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April 04 2013

10:32

Game Changer? Inside BuzzFeed's Native Ad Network

After quietly piloting the concept for months, BuzzFeed officially launched its own native ad network this March. The mechanics of the network are bizarre, yet intriguing: Participating publishers allow BuzzFeed to serve story previews on their sites which, when clicked, bring visitors to sponsored stories on BuzzFeed.com. The network, whose ads resemble real story teases, is brash and a bit risky, but it may just help publishers circumvent the abuses of today's established, banner reliant, ad network ecosystem.

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The current ad network model, or indirect sales model, is a mess. It functions based on an oversupply of simple display ads and is rife with inefficiencies, opening the door for middlemen to reap profits while devaluing publisher inventory. BuzzFeed's native ad network, along with others in a similar mold, has the potential to minimize these drawbacks by giving publishers a simple, safe way to make money through indirect sales channels.

How We Got Here

The ad networks we know today came about as a result of the poor economics of the banner ad. A little history: In the early days of Internet publishing, the banner ad seemed to make sense. Just as many publishers began figuring out the Internet by taking content produced for print and slapping it on the web, they took the standard print ad format -- selling advertisers designated space on a page -- and brought it online too. Instead of selling these ads by the inch though (a measurement suitable for edition-based print publishing), digital ads were sold by the impression, or view, a better fit for the unceasing nature of online media.

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Over time, the acceptance and standardization of the banner ad brought a number of side effects along with it, the most important being an incentive for publishers to pack their pages with as many banners as possible. For publishers, the decision was easy: The more banner ads they placed on a page, the more money they stood to make. So instead of running a more manageable (and more user-friendly) three or four banner ads, publishers cluttered their pages with 10, 15 or even 20 of them.

Placing ads on a page was only half the equation though; publishers still needed to sell them. As they soon found out, selling premium, above-the-fold ads was a lot easier than getting advertisers to pony up for the glut of below-the-fold, low-quality inventory. A significant percentage of ads thus went unsold, and into the void stepped ad networks. Even at a heavy discount, publishers figured, it was better to get some money from remnant inventory via ad networks as opposed to making nothing. This would prove to be a poor calculation.

The Dark Side of Ad Networks
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Rather than question the logic of creating more inventory than it was possible to sell, publishers stuck with the model, growing their audiences along with their inventory and watching the original ad networks evolve into a multibillion-dollar tech industry fed largely on remnant inventory. Soon, publishers found themselves exposed to more drawbacks than they perhaps initially bargained for, and the original premise of making more money with more ads came into question.

As it grew, the indirect ecosystem not only enabled advertisers to buy publisher inventory at cheaper prices, devaluing even premium inventory, it also allowed them to buy premium publisher audiences on non-premium sites, thanks to the third-party cookie. The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal zoomed in on this problem in a long piece about the tough economics of the online publishing industry.

"Advertisers didn't have to buy The Atlantic," he wrote. "They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us." The indirect system, in other words, commoditized his audience, leaving his impressions as valuable, in some ways, as those on third-rate sites.

Recognizing these and other abuses as endemic to the system, publishers today are starting to fight back. Many are trying to limit their dependency on banner ads either by cutting them out of their business completely or by constricting supply. David Payne, the chief digital officer at Gannett who oversaw a major USA Today redesign which dramatically reduced the site's supply of banners, put it this way when I spoke with him for an article for Digiday: "I think we've all proven over the last 12 years that the strategy we've been following -- to create a lot of inventory and then sell it at 95 percent off to these middlemen every day -- is not a long-term strategy."

Publishers have started looking for alternative forms of revenue to fill the gap and, so far, the hottest alternative is the native ad. Everyone from The Atlantic, to Tumblr, to the Washington Post, to Twitter is giving it a try and BuzzFeed, perhaps the extreme example, is all in. It sells only native ads, no banners.

BuzzFeed Susceptible to the Same Problems?

Which brings us to BuzzFeed's ad network. At this early point, it seems like the network should indeed be free of many of the abuses listed above. Its simple nature, for example, ensures that most of the value won't be siphoned out by a group of tech middlemen and will be largely shared by BuzzFeed, participating publishers and minimally, the ad server. Participating in the network, furthermore, should not devalue publishers' existing inventory since it will not provide advertisers access to the same inventory at cheaper prices.

BuzzFeed also claims its networks steers clear of third-party cookies, the audience-snatching culprit that The Atlantic's Madrigal railed against.

"We believe the ultimate targeting is real human-to-human sharing, digital word of mouth, so we don't do third-party cookie targeting," BuzzFeed advertising executive Eric Harris told me via email. "We're not collecting individually identifiable data and will not sell any data."

The approach should help participating publishers breathe a bit easier -- and they may just want to consider demanding the same from any network they engage with, not just BuzzFeed's.

"It's cleaner; it's more straight up," said Fark.com CEO Drew Curtis of BuzzFeed's network. His site, which is one of the partners participating in the launch, embeds BuzzFeed sponsored story previews on its home page, marking them as sponsored. "I just like the fact that there's no screwing around," Curtis explained in a phone interview, "It's exactly what it appears to be, no more no less." Rates from BuzzFeed's ad network, he added, are significantly higher from other indirect channels. "Advertisers," he said, "are willing to pay for less bulls#*t."

Of course, one question participating publishers might ask themselves is why they are helping BuzzFeed profit from sponsored posts instead of selling them on their own sites. The answer might worry BuzzFeed -- at least until it can get its traffic up to the point of advertiser demand -- but if publishers decide to go that route and withdraw from the network, they may be able to pull themselves away from the bad economics that brought them into the network game in the first place.

Alex Kantrowitz covers the digital marketing side of politics for Forbes.com and PBS MediaShift. His writing has previously appeared in Fortune and the New York Times' Local Blog. Follow Alex on Twitter at @Kantrowitz.

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April 02 2013

10:49

Native Advertising Shows Great Potential, But Blurs Editorial Lines

Radio legend Paul Harvey was such a great storyteller that he could totally enthrall you before you realized you were listening to an ad.

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Today, you'd call that sponsored content. The larger term is native advertising -- strategies that mesh branded messages into the media where they appear. They include articles on news sites; funny videos and animated GIFs on humor sites; tweets and Facebook updates, and more. Instead of interrupting the flow like a typical TV commercial, pre-roll, pop-up or print ad, it blends into its surroundings and, in theory at least, offers the reader/viewer/listener something interesting.

Pew Research Center's 2013 State of the News Media Report found that while the amount spent on native advertising in 2012 was comparatively low -- $1.5 billion compared with $8.6 billion for banner ads -- it's rising fast. Spending for sponsored content grew 45 percent in 2011 and almost 39 percent in 2012. That's second only to video ads.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Some fear sponsored content blurs the ethical church-and-state division between advertising and journalism, while others say the revenue keeps reporters employed.

Reuters' Jack Schafer put it strongly in a recent piece, "A Word Against Our Sponsor": "If, as George Orwell once put it, 'The public are swine; advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill-bucket,' then sponsored content is the meal so wretched that even pigs will reject unless sugar-frosted," he wrote.

But whether you love or hate native advertising, examining the recent history of the news business, including declining revenues and widespread layoffs, sheds light on why it's growing so quickly.

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Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, told me that tough economic realities and the "anemic" growth of digital ad revenue opened the door.

"The grimmer news is that basically for every $16 that a newspaper is losing in print revenue, they're gaining $1 in digital," he said. "Just as the case with classified ads, which disappeared ... it's very possible that other forms of digital ad revenue are maybe more difficult than previously thought."

Forbes Leading the Way

Forbes was the first major news site to integrate sponsored content. In 2010, I wrote about how Forbes Media chief product officer Lewis Dvorkin shook up the established formula with AdVoice -- which hosted sponsored articles on Forbes.com.

Forbes Media chief revenue officer Meredith Levien told me it was slow going at first, especially since few companies had the staff or mindset for content creation. But in the last 18 months it's grown dramatically, in part because the publication added a team of writers, editors and graphic designers -- separate from the editorial team -- to help brands produce their articles. "We can't staff it fast enough," she said, adding that BrandVoice was "No. 1 on the list" of factors that made 2012 revenues the best in five years.

Last year, Levien successfully lobbied for the name to be changed to BrandVoice.

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"AdVoice conveyed the notion it was part of the advertising mix," she said. "This is really about content and thought leadership."

Levien adds that she was gratified to see the Washington Post adopt a similar model earlier this year. "I don't think we can take credit for it, but we were especially pleased to see the Post get into it," she said.

A recent random look at BrandVoice content showed a piece from Oracle titled "King Richard III: Villain, Hero, or Tragic Victim of Identity Theft?" NetApp offered "3 Steps To Build Your Personal Brand For Tomorrow's Business (Tips From The CIO)." The CapitalOneSpark credit card team offered: "Optimize Your Website To Convert Visitors To Buyers." The "Voice" pages include links to more from the sponsor, which in some cases includes press releases.

In February, Dvorkin blogged that BrandVoice now has 20 partners. While he remains passionately upbeat, others are more cautious.

Digiday recently quoted Businessweek.com editor Janet Paskin saying she's treading lightly: "Our credibly and integrity, for all journalists, is sometimes harder to defend than it should be. We don't want to compromise that or allow for that perception."

Edgier Sites Jump In

While the traditional journalism community remains divided, many edgier news and entertainment sites see no problem at all. Some of BuzzFeed's snappy content is sponsored, as is some of what you'll see on Cheezburger, Gawker, Vice and others.

Onion Labs, the in-house advertising and marketing team of The Onion humor site, works with sponsored content in several ways. It integrates brands into its own video content -- such as 7-Up's placement in its morning show, "Today Now." It creates original content for major brands. It also posts or links to content produced by the brands themselves, like this video for Adobe:

CollegeHumor CEO Paul Greenberg said his site embraced the concept five years ago. At the Native Advertising Summit in February, he said there's such interest that the site's inner workings now resemble a digital ad agency.

"We've really had to turn into a machine to super-serve the clients that come to us and meet the demand that we're seeing in the marketplace," he told me. Listerine, he says, saw a 17 percent jump in sales after its native ad campaign.

Matt McDonagh, vice president for national sales at The Onion, says a Nielsen study shows that humor is the best way to reach a young target audience. Even big names such as Hilton and Coke Zero are dipping their toes into the comedy pool. "Brands are willing to take a few more risks than they were a few years ago because to hit 18- to 24-year-olds -- you're not going to do that on '60 Minutes,'" he said.

It seems that when it comes to entertainment sites, sponsored content has found a comfortable home.

"Those kinds of sites have pretty seamlessly integrated this," Pew's Jurkowitz said. "It's a more controversial choice for traditional legacy news organizations."

What Not to do

In 2010, Gary McCormick, then-chair of the Public Relations Society of America, publicly warned that poorly labeled sponsored content could be confused with objective news, especially because disclaimers can be lost as information is shared. Three years later, he feels media and brands understand the need for authenticity and transparency.

"It may be that it's no longer always the 'buyer beware' -- it's now the 'manufacturer beware' of putting out false claims," McCormick said. "If you come out with something hidden behind the wall it only takes one consumer to spot it ... They're going to dig deep."

When The Atlantic ran a boosterish Church of Scientology native ad, then deleted critical comments, the outcry prompted an apology with the opening line, "We screwed up."

At the Native Advertising Summit, The Atlantic Digital's vice president and general manager, Kimberly Lau, called the Scientology incident a lesson in what not to do. "The whole experience clarified how it is people are going to judge these things," she said.

