is that for Twitter to flourish it’ll need to evolve. Twitter needs to become Twumblr.

The Internet Is Visual

Surprised and Shocked Looking Cat Drawing

Remember, Twitter was established before the launch of the iPhone or Chrome. Yeah, think about that. Twitter has been around for over six years with a virtually unchanged UX. During that time the Internet has changed dramatically. It’s become vastly more visual in nature.

Many argue Facebook built their business on pictures. Look at the popularity of Flipboard, Pinterest and Instagram. Not to mention the incredible power of memes.

Twitter Cards

In light of this trend, Twitter recently introduced Twitter Cards, new structured mark-up that essentially creates rich snippets for Tweets. (Here’s how you can implement them.)

What this does is transform Twitter from a text based medium to a visual medium. Right now the default for Twitter Cards is closed, but what would happen if the default was set to open?

Twitter Cards Make Twitter Look Like Tumblr

Suddenly Twitter looks a whole lot more like Tumblr, doesn’t it? And that’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned. Nor does it seem like a bad idea to Twitter.

As for the platform itself, Costolo said Twitter is heading in a direction where its 140-character messages are not so much the main attraction but rather the caption to other forms of content.

That’s a really interesting insight from Twitter’s CEO. I’m not sure you could make it any more clear than that.

Advertising Demands Attention

The reason this is all so important is that advertising demands attention. Twitter simply doesn’t have enough of it right now. People don’t sit on or browse Twitter. Instead, Twitter functions like the digital version of those black electricity power lines that cut across our landscape, ferrying people to interesting content where it is then monetized.

You’d think being a utility of sorts would be a good place to be, but it requires charging for the delivery of that content. The problem is, Twitter doesn’t own the power plants (content) nor limits who uses their service. All they really own are those wires and that’s important but ultimately … a commodity.

Twitter realizes that they need to be a destination. They need attention and eyeballs so they can monetize that content. They don’t want you reading Tweets on LinkedIn or in a third-party application. They want you to read them where they can advertise against them.

There have been many arguments recently about whether Twitter is looking to usurp those publishers. That there’s a tension there that will ultimately cause a rift. There might be, but perhaps not if Twitter can pull this off (which is not altogether clear.)

Twitter Wants to Monetize Sets of Content

If we think about Twitter less as an Internet megaphone and more as a curation service, you begin to see how it benefits users, Twitter and publishers.

Your stream becomes a highly curated set of content. It’s that set of content that Twitter seeks to monetize, not each individual piece. It is then up to individual content creators to ensure their content is optimized for that environment. That means good titles and great visuals to take advantage of scanning behavior.

Of course Twitter will allow advertisers to promote content into that steam, but it is all on the premise that the set of content displayed is valuable and secures attention.

Frictionless Engagement

Instead, I’m far more interested in how this impacts engagement. Because Tumblr is on to something.

Frictionless Engagement Example from Wil Wheaton

They’ve reduced the friction of engagement by asking users to perform only one of two actions: reblog or like. And if you scroll back up and look at those open Twitter Cards you’ll note that the same metrics are displayed: retweets and favorites. That’s not a coincidence in my opinion.

The huge numbers on Tumblr are not an aberration either. There is a very connected and engaged audience there. Marketers should be falling over themselves to get their brands in front of these people.

This is also the reason I’m not convinced that limiting third-party development is some sort of death knell. It’s always hard to put the horse back in the barn, but you can have a decent developer ecosystem that builds value into your platform, not outside of it.

Conversation Killer?

Someecard About Conversation

The question for me is about conversation and comments. Tumblr is frustrating in this regard. Yet maybe that’s by design. Sure, you can integrate DISQUS into Tumblr but it’s certainly not the out-of-the-box default. Deeper engagement is found on the publisher site or other social networks.

The question to me is whether publishers want to own the conversation. Do they want users to comment and converse on their site? Many seem to think comments are more trouble than they’re worth but I have to believe that being the place where conversation is happening is good for business, if only for the extra page views.

That’s where Twitter has a problem. Because many use Twitter like a public instant messaging platform. The problem? It’s far from instant. You wind up having these clipped asynchronous conversations that feel like deep space time delay communication.