The Onion did a scathingly hilarious take featuring fake content praising the Taliban.

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The Onion's McDonagh notes the parody came from the editorial, rather than sales side, but he feels their pain. "To The Atlantic's credit, they're testing some things out and trying to make themselves a smart digital publisher," he said. The key, he adds, is to understand and stay true to your audience.

Sharing the Wealth

The native ad boom is also already creating new business models -- maybe even a whole new advertising sector.

Take, for instance, the success of Sharethrough, which helps increase the reach of sponsored content. For example, if a brand creates a post for one site, Sharethrough carries it to other platforms such as WordPress, Forbes.com, The Awl and Thought Catalog, which direct traffic back to the original post. Videos can be embedded and viewed in a number of blogs and sites.

Although it's only four years old, it's worked with 20 of the top 25 brands of AdAge magazine's Megabrands list. Relationships with many websites and publishers helped it create the Native Advertising Summit. (As a matter of fact, it popularized the term "native advertising," building off the phrase "native monetization" used by venture capitalist Fred Wilson.) Sharethrough has also become a clearinghouse for information about the new industry with tools such as the Native Advertising Leaderboard, which is searchable by brand, publisher, topic and social actions.

"There's a lot of creativity happening in this space right now," said Chris Schreiber, the firm's vice president of Marketing & Communications. One recent project promoted an infographic Pop Secret developed about how people watch movies. "They were delivering value -- something you didn't know and was easily sharable," he says.

When sponsored content -- especially videos -- work, he says, it's great. "It's more about thinking what's valuable for the audience and the consumer rather than what's valuable for the marketer."

Microsoft met its marketing goals while engaging a new audience with its The Browser You Love(d) to Hate campaign for Internet Explorer 9. Roger Capriotti, director of Internet Explorer product marketing, hired producers to create visual content that targeted young people who might otherwise disregard the product. The effort relied on viral shares and news coverage instead of paid posts; the most frequently shared video recalled memories of growing up in the '90s:

As anyone who's tried to make a video go viral knows, 25 million video views -- including 22 million for "Child of the 90s" alone, is nothing to sneeze at, even for Microsoft.

"If we can build good content, we can engage them in a way that we haven't engaged them in the past," Capriotti says. The best part, he says, was reading positive reviews posted by new-found fans.

The Rest of the Story?

Jurkowitz, of the Pew Research Center, questions how far the native ad trend will reach.

"Obviously the growth rate is high, but we're talking about a universe of small numbers here," he says. "There's some momentum in this direction, understandably, but it's not by any means a foregone conclusion that this is going to become a dominant form of advertising in mainstream news outlets going forward."

But The Onion's McDonagh clearly sees brands moving away from conventional ad campaigns, and demanding more creativity. "Brands are trying to develop content and trying to act more like publishers, and that's a sea change from where we were three to five years ago."

Sharethrough's Schreiber notes that as soon as new platforms crop up, advertisers jump on them -- as they've done with Twitter's Vine app, which creates short videos. He expects newer platforms will arise specifically for native advertising. "You're going to see new media created with native advertising, knowing that's how they're going to make their money," he says. And brands, he says, will learn what works best for their audience and their message. "They'll find their voice," he concludes.

Usually at this point in a Paul Harvey show, he would knowingly say, "And THAT's ... the rest of the story." But right now, prospects for native advertising are not so clear-cut that any one person or group can claim to have the last word. The only thing that's certain is that they will continue to evolve.

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @TTho

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April 18 2012

13:51

In the Age of Social Media, the Customer Really Is King

The following is a guest column by Kevin O'Connor, the president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm.

The idea of putting customers first is not a new one. In fact, it was the start of the 20th century when Harry Gordon Selfridge coined the phrase "The customer is always right."

But customers have never been as powerful as they are today in the social media age.

The potential damage that can be done to a reputation on social media raises the stakes higher than they've ever been. A new era means new ways to collaborate with and serve valuable customers. It's time for companies to stretch beyond customer satisfaction surveys and stop relying on demographic research to determine how their brands should interact with their customers. It's time to start talking to customers, one on one, in order to understand who they are and how to wow them with a product or service.

Today, more and more companies realize they must spend time and effort to really get to know their customers. If one person has a bad experience, news travels at lightning-fast speed. They will post their woes to their friends, contacts and Twitter followers.

"If we knew someone had 50,000 Twitter followers, our call centers would escalate their call for support," someone once told me.

That's certainly understanding the power of social media, but the goal should be larger: to make sure the customer experience is as good as it can possibly be to avoid all complaints in the first place, whether public or private.

the case of Qwikster

Netflix clearly underestimated its customers last year when it announced it would rename its DVD-distribution service Qwikster. Creating separate charges for DVDs and streaming video would almost double prices. Plus, a high schooler already owned the Twitter handle @Qwikster, indicating even worse foresight.

The day Netflix announced Qwikster, online conversations spiked almost 300 percent. Seventy percent of the chatter was negative when emotion was tied to the posts. Netflix stock dropped 20 percent. $2 billion in value evaporated in eight hours. Hundreds of thousands of subscribers canceled their service. The customers had spoken -- Netflix abandoned the idea, and the CEO apologized.

On the flip side, if consumers love a product, store, brand or experience, they will shout it out into their vast digital networks. Take for example, musician Tommee Profitt, whose love for Target led him to record a music video using his iPhone 4S.

A new take on 'user experience'

Since today's customer truly is king, with powerful communication tools right at their fingertips, companies have to pay more attention to the overall "user experiences" they are creating for people. User experience, or UX, is a broad term used to describe all aspects of a person's experience with a system or brand.

User experience research and testing helps companies "put the customer first" in all aspects of their businesses.

In today's many-to-many world, consumers group themselves, especially online, largely based on values, interests and aspirations -- not by sex, race and age. In this scenario, companies must understand their consumers' behaviors and motivators -- the why behind their actions.

An example: A company in the financial services industry came to my firm, User Insight, to get to know its customers better. Based on the demographic and segmentation information, this client believed that people chose banks according to life stage. After spending hours one on one, in consumers' homes, interviewing them on how they choose a bank, we discovered that it wasn't about their sex, age, race or stage of life at all. Instead, we found three groups based on values and behaviors: customers who preferred to bank online, those who like a branch nearby, and those who want a banker who knows them by name and handles their complex finances.

Getting insights from the customers who will actually use the product at the end of the day allows a company to focus on the core experience these customers are looking for. It's not about "if" someone can use a product; it's about "will" they use the product. The key today is serving up the right content at the right time in the right way. Consumers have many ways to interact with a brand; understanding how they want to do that will make the brand successful.

Smart companies should be willing to seek out and accept the tough love they need to serve consumers and manage change well. They also need the right people to guide them who are passionate, pleasant and collaborative. Putting time and effort into quality user experience research can mean healthier businesses, happier customers, and fewer reputation-flaying diatribes online. Because in today's social media age, user experience matters.

Kevin O'Connor is president of User Insight, a user experience strategy firm providing research and consulting to more than 300 clients in 25 different industries. User Insight, an Inc. 5000 firm, is headquartered in Atlanta, Ga.

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March 27 2012

14:00

FTC: If It's Your Computer, You Should Own Your Data

If you own your computer, you should own the data that's on it. That's the message from Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

At a Washington press conference -- also broadcast -- the FTC issued a new report on Internet privacy. Leibowitz praised how far the nation's come in protecting data, even from this time last year. But he also shared that consumers still need more clarity and control over their personal information.

The event opened with this animated primer about how information is collected, and where it goes.




































The FTC made three main recommendations:

  • Social media sites, apps, browsers, retailers and Internet service providers among others should adopt "privacy by design." In other words, privacy should come first.
  • Companies should work towards better transparency. The average privacy policy, Leibowitz said, is longer than the Declaration of Independence.
  • Consumers and businesses should receive simple choices to decide what information is shared. This should include a "Do Not Track" option.

"'Do Not Track' from our perspective means do not collect," Leibowitz said. "We need to have a 'Do Not Track' option that is persistent, easy to use and effective. "

In the past year, he said, large platforms and marketers made a lot of progress toward protecting privacy, partly because it's the right thing to do, and partly because they want to keep consumers' trust.

"It's amazing how far these companies have come," Leibowitz said. "I think we're all pulling in the right direction. People just get it -- it's the right thing to do ... It's better for your business."

'Best practices'

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Overall, the report falls more into the category of "best practices" than regulations. The point, he said, was "not to erect a stoplight, but to take a look at the traffic patterns." Yet he urged Congress to enact tougher privacy protection laws, and noted that the FTC's power is based in its ability to enforce the law.

For example, last spring Google settled FTC charges that it violated user privacy when it launched Google Buzz. Then last fall Facebook settled an FTC lawsuit alleging it repeatedly deceived users about their privacy.

The lengthy report certainly sets the stage for more debate. It ends with a dissenting statement from FTC Commissioner J. Thomas Rosch. His concerns include that the report had no limiting principles, and could be seen as a mandate.

"It would install 'Big Brother' as the watchdog over these practices, not only in the online world but in the offline world," he wrote. He also added that there's no universally accepted definition of what "Do Not Track" means.

"I still worry about the constitutionality of banning take-it-or-leave-it choice (in circumstances where the consumer has few alternatives)," Rosch opined. "As a practical matter, that prohibition may chill information collection, and thus impact innovation, regardless whether one's privacy policy is deceptive or not."

Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.

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February 28 2012

14:00

How Social Media, E-Books, Self-Publishing Change Writers Conferences

At first, you came to the San Francisco Writers Conference to learn the craft of writing, to hear famous writers describe how they became famous, to learn the secrets of how to create a winning book proposal, to become enlightened by publishers about what they want and, most of all, to pitch literary agents, those elusive creatures who seem always to be heading the other direction.

Today, it's a different story. Today's conference is about all the traditional basics, but also about topics from blogging and tweeting to e-books and self-publishing. I asked four longtime participants in the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference earlier this month to describe how this and other writers conferences have morphed to include technical content relevant to today's writers.

You can listen to their takes below.

I started with San Francisco Writers Conference co-organizer Laurie McLean, who told me that the core teachings are still there, but two entirely new tracks have been added to handle tech topics relevant to writers today, and the previously unmentionable option, self-publishing.

Laurie McLean
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For more than 20 years Laurie ran a public relations agency in California's Silicon Valley. Then she became an agent at Larsen Pomada Literary Agents representing adult genre fiction and children's middle grade and young adult books. As Agent Savant, she works with authors to create their author brand, then develop a digital marketing plan to help them promote that brand online via social media, blogs, websites and more. Laurie is dean of the new San Francisco Writers University and on the management team of the San Francisco Writers Conference. In 2012, Laurie started two e-publishing companies: Joyride Books (for out-of-print vintage romance novels) and Ambush Books (for out-of-print children's books).

Listen to McLean on adding two new tracks to the conference offerings here.

Listen to McLean on still sticking with the basics here.

Kevin Smokler
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In 2007, Kevin Smokler founded, with Chris Anderson (editor in chief of Wired Magazine), BookTour.com, the world's largest online directory of author and literary events. Kevin now serves as the company's CEO, regularly speaking at industry conferences and book festivals throughout North America on the future of publishing, books, reading and legacy media in the 21st century. His regular topics include print and digital publishing, legacy media, social media and the web for writers, and business skills for artists and creatives. In April of 2008, Amazon purchased a minority stake in BookTour.com.

From Smokler's vantage, despite all the changes, there are some things that are still, and always will be, basic to publishing -- namely, the need for a quality book and connecting that book to readers.

Listen to Kevin Smokler talk about that here.

Patrick von Wiegandt
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Patrick von Wiegandt is a musician and sound engineer in charge of making each session at the San Francisco Writers Conference available in audio formats for sale immediately at the conference and online after the event.

He's seen big changes "backstage," as in the transition from tape to CD to MP3, but because he also hears all the sessions, he has some interesting insights about how the content of the conference has changed since the Internet came to be important to writers.

Listen here to Patrick von Wiegandt talk about the changes he's seen.

Joel Friedlander

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Joel Friedlander is a self-published author and a book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at TheBookDesigner.com. He's also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors who decide to publish get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read.

One of the biggest changes Friedlander sees is the massive shift in how books are being publicized (authors now being asked to do promotions themselves) and how writers conferences are adapting to reflect that change.

Hear Friedlander talk about that change and others he's seeing here.

Carla King is an author, a publishing consultant, and founder of the Self-Publishing Boot Camp program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website. The newest version of her e-book, The Self-Publishing Boot Camp Guide for Authors, was released in August 2011 and is available on Smashwords, Amazon Kindle, and for the B&N Nook.

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January 23 2012

14:20

Breakthrough Websites for Young Women, by Young Women

A new generation of young women has begun to make their mark online, combining entrepreneurial energy with the hardwired digital fluency that typifies the so-called digital natives.

Here are two stories of such women, both 26 years old, who jettisoned their office jobs to create online media outlets designed for young women like them. For these women and others like them, the decision to embark upon these web-based ventures was not revolutionary. To them, the "digital media revolution" has receded and they're simply operating in the only media environment they've ever known.

The Daily Muse: Work, Inspired

Kathryn Minshew hadn't been interested in starting a website for young professional women. As an undergraduate at Duke, she had no particular predilection for women's issues, and she didn't belong to any women's groups. So when, last month, Forbes featured Kathryn in its "30 Under 30" article for her leadership of The Daily Muse, the wildly successful career- and lifestyle-focused online magazine, it was an accolade that was unforeseen by her former self.

Kathryn, who's moved her publication (and herself) out to San Francisco to participate in an incubator program, recently told me that her passion for female-oriented career advice developed gradually. "I was surprised when I applied to a position at [management consulting firm] McKinsey, and they had a separate information session for women." After she landed the job, however, she began to observe the complex gender politics amid the corporate environment. She noticed how uncomfortable women were when asking for salary increases, foregoing a bonus check for $10,000 herself simply because it didn't occur to her to ask for it.

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She scoured the web for sites that offered professional guidance to young women like her, but her search was fruitless. So she partnered with friends Alex Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery to create their own. Today, The Daily Muse has a formidable readership, with a staff of five and more than 140 writers contributing content nationwide. The site's articles are syndicated on Forbes and the Huffington Post, and Kathryn's modest ambition of targeting an otherwise underserved demographic has been regarded in media circles as prescient. She herself explains that investors are "shocked to learn that there are no other sites" that are designed and deployed for professional women.

"Kathryn saw a need and filled it," said Rachel Sklar, media entrepreneur and adviser to The Daily Muse. "She recognized that not only was there a huge market of young professional women being pumped out of colleges every year -- but that there was key information that they weren't getting. Fixing those information asymmetries is extremely powerful -- and damn good business. And it's their niche, because they made it."

Big Girls, Small Kitchen: A Guide for Quarter-Life Cooking

Phoebe Lapine was bored by her first office job after graduating from Brown. She remembers sitting down at a Thanksgiving dinner when her cousin interrupted her workaday complaints by asking her, point-blank, what she'd rather be doing. She thought about it a moment and then replied, "writing a cookbook."

Knowing, instinctively, that the boundaries between media were becoming increasingly porous, Phoebe called Cara Eisenpress, a cooking friend of hers since high school and, together, they started a cooking blog. They knew that they wanted to focus on young women who, like them, were facing the challenges of limited resources. So they came up with the title, Big Girls, Small Kitchen as an online "guide to quarter-life cooking."

According to Phoebe, they "started off slow, meeting at coffee shops after work or sneaking out to plan recipes on [their] lunch breaks." They didn't get a lot of traffic but were seen by the right people. Before long, a literary agent who had taken notice of the site approached them, and they had their deal for a cookbook. "In the Small Kitchen" was published in May and is currently available on Amazon.

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While Phoebe had pretty swiftly accomplished her goal to write the cookbook, she and Cara decided to reinvest a significant portion of their advance into the website, transforming it to a more thorough resource for the community of young chefs that had begun to follow them. Phoebe recounted her literary agent's advice: "A book is something that goes on the shelf. It could be hidden discontinued, and you have much less control. It's more static. The site is something you have more control over. It lives on beyond the book and gives a rich opportunity for interaction with your audience."

What she didn't expect, however, is that the development of a more polished and attractive site actually decreased the amount of user-generated comments and contributions. She and Cara speculate that it may have been difficult for her audience, which was used to a shabby-chic site, to be greeted by something that had a more professional design. Cara observed, "When we did our first redesign, we were so sick of having an ugly old blog that we over-corrected and wound up with a homepage that was beautiful but static, even boring. It took a few months, but we were just able to go into another design phase and play with the elements until they felt vibrant."

Now, as they embark on their new venture, Small Kitchen College, they're applying their learned lessons to create community for the culinarily curious college student. With nearly 40 student contributors, they are harnessing the collective contributions of people with shared interests, much in the way The Daily Muse has done.

These are just two examples of young media-minded entrepreneurs who are noticing barren spots in the media landscape. They understand that people with similar interests to their own are being underserved by the the current catalog of media offerings, and so they're deciding to insert their own voices into this otherwise vacuous lull. As more and more digital natives come of age and instinctively exploit online opportunities in the way that Kathryn and Phoebe have done, the digital media landscape will become more verdant and variegated for it.

Mark Hannah is the director of academic communications at Parsons The New School for Design. Coming out of the public relations world, he has conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently worked as an advance associate for the Obama-Biden campaign and Presidential Inaugural Committee. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a 2008 research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He holds a B.A. from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree from Columbia University. He can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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January 18 2012

15:20

Self-Published Authors Still Rarely Make the Jump to Publishing Houses

For many self-published authors, a traditional publisher is an elusive dream. It means a team of professionals taking over marketing, advertising, publicity and the mechanics of publishing one's own book on paper and electronically. It means already forged relationships with booksellers, critics and other writers - and it means more time to write, rather than haggling over the costs of a book cover design or editing.

While both the self-published fantasy writer Amanda Hocking and CIA thriller author John Locke show that independent authors can succeed in attracting big publishers and contracts, it seems, for now, that they are the exception, not the rule.

using the Kindle Store as a talent pool

The rise of e-books and self publishing has certainly enlarged the talent pool for publishers and made it easier to find authors, but that doesn't mean publishers are all taking advantage of the emerging talent.

Debra Dixon, president of Bell Bridge Books, a small press based in Memphis that publishes young adult, science fiction and fantasy titles, said, "I know that we have seen agents trolling Kindle lists . . . But our authors tend to come to us based on reputation."

"I know a lot of folks in the industry and I just don't hear anybody saying, 'I got the greatest author this week -- got her on Kindle,'" Dixon said.

Trina MacDonald, a senior acquisitions editor for Pearson Education, said she discovers authors by finding experts in the field, doing research and hearing from people in the community. "We ask what types of books they would like to see and who would write them," she said. "And then we would make direct contact."

MacDonald said she has heard of publishers contacting writers on Kindle and isn't against the idea.

"I have not approached any authors, but I think it would depend on the book and the author," MacDonald said. "But if they are already self-published you can see what kind of writing they're capable of."

The Truth About Amanda Hocking

AmandaHocking.jpgAmanda Hocking, a 27-year-old independent author who sold more than a million copies of her books, signed a reported $2 million-plus, four-book deal with St. Martin's Press earlier this year, making her an indie success story. The news of her book deal flooded the Internet, sparking reports that publishers are looking for the next Hocking.

But Hocking wasn't a passive participant in the process. She sent numerous queries, manuscripts and book proposals to traditional publishers and agents, only to be turned down repeatedly. Hocking was also a prolific author with nine self-published titles to her name and her popular Trylle Trilogy, had already been optioned for a motion picture. According to her blog, she even had an editor, cover artist and acted on feedback from publishers and agents. By the time she was offered a contract by St. Martin's she had negotiated foreign language rights in Hungary and sold 1 million copies of her books.

She said she chose to go with a traditional publisher because, "I want to be a writer. I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling emails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation."

The new independent author has to be able to market and advertise a book in nontraditional ways on a minuscule budget. That usually means blogs, social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and a lot of phone calls and email. That publicity, often called "discoverability" or a "platform," is what sells books and propels them up the e-book bestseller lists. And for most self-published e-book authors, that means making their downloads available at the Amazon Kindle store.

Clearing the Way

Erica Sadun, an author who previously wrote technical manuals such as "The iOS 5 Developer's Cookbook," decided to work on an independent e-book to stay ahead of the technological curve.

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"My friend Steve [Sande] and I were sick to pieces of the 101 days of production before books can get out," she said from her Denver home. So she and Sande decided to pen a how-to for the iPhone 4S's virtual assistant Siri, called "Talking to Siri" and had it out within two weeks of the iPhone 4S launch.

After selling well for six days, it was picked up by a publisher - as it turns out, Sadun's own publisher Pearson wanted it for its Que imprint. "It isn't the normal story," Sadun said.

But Sadun's story isn't uncommon either. Several successful authors have started independently publishing for higher royalties or using it to test out new genres. One successful author that advocates and guides new Kindle authors into self-publishing e-books, J.A. Konrath, had six books published by Hyperion since 2004.

But lacking a following or any exposure, unknown independent authors still have to garner interest however possible.

The Hybrid Author

Dixon said she met self-published urban fantasy author John Hartness in the usual fashion, at a science fiction and fantasy convention.

"When I began talking to publishers and eventually signed with Bell Bridge Books, they were as attracted to my stories as they were that I was media-savvy and self-promotions savvy," Hartness said. "But I don't know of any publisher who would be willing to put out bad stories because their authors are a whiz at promotion."

Dixon signed Hartness in September, about two years after he uploaded his first independent e-book to the Kindle Store.

"We saw what he had done and his platform, which made it more attractive because when you relaunch an author it's a big commitment," Dixon said.

Traditional publishers do shoulder the price of editing, promotion and publicity, and they usually recoup those costs with higher asking prices than 99 cents or $2.99. With self-published authors, the costs for publishers are the same as for a new author. "We treat (the book) as if it has never been published," Dixon said. "One of the strong reasons writers come to publishers is to elevate their book."

While Hartness loves working with his publisher and the process, he continues to self-publish his own work. "I think you are going to see many more hybrid authors," he said.

Barbara E. Hernandez is a native Californian who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has more than a decade of experience as a professional journalist and college writing instructor. She also writes for Press:Here, NBC Bay Area's technology blog.

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December 20 2011

15:20

7 Ways Salespeople Can Better Understand the Editorial Side of News

There was quite a reaction to my previous column, suggesting editors learn more about, and cooperate with, the business sides of their organizations.

This time, I'd like to talk to people on the business side about how they can cooperate with the editorial side to work effectively to keep a news organization solid while also increasing revenues and ensuring the organization's survival.