And the 140 character limit doesn’t even work to provide any type of real dialog. Other platforms like Google+ are far better at fostering strong conversations.

So, does Twitter want to try to hijack those conversations and foster deeper engagement on Twitter proper? To me, that’s the greater threat to publishers. Sure, Twitter wants to be a destination but not the destination.

TL;DR

Twitter needs to embrace radical change and evolve to stay relevant. The future of Twitter is one in which they monetize a visual set of ever changing curated content that captures attention but not conversation.

Ripples Bookmarklet

July 20 2012 // SEO + Social Media + Technology // 29 Comments

Who shared your post and how did it spread on Google+? That’s what Ripples can tell you, allowing you to find influencers and evangelists.

Google+ Ripples

You can find Ripples in the drop down menu on public posts.

Google Plus Ripples Drop Down

But I noticed that there was also a small URL entry field on the Ripples page.

Google Ripples URL Field

Sure enough you can drop in a URL and see Ripples for any page.

Google Ripples Example

(Interesting how each of my shares of this post are shown separately.)

Ripples Bookmarklet

I didn’t want to go traipsing back and forth to enter URLs, so I created a bookmarklet.

Find Ripples

Drag the link above to your bookmarks bar. Then click the bookmark whenever you want to see Ripples for the page you’re on. [Clarification] This is for non-Google+ URLs only. Ripples for Google+ URLs are only available via the drop-down menu.

So stop wondering and find out who’s sharing your content (or any content) on Google+.

Twitter Cards Are Rich Snippets For Tweets

June 18 2012 // SEO + Social Media + Technology // 28 Comments

On Thursday Twitter announced something called Twitter Cards. What are Twitter Cards? They’re essentially rich snippets for Tweets and I predict they’re going to be essential for making your content more portable.

Twitter Cards

There are actually three different types of cards: summary, photo and player. The summary is the default card while the photo and player cards are specifically for images and videos. Here’s the example Twitter provides for a summary card.

Twitter Card Example

Yes Twitter, you definitely have my attention.

Transforming Twitter?

Twitter Cards could transform Twitter from the text based default it has languished in for years to one that will compete with the more appealing and popular visual feeds like Instagram, Path, Foursquare, Tumblr, Google+ and Facebook, the latter two most notably on mobile.

If the summary card is open by default your Twitter stream would look vastly different. It might also change the behavior of those using Twitter and cause people to trim the number of those they follow.

Twitter desperately needs to capture more time and attention to fully realize their advertising business. Transforming the feed through Twitter Cards could be a big step in the right direction.

Twitter Card Properties

All of the cards support some basic properties.

Basic Twitter Card Properties

You can optionally (and ideally) also include attribution in your Twitter Card.

Twitter Card Attribution

The summary card is probably the easiest one of the three with very few required properties.

Twitter Summary Card Properties

Note that you can only have one card per post. If you have the time, I recommend you read through the Twitter Card documentation.

Twitter and Open Graph Tags

You might be thinking to yourself, good god, I have to figure out another set of markup? Well, not exactly. Twitter will actually fall back on Open Graph tags should you already have those in place.

But the Open Graph tags aren’t comprehensive. So if you’ve got Open Graph tags in place then you’ll just need to add a few more to get the most out of Twitter Cards. In particular, you won’t get the attribution which is very attractive in my opinion.

As an aside, there’s no mention of whether Twitter will parse schema.org markup or fall back even further to standard markup like the title tag or meta description.

How To Implement Twitter Cards

I have the Open Graph tags on Blind Five Year Old but decided to implement all of the Twitter tags because I want to be certain I have full control over what is being delivered. I think portability is increasingly important so I’m not going to take any chances.

Now, a lot of what I’m going to show you is based on prior hacks and on the plugins I happen to use. So you may not be able to replicate what I do exactly, but it should give you an idea of how you can do it yourself.

Check Your Head

Check Your Head

The first thing to understand is where to put these tags. They go in the <head> of your posts. The <head> is essentially an area (invisible to the user) located before the actual content of a page. It’s where you give instructions to browsers and search engines about the page. This can be all sorts of things from the title to styling of a page. It’s also where you declare the values for all these tags.