First, though, let me respond a bit to the critics. A lot of the comments, on Facebook, Google+, blogs and elsewhere indicated people had read the provocative headline, "Tear Down the Wall Between Business and Editorial," perhaps a subhed or two, but not the piece in full, or even half. Some were nasty, political or ad hominem attacks (one called me Mr. "Bank Oil," the kind of play on my name I hadn't heard since elementary school), others were amusing, and a fair number were supportive and thoughtful.

One careful and considered rebuttal came from the liberal Common Dreams site, which called me "oblivious to the dangers of basing your business model on giving the sponsors what they want."

I'm not. But I have seen multiple news sites struggle to survive, including ones where I've had to cut staff.

Common Dreams asks for donations, and I hope they get enough to support their operation. Most news organizations, though, cannot survive on charity. Many are in deep trouble and have gone out of business or are struggling to survive.

News media executives and entrepreneurs -- including one who praised the previous column -- have told me how pained they were at their inability to financially sustain sites they considered superior editorially.

Overcoming Skepticism from Editors

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"With many news publishers, the online brands haven't had the revenue to support the reporting and editorial operations, let alone the rest of the staff and infrastructure that's needed for a modern news organization," Tim Ruder, chief revenue officer of ad optimization company Perfect Market, told me last week.

Ruder has often faced skepticism and even the ire of editors at major news companies when offering his company's technology, which optimizes page layout and links to get more readers in and serve them higher-value ads. The editors, understandably, don't want their pages changed in any way.

But, Ruder continued, "If these type of revenue opportunities can support the newsroom without compromising reporting, that's not to be ignored."

The news is not all glum, either. I have seen entrepreneurs make a business out of news while cultivating their ability to do great work.

Part of the reason is their keen focus on what matters most. Which leads me back to the point of this column: How the business side can intelligently do its work to sustain and enhance the organization over time.

1. Remember, It's the News Business

Your product is news. News is nothing without credibility -- and that credibility can be damaged by the wrong kind of ads or sponsorship. I spent a lot of my time at ABC News explaining to the sales side why we couldn't do one thing or another while trying to suss out the advertisers' goals to reach them within the bounds of editorial tenets.

After all, the credibility and association with your site is a good part of the reason advertisers want to be on it. Without that credibility, they'll lose the venue to get the word out about their products.

If something you're proposing calls the reliability of the organization -- its credibility or trustworthiness -- into question, that damage is very hard to recover from.

2. Know and Advocate For the "Product"

I've worked with salespeople who seem to see a news page as an array of ads, with the text and pictures simply filling up the space in between.

Even if you think of the business as only a business, not a special public trust, you have to respect the product and not bastardize it in the name of making quick money. Part of your job should be to help sustain the business over the long-term.

You can't really sell the news unless you have a powerful, abiding respect for what it is and can do, the ways it serves, informs, motivates and even impassions a community. You'll be much better able to intelligently sell the advertiser on that community if you understand what motivates the people in that community, in addition to their demographic profile.

3. Get At The Client's Real Goals

Sponsors will sometimes try to push the envelope, or get something they've envisioned that's not on your site. They'll ask if they can put this extra doodad here, get that ad size or flashy thing there.

When it's not possible, any intelligent sponsor or media buyer should be able to tell you something of what the goals are. Maybe you can offer that special something in another way, or achieve their aim with an offering you already have in your arsenal.

Sponsors who are considering your organization are doing so not only because you offer them exposure to a certain user base or group, but also because of the environment they get to be in.

It can be a bit of work, especially when you're dealing with media buyers who are trying to fit you into a spreadsheet model as part of a larger buy. But I've found that more often than not, there's a way to help them understand, then reach an accommodation.

4. Understand the Line, Then Help Hold It

It's very tempting when there's money on the table to say "yes," then run to try to get the request fulfilled. Cultivate and listen to the voice in the back of your head that will tell you when something goes a little, or a lot, too far.

A sponsor may request something you are pretty sure won't fly. First you have to understand why. It's not enough just to know the rules. You have to grasp the reason you can't do something a sponsor is asking.

I give a flat "no" when asked if sponsorship would guarantee news coverage of a given client and am ready with very clear reasons for giving that answer. I also then work to get at the client's underlying goals to find a way to reach them within the strictures. (See the previous point.)

To salespeople, editors can seem like "no" machines. If an editor objects to something you're proposing to offer, he or she may seem obstructionist, but there may be a legitimate reason.

Just as I called on editors to work with the sales side, the sales side has to understand the editorial imperatives and try to work within them. It helps, too, if the business side works with the editorial side to devise the strictures.

5. Work With the Editors, and Let Them Help You

Having a strong relationship with editors can beget other benefits. Mike Orren, founder of Pegasus News, a site that serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, put the newsroom and sales teams in the same room.

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"Our ex-newspaper restaurant critic was yelling across the room saying there was a review coming, and the sales team might want to pitch them," he said, noting that the critic didn't say whether the review was good or bad. Either way, the sponsor might want to be there -- if the article is negative, the sponsor may want the opportunity to counter that perception. But "never was she [the critic] going to let somebody tell her how to review a restaurant," Orren said.

The sales team also helped the editorial side. "Sales would tip the editorial team that someone wasn't paying bills and maybe were going to go out of business," Orren told me at the Street Fight Summit earlier this fall. "We got more scoops out of our sales team than probably anywhere else."

6. Don't Underestimate How Hard It Is To ...

  • Get a story. The text and video you see that magically appears day after day takes a lot of time and effort to gather, edit and produce -- especially in a reliable and trustworthy way. A lot of reporters work all hours and sacrifice health, sleep and social life to get a story. Understand and respect that dedication. It can be a lot harder than it looks.
  • Get people to look at it. A lot of the work of getting people to discover a story once it's been produced falls on the editorial team, especially in the digital realm. That, too, takes time, effort and understanding of the community.

7. Now, More than Ever

For a few decades, news in America had a heyday of nearly unsurpassed profitability brought about by advantages such as high barriers to entry, limited distribution channels, and advertisers with few other ways to reach consumers. Salespeople could literally sit and wait for the phone to ring.

"It's like printing money!" one publisher gleefully exclaimed to me, holding up a classified page on which every column inch represented more dollars.

Those reliable and hefty profits supported all kinds of editorial efforts that, unfortunately, can no longer be sustained in the same way.

As the industry restructures, I have suggested editors learn how the business works and how far they can go to help it without compromising the operation. Sales needs to understand that "money talks" but the people making "the product" are ultimately responsible for whether it's worthwhile for those who consume it.

I want to see news organizations survive and do great work, and I believe that today, the only way to ensure that is to take a more holistic approach to the business of news.

An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

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April 01 2011

18:51

SmashingDarling, 20x200 Push Independent Fashion, Art Online

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Trish Ginter is an independent fashion designer who believes in the beauty of handmade garments. In 1994, she co-founded a small boutique, Frock, in Chester, Conn. Like other artists and designers who shun modern technologies in the production of their work, Ginter thought she had little use for the online world. She considered the Internet a "nuisance," and didn't even own a cell phone until a few years ago.

Ginter did buy an iPod, however. One day, while downloading music, she had an epiphany. She thought, "If I can create a marketplace for independent fashion designers like Apple has done for musicians, that could be pretty useful." Shortly thereafter, in February of 2007, she launched SmashingDarling.com to do just that.

Today, SmashingDarling features the garments of more than 750 independent fashion designers, who upload their designs themselves. It's like Etsy if Etsy was dedicated only to independent fashion designers. Ginter and her business partner at Frock manage the site and get an 18 percent commission on all sales. And, of course, they sell their own inventory.

"I've come a long way," she said. "I now have developers on the West Coast and content providers and I've even learned a little HTML coding myself."

Making the Niche Mainstream

Much has been made about how the Internet, by allowing users to customize both the production and consumption of content, has a tendency to create niches. Chris Anderson's well known Long Tail theory posits that the unique traits of e-commerce -- fewer distribution challenges, endless catalogue space, etc. -- are shifting the economy away from a relatively small number of mainstream products and markets to more niche products.

jenbekmanheadshot.jpgWhile this is certainly occurring in the art and design world (and SmashingDarling is an example), a less discussed phenomenon is how e-commerce sites in this market may have the effect of transforming otherwise niche offerings into mainstream purchases. At least that's the hope of Jen Bekman, who started 20×200.com, a site that sells signed, limited edition original artwork by both emerging and established artists.

Bekman knows that the majority of Americans aren't currently in the market for fine art.


"The real world experience of buying art right now is pretty abysmal and appeals to a very small part of the population," said Bekman, who owns a gallery in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. "When you walk into a gallery, the ability to educate yourself is very limited ... Something is $2,000 because the dealer says it's two thousand dollars. It's a very high-risk purchase ... People have misgivings and ambivalence to art buying."

Bekman attempts to mitigate this online by explaining the story of the artist, offering descriptions of the work, and offering prints at a reasonable price point. She calls the many $20 prints on her site the "gateway drug to the art world."

While the online model may not necessarily make art-buying addicts of us all, it certainly removes the obstacles -- psychological as well as financial and geographical -- that otherwise prevent fine art from being a mainstream purchase.

Getting Out There

Ginter shares this mission, and hopes to use the web to create more of a mass market for independent fashion design. When I asked her about her goals for her site, she said, "We want independent designers to be out there everywhere. All of us need to be out there increasing the size of the market. For me, when I get purchases online, they're always from a different place -- California or Texas or Colorado."

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For her business expansion, Ginter credits the web's ability to introduce her brand to -- and allow dialogues with -- customers she's never met. She increasingly gets customers from people Googling "indy fashion" or "independent fashion," which she said suggests that SmashingDarling is serving a growing demand. Ginter hopes to fan the flames of that market growth on the supply side.

So, will the Internet, which has supplanted mainstream journalistic and commercial activity with more niche products and processes, have the effect of elevating niche products in the arts and design marketplace to mainstream standing? Only time will tell.

For now, neither Ginter nor Beckman say these new platforms will make in-person transactions obsolete, or disrupt their boutique or gallery. As opposed to books or CDs, where the big box stores that upended smaller retailers were themselves upended by online retailers (think of Amazon hurting Borders) or iTunes replacing Tower Records), Ginter and Beckman insist people will continue to purchase artwork or fashion designs at physical stores.

Photo of Jen Bekman courtesy of Paul Costello

Mark Hannah is the director of academic communications at Parsons The New School for Design. Coming out of the public relations world, he has conducted sensitive public affairs campaigns for well-known multinational corporations, major industry organizations and influential non-profits. Mark worked for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign as a member of the national advance staff. He's more recently worked as an advance associate for the Obama-Biden campaign and Presidential Inaugural Committee. He serves on the board of directors of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, is a member of the Public Relations Society of America and was a 2008 research fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. He holds a BA from the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania and an master's degree from Columbia University. He can be reached at markphannah[at]gmail.com

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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March 25 2011

16:30

SXSW Showcases Rise of Multiplatform Storytelling and Collaborative Filmmaking

South By Southwest (SXSW) is an annual gathering of interactive, film and music creatives, executives and marketers in Austin. It is the ideal setting to explore multiplatform storytelling, multiscreen experiences and projects that reflect the talents of the collective. After several days of knowledge-filled panels and hyper-networking featuring digital thought-leaders, there were a few notable trends that made an imprint once the conference's closing credits hit the screen.

The Two-Screen Experience

The two-screen, or so-called companion viewing experience, was recently implemented at the Academy Awards via the Oscars All Access app, which gave viewers multiple camera angles within a paid app. While laptops, smartphones and tablets are all capable of the two-screen implementation -- basically, using a device while watching additional programing -- the ideal form factor is the tablet due to its screen size and ease of interaction. The rapid emergence of tablets such as the iPad have opened up a new opportunity for studios and networks wishing to amp up DVD sales and TV ratings.

SXSW featured the "TRON: Legacy" Lounge, which allowed visitors to experience Disney's Second Screen -- a parallel universe of interactive features on an iPad in sync with the Blu-ray version of the movie (available April 5). The additional content on display included filmmaker annotations, image sliders, progression reels to show effects in a scene and more ways to immerse yourself in the movie's Grid. Learn more about it in this video:

A separate SXSW panel titled "TV + New Media = Formula for Success" featured executives from USA Network highlighted Psych Vision, a two-screen experience to promote the TV show "Psych." The app enabled viewers to check into the show, unlock exclusive video content, earn points and redeem them for show merchandise.

Telling stories in multimedia

Transmedia, or telling stories across multiple platforms and formats, is in chapter one of its journey to mass adoption. But it has quickly moved from experimental buzzword to a powerful new storytelling genre.

There were several panels focused on transmedia at SXSW, including: "Can Transmedia Save the Entertainment Industry?," "Transmedia Storytelling: Constructing Compelling Characters and Narrative Threads," and "Next Stage: Transmedia: An Interactive Exploration of the History and Future of Production in a Transmedia World."

I attended the "Unexpected Non-Fiction Storytelling" panel, which featured many creative interactive projects, including "Collapsus," this year's SXSW Interactive Award winner in the Film/TV category.

"Collapsus" is a great example of the promise of transmedia. This eco-thriller from director Tommy Pallotta (producer of "A Scanner Darkly") was developed by SubmarineChannel and is based on the documentary "Energy Transition" from Dutch broadcaster VPRO. It is a mix of animation, interactive maps and documentary, presented in three panels and requiring viewers to make informed decisions about energy production:

Collapsus Walkthrough from SubmarineChannel on Vimeo

While a worldwide tour with PowerPoint slides may have been effective in driving awareness on global warming, "Collapsus" presents a compelling new media approach to addressing planetary issues.

The National Film Board of Canada showed several interactive projects, including "Test Tube." It deals with another global crisis -- the exponential growth of the human population (represented by bacteria) within a finite planet of resources (symbolized by the test tube). The site asks visitors what they would do with an extra minute, then environmentalist David Suzuki makes a compelling case on why we're in the final minute of existence. The concept is thought-provoking and the innovation is evident in the various tweets that are dynamically pulled into the site based on your "extra minute" entry.

Out of more than 67,000 entries, the most popular response to the minute question is "sleep" followed by "eat." (Disclosure: I entered "make coffee" for my final minute, which may not have been the best answer to save the world/test tube.)

Crowdsourcing and Collaboration

Star Wars Uncut "The Escape" from Casey Pugh on Vimeo.

SXSW also featured award-winning crowdsourced projects and the premiere of one of the most anticipated crowdsourced video initiatives. Creators of the Emmy-winning "Star Wars Uncut" film, which is featured above, discussed how "the Force" of the crowd helped re-imagine one of the most beloved films in the galaxy. More than 1,200 contributors from 100 countries helped build the final film, elevating scenes into the film based on popularity or likes.

Annelise Pruitt, one of the project designers, called it "the largest user-directed movie" in history. She attributed its dynamic playback capability as the main reason that "Star Wars Uncut" won the 2010 Emmy for interactive media.

Another contemporary classic in the brief history of crowdsourcing is The Johnny Cash Project, a music video for "Ain't No Grave" composed of 1,370 frames built from art submissions worldwide. And there ain't no stopping the success of that project as it received another prize at SXSW, the Interactive Award in the Art category.

The YouTube project "Life in a Day," produced by Ridley Scott (Oscar-winning director of 2000's Best Picture "Gladiator," as well as "Alien" and "Gladiator"), also relied on the submissions of the collective. The project received more than 80,000 video submissions from people in 140 countries who wanted to share their personally documented story on July 24, 2010. The film made its premiere at Sundance earlier this year and was screened at SXSW last week. National Geographic Films picked up rights to the movie and will distribute it in theaters this summer.

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For filmmakers looking to develop and distribute full-length features rather than a slice of a larger project, JuntoBox Films is a new collaborative film studio that merges social media with traditional film production. They plan to finance five films in 2011 with a budget range of $200,000 to $5 million each. Filmmakers are encouraged to "get junto'd" after creating a profile on the site and having their project rated by their peers in order to be considered for the film assessment phase.

"Junto" means together in Spanish. The interactive storytelling, the two-screen experiences and the collaborative initiatives showcased at SXSW reveal that projects built together and experiences shared together are worthy of the highest rewards.

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and Web companies on digital and social media engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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March 24 2011

17:32

Can eHow Get More Respect with Push for Quality Content?

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Content farms. Content mills. Robo-content.

Demand Media and its huge how-to site eHow have been called snarky names for years, largely because they pay low rates for quickly produced content based on popular search queries. So it's no surprise that a search for "how to grill fish" on Google produces this eHow article up near the top of the results.

Last year, MediaShift ran a week-long special report, Beyond Content Farms and one report by Corbin Hiar included a Demand Media writer saying that her haphazard report on "How to Make Gin at Home" could poison someone. Now, eHow execs tell me that they're taking steps to improve quality.

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"I know there was so much conversation out on the web about low quality content," said Greg Boudewijn, eHow's senior vice president and general manager, in a recent interview. "We realize we're human and there's going to be pieces of content that slip through that aren't great. Whatever we can do to provide means to continue to improve the processes and the content that exists on our site, that's something we take to heart. We applaud Google for their changes, and applaud any site that focuses on quality."

A recent redesign of eHow created colorful channel pages for Family, Food, Health, Home, Money, and Style. The cleaner look is being augmented with longer form feature stories, a video webisode series about the popularity of food trucks, and a content deal with Rachael Ray in the Food section. More importantly, eHow added new "Helpful?" buttons at the end of each article so people could provide direct feedback on whether articles are useful -- which will lead to more oversight of writers.

Despite a recent change in Google's algorithm to filter out poor quality content, eHow actually benefited from the change, according to both comScore and Sistrix. I spoke to both Boudewijn and Jeremy Reed, the senior vice president of content and editorial at Demand Media, in a wide-ranging interview. While they admitted they weren't on a path to match the New York Times, they were frank about their push into service journalism -- especially with the number one most trafficked home and garden site. Below is an edited transcript, with audio clips, from that phone interview.

Q&A

What were the main improvements with the redesign of eHow?

Greg Boudewijn: We were looking at this site as the next evolution of our site and user experience. It was a little more than four years since we touched it, it was 2007. Demand Media acquired eHow in 2006, so you can imagine that four years on the web is like 30 in real life. In that time, eHow had grown phenomenally based on our unique content model. It was time to re-architect the back end to handle the scale of innovation and development faster, and we wanted to launch more sites internationally.

We introduced a new eHow logo and color palette to introduce a more consumer brand. We wanted to create more of an emotional connection for them, and the best way we did that was the introduction of six core channels at the top of the header. Each channel has its own color palette and own look and feel. If you look back 10 years to the AOLs and Yahoos of the world, doing portal hubs -- a little bit of an antiquated term -- they had huge amounts of traffic coming through their front doors. And they could funnel that traffic to core verticals like news, finance and entertainment.

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Our model is very different. We made each individual content page as an entry point to our site. Over time, we saw audiences growing in certain core verticals and those are the ones we chose to use for our channels. People were coming repeatedly to certain topics so when we created the channel pages, we used them to create new content types. Everything from long-form video webisodes to blogs and posts from experts. We partnered with Rachael Ray for our food category. The experts can be personalities or brands.

In the home channel, we have Home Depot to help users fulfill what they're looking for. It's about simplification. You have the steps to do something and can go out and buy it. The new site is a springboard to expand the media company to cater to more than how-to articles.

You were thinking of every story as an entry point but now you have vertical sections. Why? Because of traffic patterns you saw?

Boudewijn: We still view articles and videos as entry points whether people get there from search or social networks. What we saw was that we were amassing audiences of a scale that was much larger than sites on the web that only focused on that specific topic. That was evident with the home category, where for more than the past year, we've been the number one home and garden site on the web. We felt it was our responsibility to make a front door for that and program it daily with a rich experience.

Tell me more about the new longer form stories and features.

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Jeremy Reed: One of the things we've always focused on is the idea of utility. But there's also the opportunity to entertain them or take them to the next step or direct them to another place. We have 15,000 active people in our community [of contributors] throughout the U.S. -- we have filmmakers, copy editors, writers. They were very good at creating this specific kind of content, but they also have experience writing feature content, or filmmakers had experience doing longer form content. We had a talent base in our community, so it made sense on the business side and an opportunity for that community so they could grow their career.

Was the business reason for doing longer stories so that you could improve the time spent on your site?

Reed: When we look at content, we look at many signals. We look at content that could hold its weight next to branded advertisers, and content that people would want to share. In the last month, we had 100,000 articles shared through Facebook. So it's trying to figure out compelling content based on the signals coming to our site.

Boudewijn: It's about completing the user experience. We've done a really good job doing articles of a certain length and type. So what happens now is, because we've created these channels, the content we create in one channel can be fundamentally different than in others. We're providing something with an expert voice, and something they can follow daily. It has more of a personality and engagement factor.

How has pay for writers evolved at eHow, and will you change compensation with this redesign?

Reed: We've always had a range in compensation. We've paid anything from $7.50 for a short-form tip to more than $100 for feature articles. Different ranges for filmmakers. I think the price that we pay has certainly gone up. We pay our writers twice a week, so if they turn in an article on a Sunday, we pay them on Tuesday. If they turn an article in on Wednesday, we pay them on Friday, regardless of the amount paid.

Reed explains how eHow is transparent to writers about how much they'll get paid and let writers of similar content see how much everyone in that subject gets paid:

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Does pay vary according to topic or length of story?

Reed: We look at different factors like subject area expertise and how much time it takes to write it and other factors like that.

How is this redesign targeted at advertisers? You mentioned there would be more "touch points" for them in your press release about the redesign.

Boudewijn: We were very good at providing a utility, and there was content programmed on the home page focused on how-to, but not differentiated by category. When we acquired eHow in 2006, branded sales wasn't a big part of our business. We relied primarily on third party relationships with advertising affiliates. Over time, with the hiring of Joanne Bradford [from Yahoo to be chief revenue officer of Demand Media], branded advertising has become a bigger part of our business. Those advertisers want to own the consumer experience. They want to see their placement on the page and see the integration. They want to know the boundaries around where that exists.

So when we did the redesign, we looked at aesthetics of the site but also looked at places where advertisers could come in and buy sponsorships or packages. One thing that's unique about what we do is our content is all intent-driven. We're not an entertainment site or news site where people come to the front door and say, "entertain me." But eHow is intent-driven; people come with a specific mission and we want to help fulfill that. That's a very meaningful experience and a funnel that advertisers want to be a part of.

Plus, we wanted to position experts. Brands want to be associated with the Rachael Rays of the world and expert knowledge that's honest and genuine. That's a great opportunity for advertisers to wrap around eHow Food. And there's also an opportunity for brands as experts. So for the Home Depots of the world ... a user coming to the site recognizes an advertiser that adds value to the experience, and it helps them.

Boudewijn explains how Home Depot will help users as an "advertiser presence" that will help users complete tasks.

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You've added this "Helpful?" button to get feedback from readers. How does that work?