Think of it this way, you need special glasses to watch that 3D movie, the <head> is where you’d be given those glasses.

View Page Source

You can see what’s in the <head> by doing a simple right mouse click on any page and selecting ‘View Page Source’.

View Page Source

That will open up a new tab with a whole mess of code for you to review and inspect.

Page Head

My <head> is a bit messy with all the stuff I’ve done and use, but it still works and at some point I’ll come back around to clean it up. Next, we’ll make sure these new Twitter tags show up here.

Edit Your Header

In WordPress, go to your Dashboard and select Appearance > Editor.

WordPress Appearance Editor

Next, select the header file which will likely be header.php.

Edit Header.php File

This is where you’re going to be placing your code.

Now before you go any further, copy all of the code in your header.php and paste it into a text editor. So if you happen to screw things up you can just copy back your old header.php file and start again. (Seriously, do this! I’ve broken my site so many times and it’s that backup copy I have in a text file that often saves the day.)

Drop In The Code

Now it’s time to actually put the code in place. You’re going to put it directly before the closing </head> tag.

Twitter Card Code

I’ve posted a version of the Twitter Card code on Pastebin so you can easily copy and tweak it for your own site. (Do not just copy and paste it into your own file!)

The first line is a comment and does not actually show up on the page nor give any instructions. It just makes it easier for me to see where this code resides once it’s live.

The second line starts with a statement that I only want this on posts. This is accomplished with the if(is_single()) function.

Next I declare the card type (summary) and then the creator (my Twitter handle). I’ve hard coded the creator since I’m the only author on Blind Five Year Old. If you run a single author blog then it’s easy to do this. If you run a multi-author blog or site you’ll have to build in some logic and get the Twitter handle for the author of that post.

To get the URL I simply echo the get_permalink() function. The echo is essentially saying to not only find the permalink but to put what it finds there into the code.

To get the title I echo the get_the_title() function. Yeah, that’s a pretty self explanatory function isn’t it?

For the description I echo the get_post_meta() function which is a collection of meta data about posts. I’m asking for a specific piece of that meta. In this case it’s the _aioseop_description which is the meta description I’ve entered via the All In One SEO Pack.

I sort of cheated by doing a Google search that brought me to a WordPress Support thread that contained the right syntax for this field. If you didn’t know this you’d have to go and find the name of this field in your database via something like phpMyAdmin.

You might also be able to use the_excerpt() or to echo get_the_excerpt() here but I like the specificity since I know I’ve entered something for the meta description myself.

For the image, I’ve essentially replicated what I do to get the Open Graph image but changed the property to name (swapping og for twitter) and content to value. Again, you really don’t need to do this since Twitter says they’ll fall back on the Open Graph image. But I feel better having it explicitly spelled out.

Read through my Snippet Optimization post to learn more about how to use a simple custom field (og_img) to generate a featured image for each post. Seriously, it’s not that hard to do.

After you put your code in you hit update file and then go to a post and view source. Hopefully you see the Twitter Card markup populating correctly. (Check this post for an example.) If not, go back and try again paying close attention to the syntax of your code.

At present Twitter does not have a testing tool like Facebook or Google, but it’s something we may see in the future.

(Please comment if you can improve on, see errors in or can provide additional details such as tips for other platforms or field names for other plugins. A special thanks to Ron Kuris who helped to debug my PHP code.)

A Velvet Rope?

I need To See Some ID LOLcat

It is unclear who exactly will be able to participate in Twitter Cards initially.

To participate in the program, you should (a) read the documentation below, (b) determine whether you wish to support Twitter cards, and then (c) apply to participate. As we roll out this new feature to users and publishers, we are looking for sites with great content and those that drive active discussion and activity on Twitter.

It sounds like Twitter is going to review each site and create a whitelist for those they wish to support. But I have to think that this will become an open standard in short order. So get a jump on things and implement Twitter Cards now.

TL;DR

Twitter Cards are rich snippets for Tweets. Implementing Twitter Cards could transform Twitter into a more appealing visual feed and makes optimizing your Twitter Card an essential part of social portability.