Boudewijn: We've been very good at listening to signals out on the web, whether through search or social to understand what content we should create. eHow has a massive audience, and it's one thing to be in the studio evaluating writers on a number of metrics -- their grammar, their quality, their experience. That's an academic way. But we want to know how our content resonates with people who are using it in on an everyday basis. So these buttons are the first step of a curation layer to understand how helpful our content is in the real world.

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Right now we let people tell us if it's helpful, and they can "like" it or share it on Facebook and Twitter. If they don't think it's helpful, then we're gathering reasons on why it might not be helpful for them, and funnel that information back to our editorial team to help enrich our content and inform our guidelines on what to produce. That's just our first step, there will be other hooks on the page to solicit feedback in the coming months.

Reed: One of the things we've done from the beginning is make sure we understand the quality of the content by the people who use it. We've let people make comments and ratings on stories, but we wanted to go back to ask the specific question: Was this helpful or not? Like Greg was saying, we can take that information and go back to the writer and decide if we want to give them more work, or are they better in one subject than another. It's a constant, targeted feedback loop from someone who's engaging with that content.

I noticed on Compete.com that the traffic for eHow went down about 7 percent in visits and 4percent in unique visitors for February 2011. Was that related to what happened with Google changing its search algorithm?

Boudewijn: February is naturally a shorter month. Most businesses on the web, going from a 31-day month to a 28-day month, especially with the two holidays for Valentine's Day and President's Day, you have a lot of events that make businesses fluctuate. We're now Top 10 in the U.S., according to comScore. I don't rely heavily on third-party analytics that we don't have direct influence over, so I can't necessarily comment on Compete's numbers.

Google makes algorithm changes all the time, but when they make it public, people seem to gravitate to them. We've seen them make a number of changes, and we see ups and downs. Our business continues to grow and we haven't seen any material effect from [Google's algorithm changes].

(Editor's Note: In a follow-up query to comScore, the research firm also found a slight drop in traffic to eHow in February, but attributed it to the shorter month as well, and noted that the Google-referred percentage of traffic to eHow is actually slightly higher in February than January.)

Are there other things you're doing to improve the quality of content?

Boudewijn: If you look at the way we produced content two years ago, it's fundamentally different than the way we do today. One of the unique things we're doing is creating these channels and aligning writers in Demand Studios with those channels. We're also vetting the talent to make sure they're qualified to write for us. Content quality is such a broad term. You could take the New York Times' content and put it on someone's blog and put 15 AdSense ads around it and show it to 100 people and they'd say it's terrible.

Content quality comes down to the process by which it's created, and we stand behind our editorial process. At eHow, we want to make sure it's a quality experience for users and for brands and advertisers.

Reed: We did make a make a conscious effort to stay within what we could do responsibly within our model, within our community, within our scale. We didn't go after investigative reporting like the New York Times does because we didn't feel in the current equation that we could do it successfully. We went after this very service journalism, the utility kind of content. We started to see the value of subject matter expertise, and an editorial process. We wanted people to come through the door with years of experience, so that it makes sense for them as part of their career.

Our editorial rigor includes plagiarism checks, citing references, going through a copy editor so we felt good about that content. We have a very large taxonomy, so we've tried to cut that up so everyone has subject matter expertise, including the people who write the titles, who edit the copy, who select the photo, all the way down to the people editing it and giving it the final OK.

Boudewijn says they realize there will be some pieces of content that slip through 'that aren't great,' but they're trying to improve:

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How do you vet the people that you hire?

Reed: It's on two levels. We qualify people who come in. If you're a writer, you submit a resume and multiple clips and we have an in-house editor who vets that. If you're a copy editor, it's the same process but if you're accepted there's a copy editing test. So if you're going to edit a section on automobiles, you get a test based on that subject. That's one part of our approach. And then on each piece of content, every writer gets edited by a copy editor and has a possible re-write before it's sent through. The copy editor then rates the writer on a 1 to 5 scale on grammar and on subject matter expertise.

We look at every single person and qualify them, and look at every single piece of content.

Do you own all rights to the content or can writers or videographers re-use the material?

Reed: We made the decision that if we would pay up front and pay for that piece of content that we would own it.

Boudewijn: That was one of our learnings over time, that ensures our editorial process and integrity. Early on, in 2006, we did allow people to come directly to eHow.com and submit content. We dropped that program last April because it didn't make sense to put all the time and energy into producing content with a rigorous editorial process, and then have people submit things without any process. So today we stand behind our content because it's completely owned by us.

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What do you think about eHow's redesign and push for higher quality content? Do you use the site regularly or avoid it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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March 08 2011

20:44

Why Are Hispanics Missing in Leadership at Media Companies?

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Fifty million people. One trillion dollars in buying power. Ad spending up 164% since 2001 to $3.88 billion. Hundreds of Spanish-language TV stations across the U.S.

Those eye-catching numbers represent the immense, and largely untapped, scale and wealth of the Hispanic-American media market. Put into greater perspective, if Hispanic-Americans comprised their own country, it would be the fifth-largest, by population, in the European Union. And this demographic is growing -- rapidly.

Despite these figures, one component is still missing in the media industry's quest for greater diversity: Hispanic leadership in the executive suite at media companies.

As a Hispanic-American executive, who also happens to be female, I have seen first-hand the immense growth and impact diversity is having on the American economy and culture. Media executives, marketers, communicators, lawmakers and all of America are hurtling into an era where the business and marketing of diversity -- particularly the Hispanic-American market -- will be at the forefront of the American conscience.

Where Are The Hispanic Execs?

And yet a wide divide still exists between this reality and the promise for greater diversity in the ranks of media, PR, and ad agencies' senior management.

"The future of our nation depends on what happens in [the Hispanic-American] population, a segment of Americans that have not always gotten the opportunities," they deserve, said Manny Ruiz, founder of Hispanic PR Wire and Hispanicize.com, in a recent PRNewser interview.

This lack of opportunity has led to Hispanic-Americans being underrepresented in corporate boardrooms. According to the 2009 Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility Corporate Inclusion Index survey, only 4.8 percent of all Fortune 100 executive- and director-level positions are held by Hispanics. Similarly, Hispanics account for only 6 percent of representatives on Fortune 100 boards.

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It took my own professional organization, the Public Relations Society of America, 48 years before Luis Morales became its first Hispanic president in 1996. Fifteen years later, I'm the first Latina to serve as chair and CEO.

My question is: Why was there a gap in years for the PRSA to select another Hispanic leader? I also wonder, why aren't there more Hispanic-Americans, whom I know are succeeding in the business world, stepping forward to executive and board positions across the media and PR industries?

More Questions Than Answers

Is it an issue of being the "token"? Nearly 20 years ago, I remember looking around the boardroom and finding that, not only was I the only woman in the room, I also looked different from everyone else. Feeling like "the only one" didn't stop me from finding common ground with my colleagues, and it shouldn't be an impediment for greater diversity within media's C-suite.

Is it an issue of language? Many times, people assume that all Hispanic-Americans speak Spanish and prefer Spanish. That is as much a myth as is Spanish fluency for those who do speak Spanish. There are Hispanics, like me, who are just as comfortable communicating in Spanish or English because of our bi-lingual fluency. But, there are just as many who are only truly comfortable in one language -- English.

Is it cultural? Business development and growth is part of the Hispanic-American spirit. Our culture thrives on entrepreneurship. Hispanics aren't fond of sticking to the "way things have always been." We're living proof that change is the only constant; thus we prefer acculturation instead of assimilation.

Slow Progress

I'll admit, the level of diversity within public relations has progressed significantly in recent years. For example, 14 percent of PRSA members are self-described "diverse;" that's an increase from 7 percent in 2005.

But we still have quite a ways to go in order to meet the global business community's diverse communications and marketing challenges.

Playing a leading role in conversation development across societal, economic and ethnic variances has always been one of PR's strongest areas of focus. A key factor in continuing a surge in value will be the industry's ability to generate two-way, conversation-themed strategies. And this can only come from the inclusion of non-traditional hires, such as bloggers, social-media influencers and analysts that come from a variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Diversity is Worth Trillions

It's quite simple, really: Diversity within PR will be crucial to agencies' success in years to come, as businesses continue seeking a more global perspective to their communications.

That means it is the responsibility of the PR industry -- along with the media companies that use our services -- to place an immediate focus on the business value of diversity and a diverse boardroom. Businesses must be prepared to tap into burgeoning and increasingly diverse markets for new revenue and growth. And having a more diverse executive suite, which reflects the modern ethnic makeup of the U.S., will better prepare the media industry to reap the immense financial rewards of a modern and very diverse America.

In today's stagnant economy, can any media company -- and the PR and marketing firms working within that sector -- afford to go without the diverse leadership that could help it tap into a $1 trillion market? Not likely.

(A tip of the hat to Julian McBride, whose excellent MediaShift post on fixing the tech PR industry's diversity issues inspired this post.)

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, is chair and chief executive officer of the PRSA. She is also director of the Global Strategic Communications master's program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University in Miami. With more than 20 years of experience, Fiske began her career as a journalist, and then moved to marketing and corporate communications. She has held senior communications counsel, marketing and management positions in agency and corporate settings.

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Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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February 25 2011

17:00

How to Experience the Oscars on Mobile, Social Media

The Academy Awards are less than 127 hours away. While most people haven't seen all 10 Best Picture nominees, the Oscar-nominated reels may still be experienced through the revelry of mobile, digital and social initiatives. For moviegoers who still want the big screen experience of dreams and swans before Sunday, AMC Theatres offers the final chance with its Best Picture Spotlight.

If you can't commit to a movie marathon this weekend, the Academy, as well as media and technology companies, have created digital popcorn for snacking on the Oscar experience before Sunday.

The Academy

The Oscars and nominated movies are omnipresent in digital media and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is showing true grit with its promotional campaign. ABC, the official broadcast partner for the Oscars through 2020, created the Oscar Backstage Pass, a companion app for the telecast that offers live camera views from the red carpet, the Kodak Theatre and the Governor's Ball. Available for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad, the $0.99 app (iTunes link) gives viewers directorial powers previously limited to a select few. Out of the nine camera angles offered in the Kodak Theatre, including Host Cam, Thank You Cam and Audience Cam, the most intriguing may be Control Booth Cam. When a winner's speech exceeds the time limit, this viewpoint could possibly give us the Cue Music Cam.

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For those who prefer the free experience, download "The Oscars" mobile app for access to the latest news and events or try to predict the winners in all 24 categories. Currently, 23 percent of The Oscars app users think "The King's Speech" will win Best Picture, while "The Social Network" is second with 18 percent. The only runaway favorite is Natalie Portman, with 71 percent believing that she'll dance away with Best Actress.

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Walk down Broadway about 20 blocks from the New York City Ballet and you'll find yourself next to an interactive display called The Oscar Experience. Fans can have their picture taken next to a virtual Oscar statuette. Some hold the statue, while others prefer to smile or cry as if they are giving an acceptance speech. The photo galleries may be viewed on the Academy's Facebook page.

Google

Google is tracking the global search trends for the Oscar nominees in an easy-to-use tool appropriately called Oscar Search Trends. The charts for all categories may be customized for the last 30 days, the last 12 months or all years. Obscure international search results include the following: "Inception" leads all searches among Visual Effects nominees with Singapore driving the volume above India, while "Inside Job" leads Documentary Feature nominees with Portugal edging out Canada in volume. "Black Swan" leads all Best Picture nominees in global search popularity. And if you know Google, they prefer "Black Swan" searches over black hat search engine optimization.

Twitter

The cinematic characters and the actors who potray them will surely be a focal point of the tweets that Oscar watchers will post on Sunday. Follow the #Oscars hashtag on Twitter to see a continuous stream of comments on all things Oscar -- the winners, the fashion, the jokes, the speeches, the surprises, the parties and the totally inappropriate or irrelevant. For a more intimate and insightful Oscar experience, follow the tweets of these Oscar nominees:

  • James Franco (@jamesfranco) - Co-host of the Oscars and nominated for Best Actor ("127 Hours")
  • Mark Ruffalo (@mruff221) - Nominated for Best Supporting Actor ("The Kids Are All Right")
  • Helena Bonham Carter (@_HelenaBCarter_) - Nominated for Best Supporting Actress ("The King's Speech")
  • Trent Reznor (@trent_reznor) - Nominated for Best Music, Original Score ("The Social Network") with Atticus Ross

AOL

You may want to believe that "The Kids Are All Right," but in kid reenactments of the Best Picture nominees, the kids are all ridiculous. Yes, ridiculously cute and cut-throat, as in "The Social Network" clip (below), or cute and cut-arm in "127 Hours."

GetGlue

While you're watching Sunday's telecast on ABC and seeing the accuracy of your picks dwindle with each category, find comfort in something that truly sticks -- such as an official Oscars sticker from GetGlue, a social network that enables entertainment check-ins. It may not be "The Social Network," but it's one of many digitally choreographed programs attempting to get movie fans glued to the Oscars.

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Have you participated in any digital Oscar engagement programs or plan to watch Sunday night's show? Share your favorite digital enhancements to the show in the comments below.

Nick Mendoza is the director of digital communications at Zeno Group. He advises consumer, entertainment and Web companies on digital and social media engagement. He dreamstreams and is the film correspondent for MediaShift. Follow him on Twitter @NickMendoza.

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January 21 2011

17:30

Teens Turn to Social Coding to Protect Privacy on Social Nets

In certain teen social circles, it's considered a subtle act of arrogance, a signifier of the loner, to use a solo photo of yourself for your Facebook profile. Digital natives may have earned their reputation as the "entitlement generation," but apparently there are some social limits to their unabashed self-regard.

In fact, there's compelling evidence the up-and-coming cohort of young Americans has grown increasingly sophisticated in navigating the public-by-default scene of social networks. Researchers say they are evolving forms of social coding to signal to each other while at the same time keeping their thoughts, activities and personal communications masked from older generations.

For example, profile photos that include friends may have originated as a safety mechanism, according to danah boyd, a researcher that specializes in the intersections between technology and society at Harvard's Center for Internet and Society, but now are a "social signal that you are sociable."

Though social media has expanded well beyond the youth demographic -- 20 percent of Facebook users are aged 45 or older -- the front lines of cultural-technological change are predominately filled by the young. This is, ultimately, their world. The rest of us are just visiting.

Given their numbers -- 82 million Americans were born between 1980 and 2000 -- and their reputation for strong opinions, the buying clout of Gen Y consumers could surpass all previous generations.

The Badge of Brands

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The Gen Y relationship to brands is part of a broader shift in social norms ushered in by digital communications. When young people choose to "like" a brand on Facebook, they're essentially putting on a badge that helps define them among their peers. Online brand fandom can be viewed as a performance, part of a carefully calibrated process to craft and project a personal identity that transcends public and private selves.


"Even when people really lock down their privacy settings on Facebook, one of the things they don't hide is what brands they like," explained Peter Swanson, a college-aged intern at our ad agency, Engauge, whom we regularly interrogate on Gen Y social protocols. "I know it sounds superficial, but if I see a girl likes three or four brands, I pretty much know who she is -- or at least, I can tell if we're going to click, if we've got a chance. If she likes J. Crew, right? Or, like, Old Navy? That says a lot."

Coded Messages

Conscious brand identification can be exercised online by more mature demographics, but the critical difference is that teens appear more naturally attuned to the subtlest of social signals online.

Having been raised in the digital slipstream, they're highly sensitive to its shifting currents. That's both good news and bad news for marketers. On one hand, positive and public brand associations can generate significant value for brands.

But, on the other hand, as the industry moves inexorably toward more sophisticated behavioral marketing, there are signals that teens are adopting practices to remain unknowable and inscrutable.

One of the ways that teenagers have adapted to the open social architecture of online networks is by increasingly coding their public messages in private language -- song lyrics, personal jokes -- that's decipherable only to those friends who are the intended recipients of the message.

This "social coding" can effectively keep nosy parents, college admissions officers and future employers in the dark. This doesn't mean they're scrubbing every detail from their public personas.

"Teens turn to private messages or texting or other forms of communication for intimate interactions, but they don't care enough about certain information to put the effort into locking it down," said boyd, the Harvard researcher, when addressing the international convention on privacy and data protection last October. "But this isn't because they don't care about privacy. This is because they don't think that what they're saying really matters all that much to anyone."

The average teen sends or receives 50 text messages daily, according to Pew Internet. Over 30 percent of teens send more than 100 texts, and 15 percent send more than 200. (The average adult sends 10.)

Interestingly, Twitter is now emerging as a favored channel for private communication among the most popular and tech-sophisticated teens in high-income American communities. In contrast to Facebook, boyd has observed, these teens tend to protect their Twitter accounts, making them accessible only to a subset of friends. This also relieves them from too much traffic on Facebook. "Facebook is like shouting in a crowd, Twitter is like talking in a room," one teen she studied said.

This all seems counter-intuitive to the older Twitter demographic, which is steeped in the traditions of mass media and eager to broadcast messages to the widest possible audience.

As digital natives mature, their public presence and behavior on social networks will evolve, impacting broader social norms. The expansion of these new social codes may require a rewrite of the prevailing narrative of digital natives as self-absorbed narcissists unconcerned about privacy. And wouldn't that be a nice surprise.

Mya Frazier is director of trends and insights at Engauge, one of the nation's largest independent advertising agencies. This article is adapted from the Engauge 2011 Digital Outlook, a comprehensive report on the future of marketing in the digital era.
As the advertising correspondent for MediaShift, she chronicles the impact of digital, mobile and social marketing trends on content, culture and commerce. A former business journalist, she has been a staff writer at Advertising Age, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and American City Business Journals. You can follow her on Twitter.

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January 18 2011

19:21

6 Predictions For the Music Industry in 2011

The music industry had a wild ride in 2010. Companies came and went, layoffs hit every sector, rapid growth delivered opportunity, and Spotify still didn't launch in the U.S. This year, 2011, should be no different.

Here are some predictions and thoughts about what 2011 may hold for the music industry.

1. A Major Label Shakeup

Screen shot 2011-01-17 at 10.33.20 AM.pngDespite all the talk about the major label system collapsing at any moment, it doesn't seem likely. However, 2011 may finally see a restructuring of assets and brands. EMI has no shortage of financial issues, and the current discussion points to Terra Firma handing them over to Citigroup in the near future. The big assumption is that EMI will be broken up and sold in pieces to the other three majors (Universal, Sony and Warner Bros). Of particular value is EMI's publishing division, and if the piecemeal sale does happen, there may be a fight for this asset. Of course, the other three majors aren't having the smoothest time with cash-flow either, so it remains unclear exactly who can buy what. At minimum, EMI will not look the same at the end of 2011 as it does now.

2. Indie Label Opportunity Grows

All music companies will be focused on streamlining their efforts in 2011. This involves smarter processes, innovative policies, and keeping overhead low. Independent labels typically have had to function with these elements in place from day one; their ability to stay nimble will allow for continued growth opportunity. As business partnerships continue to solidify between content owners and brands, smaller labels will be able to adapt quickly and profit at lower revenue thresholds. This creates a strategic advantage that, if managed properly, will see upward trends on indie label balance sheets.

3. Streaming Services Reach Critical Mass

spotifylogo.pngIn 2011, someone will become the Apple of streaming -- perhaps Apple itself. Consumers are getting closer and closer to accepting renting over owning content. Companies such as MOG, Rdio, Spotify, and Rhapsody are poised to capitalize on this. With good timing, savvy marketing, and clear messaging that succinctly communicates the benefits, a streaming music provider can easily take the leading role in this race. The safe money seems to be on Apple (in part thanks to the Lala acquisition), but the other contenders are quite serious and finding the level of funding necessary to compete. This sector is also making major moves into mobile and car audio; these additional distribution avenues only strengthen the push toward widespread adoption.

4. Free Continues Moving Upwards

"Free" has been a highly debated concept. One side states that the awareness and data capture free provides can be converted to sales over time. The opposition feels that free devalues content and sets the wrong precedent. The truth may lie somewhere in the middle, but it is clear that with the volume of free content (legal and otherwise) one has to be giving something away simply to stay competitive. This line of thinking is nothing new, but it has finally permeated the companies and artists at the top. The majors and superstars have relaxed their policies on free (especially when paired with data capture) and that trend will continue. This will happen in parallel with efforts to find techniques to convert free to paying -- a critical element to make this model work.

5. The Essential Toolkit Solidifies

Screen shot 2011-01-17 at 10.35.31 AM.pngDigital marketers have an almost endless supply of new technology and techniques to try. However, over the past 18 months, many have faded away or a best-of-breed front-runner has emerged. In 2011 we will see this continue as it becomes more clear which technologies and techniques provide real value. In 2010, it became easy (and essential) to track true performance metrics; marketers now have multiple tools to evaluate effectiveness based on conversion, data capture, sentiment, and engagement. This analysis is helping define where to focus efforts -- and that is helping digital music marketing become a more precise practice.

Companies with momentum in the digital marketing toolkit space include Topspin, Bandcamp, Nimbit, Rockdex, NextBigSound, Rootmusic, SoundCloud, Buzzdeck, Artistdata, Mozes, and the ever-essential Google Analytics. Let's also not forget the mainstays -- Twitter, Facebook, and email-marketing platforms such as ExactTarget, Mailchimp and Constant Contact.

6. The Net Neutrality Debate Continues

The positions and arguments haven't changed much, but the Net neutrality discussion (particularly at the government level) has accelerated. In late December, the FCC approved rules that enable mobile carriers to regulate application use. Many members of Congress have already stated they will fight this by creating a new law. This debate is still far from over; expect heated discussion all year long.

In many ways 2011 won't look much different than 2010. The music industry is still suffering from steep declines and is still building strategies and systems to counteract this. The key words moving forward are innovation and experimentation; most people have accepted the fact that we cannot force consumers to behave as they did in the past. Instead, we must seek to better understand our audience, foster stronger communication, and be willing to take leaps of faith on a regular basis.

*****

What predictions do you have for the music industry in 2011? Please share them in the comments.

Jason Feinberg is vice president, direct to consumer marketing for Concord Music Group. He is responsible for digital and physical direct-to-fan solutions for CMG's frontline and catalog including the Rounder, Fantasy and Stax labels. Recent campaigns include Paul Simon, Allison Krauss, Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Carole King/James Taylor, and Crowded House. Follow Jason on Twitter @otmg

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January 13 2011

17:20

Social Media Grows at NY Times, But Home Page Remains King

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

Lately Facebook has been trumpeting its prowess in driving traffic to news sites. In a blog post a couple weeks ago, Facebook media guy Justin Osofsky crowed that Facebook was now the number one referral site to SportingNews.com and that the Washington Post saw Facebook referral traffic grow 280 percent year-over-year. That's certainly impressive, but the New York Times website continues to get the majority of traffic from its own home page.

That's right. People just type "N-Y-T-I-M-E-S.-C-O-M" into their web browsers to read the stories there (at least until the pay wall comes). In a discussion with New York Times associate managing editor Jim Roberts, I learned that on most days 50 percent to 60 percent of the site's traffic comes from people starting at the home page. Roberts said Facebook referral traffic was important -- and growing -- but noted that the home page still remained the top referrer.

Still, Roberts has a lot to celebrate when it comes to the New York Times on Facebook. Its main Facebook page recently surpassed 1 million fans, leading all other U.S. newspapers, and it's considering a new strategy that would break out more sections into their own Facebook pages. Here are some relevant stats for NY Times' social media feeds:

> @NYTimes on Twitter has 2,845,559 followers
> The NYTimes Facebook page has 1,052,752 fans

> Over 450,000 NYTimes.com users have opted to 'Log In with Facebook' to make comments on the site

All this is happening while the organization's org chart is being changed to reflect print and web convergence. Roberts himself went from being the lead editor of news at NYTimes.com to associate managing editor on Jan. 1.

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"The previous job was a little bit amorphous bit it was basically directing the news coverage of the site, breaking news, multimedia and social media," he told me. "[With the new job] I will have one foot in print and one in the website. We're breaking down our structure, we had a staff of producers who were solely producing the digital product. They reported through a centralized digital management structure. That's going to be broken down. My job will be much more managing news across the news organization as a whole rather than just the digital portion."

Over the holidays, I spoke to Roberts about the Times' overall social media strategy, the shift as previous social media editor Jen Preston vacates her role, and the manpower issues that swirl around who will manage which feeds. The following is an edited transcript (with audio clips) of our phone conversation.

Q&A

How did you get to 1 million fans on Facebook?

Jim Roberts: I consider our Facebook strategy part of a broader approach to social media. While certain things are done specifically on and with Facebook, it's only one of the social media tools we pay attention to. When I talk about our efforts ... I think of it as an overall strategy instead of a Facebook strategy.

In some ways we've been as successful on Twitter as on Facebook ... We have close to 3 million followers on our main Twitter feed and we've been very successful taking advantage of that platform.

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Have you noticed any trends for the way people are coming to your site through Facebook and Twitter? I've seen a big bump in those referrals here at MediaShift, with Facebook becoming the main driver of traffic. Are you seeing that too?

Roberts: It's not our main driver of traffic, but we're seeing a steady increase over the past few years. I can only expect it to continue. I don't have the raw statistics to show that increase, but we still get the vast majority of traffic through our home page, whether it's people who type out the NYTimes.com URL or bookmark it. We still get 50 percent to 60 percent of our traffic on some days through the home page.

And Google search, I assume?

Roberts: Google search continues to be a big component, and we get a lot of referral traffic from sites like Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Daily Beast. Social media probably ranks several notches down after the home page and search engines and some of those referral sites. I totally expect [social media referrals] to increase.

But I see our appeal in social media as much more than page views. It sounds a little cliche, but we develop a relationship with our readers in social media that transcends page views.

Will your social media strategy have to change with the coming pay wall at the Times?

Roberts: I don't know that it changes, but it becomes ever more important. The metered model that we will institute will only benefit with an engaged readership. In a lot of ways that can be enhanced by social media. To me the benefit of social media is not just increasing page views but as a way of developing a more personal connection with your audience. You can talk to them, and they can talk to you....You can't ignore the page view impact, the distribution mechanism that social media does enhance. So from a distribution standpoint and an engagement standpoint, it's very important to us as we go to a metered model.

Roberts describes how he sometimes shocks people by responding to them via Twitter:

roberts3.mp3

Tell me how you're using social media editorially. I've seen reporters work sources via Twitter or get story ideas that way. How are you using it?

Roberts: We're still experimenting, but a lot of reporters have found individualized ways to use it to develop sources of information and bring people into the reporting process. I can think of one or two reporters in particular who have begun to use Twitter ... in some ways, it's a promotional device because they are directing people to pieces that they're working on. But they don't just throw up a link. In some ways you can see pieces develop before your very eyes.

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Who are the people you are talking about who use Twitter really well at the Times?

Roberts: Well, Brian Stelter is the most obvious one. He certainly uses it in a smart and aggressive way. I'd point to him first as someone who's really learned the value of building a unique audience. In a crass way, you could say he's building it around him, but I really think he's building it around the subject matter. He writes about television and media in general. He has a good following and people go to him because they think they're going to get quality information delivered quickly.

What he's been doing with Twitter is using it for building blocks for blog items and longer stories, both on the web and print. How he's using it is something I could see other reporters picking up on.

Roberts explains how a reporter might use Twitter to develop a blog post, eventually creating a longer story for print in the Times:

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With Jen Preston moving on and not being the social media editor, who's in charge of the overall New York Times Facebook page?

Roberts: I'll tell you who will be. It may sound like I'm dodging the subject but I think we will disperse a lot of the Facebook effort to a number of people. The main page ... my intent is -- and we have a step or two to take before we get to this point -- the intent is to get the main page into the hands of the basic news desk, so it becomes a bit more a part of our overall publishing strategy. It's not intended to be a true publishing platform, but it's a way for people to access our material and our site. Our desire is to have some of our news editors involved in deciding what stories ought to get the most prominence and ought to be updated.

Aside from the main news portion of Facebook, when you break down into specific areas such as culture, sports and politics, our goal would be to have the editors in charge of those subject areas manage those pages.

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How do you decide to break out a specific topic into its own Facebook page?

Roberts: That's all part of the experimental nature of our relationship with Facebook. We're still trying to figure out what works best. We put a lot of effort into a couple pages devoted to culture. Jennifer [Preston] really saw these through. One is devoted to movies, the other one to Broadway theater. There are a couple people who are working as producers on the website on those subjects, and we asked them to devote a chunk of their time managing those Facebook pages, to aggressively update them and try to think of ways to get users to interact with them.

I think the jury is still out in how much benefit we get from those efforts. We're still trying to figure out whether it's worth our while. My gut instinct is it's definitely is worth our while and that if we can do that on subjects from politics to sports, we'd like to do more of that.

How did things change with Jen Preston going from social media editor to a reporter? How do you see things changing organizationally?

Roberts: I'm going to make a stab at it, but I'm probably going to answer that question differently in six months or a year from now. I'll go back to those experiments we did in the movies and theater section. An editor, in politics for instance, who works with the reporting staff to stay on top of developments, might be put in charge of managing the New York Times politics Facebook page. The one component that keeps coming up is the manpower issue. When we do things like this we want to do them smartly.

Roberts explains how the Times must be careful in balancing the time needed to manage social media with other duties for staffers:

roberts2.mp3

You mentioned a manpower issue before. Is that also an issue when it comes to responding and filtering all the Facebook and Twitter responses and comments?

Roberts: Absolutely. I know that other news organizations have committed more people proportionally to this task than we have. Huffington Post comes to mind. I could easily foresee a time when we have more than a handful of people devoted to that at the New York Times. But we put such a premium on the creation of unique content, so we have to be very careful in how we manage those resources.

It can be a real -- I don't want to say 'burden' because it's very much worth the effort -- but it's demanding. There's no question it's demanding.

*****

What do you think about the New York Times' social media strategy? Should it have eliminated the social media editor job? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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January 03 2011

21:14

2011 Flash Points: Open vs. Closed, Google vs. Apple

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

We don't know exactly what media and technology stories will occur in 2011. Will Facebook finally go public? Will Gawker Media achieve mainstream respectability? Will Jon Stewart start his own cable network? But we can be sure that a lot of stories will occur around a few areas of tension.

Here, then, are flash points I predict will define media trends in the coming year and beyond.

The Battle of Open Vs. Closed

Media entities will grapple, argue, battle, and rage over whether to make what they produce freely available to all comers or take a more "walled garden" approach.

In fact, nearly every other trend of the year could be squeezed into the Open vs. Closed debate: Should material be freely available to anyone who pays on any platform? Should media that's available without charge always be free everywhere? Will companies finally be able to charge for digital content at a scale that really starts to pay the bills? Will non-Apple tablet computers with more open systems start to take hold? Will Republicans in Congress win a challenge to the FCC's regulations for Net neutrality? What Hulu-like solutions will arise in which one level of service is free and ad-supported, but others will pay for full access to richer levels of content? These all revolve around the issue of how openly and freely available our media can and should be.

The battles will play themselves out at individual entities, in which their media on some platforms -- the web, for example -- will be available to all, but other forms of distribution are limited to paying or otherwise vetted customers on, say, iPads or smartphones. In other cases, media companies will do battle with each other on the principles of Open vs. Closed media, with some holding fast to the principle that all comers can consume what they produce and never be forced to pay.

News organizations will likely be at the center of this trend, and we'll continue to see them experimenting with diverging paths. Some, such as NPR and our own PBS, will keep working to keep their media as ubiquitously available as possible for anyone who can access them on any device. Others, such as News Corp., will try to get consumers to pay each time they want a publication such as the Wall Street Journal on every new screen.

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Higher-tech consumers always pay attention to what gives them more control, and they'll increasingly gravitate to devices that are more open, as well. We'll see more people move to web apps, for example, as they get more used to the idea that "there's an app for that" doesn't necessarily mean that the app has to be on a phone, let alone an iPhone. HTML5 will allow for new kinds of functionality in browsers that are less proprietary platforms than the ones people are used to on mobile devices.

We will also continue to see "Open vs. Closed" battles between officialdom trying to control access to "secret" information and sites like WikiLeaks and its offshoots working to make that information available.

The Battle Over Privacy

With Congress, the FCC, the Commerce Department, the FTC and industry groups jostling to regulate what data media and advertising entities can and can't collect and use, consumers will finally start to pay some real attention to what's being collected about them.

And that should give media and advertisers the incentive to more explicitly tell users what they're getting for sharing their information. Want to access a website and all its nifty functions? Well, you'll have to click "yes" to allow it to drop cookies on your PC and track your use. If you give a higher level of data -- maybe your name and ZIP code -- perhaps you'll get a little something more, such as access to a walled garden area.

We'll also see users start to become more sophisticated about protecting their info, using false names and log-ons, clearing browser cookies, and accessing the blocking functions of their browsers. While companies will do all they can to collect information within legal bounds, that data will become corrupted, at least at the edges, by people doing more to befuddle the collection and manipulation of that data. There are business opportunities for those who help users learn to protect their privacy, mask their usage, etc.

Behind the Battles Over Free vs. Fee

As media companies try to charge for the content they control, they'll also do battle over rights to their content. Consumers will be faced with multiple offerings from different providers, be they cable TV companies, Netflix, or news conglomerates. Producers will try to strike deals that limit distribution of their wares or give them a cut of each individual outlet.

Media companies will also start to see that the network effect noted in Metcalfe's Law -- in which the value of a device or application becomes more valuable the more people use it -- is impinged upon by those who charge for access. Yes, there may be short-term monetary gains, but there will also be a limit to how fast and far word spreads about the media for which there's a charge.

Google vs. Apple and Beyond

The battle between Apple and Google will continue to rage.

Samsung_Galaxy_Tablet.jpgIn the same way we saw smartphones based on the Android operating system start last year to take a significant share of the market Apple's iPhone helped create, we'll likely see Android-based tablet computers start to compete with the iPad in a real way. Global sales of the Samsung Galaxy tablet, the first Android tablet widely available outside the U.S., hit 1 million worldwide two months after its release. More will come.

Google will try to get publishers to go with them by offering a better financial and data deal than Apple, and Apple will be spurred to offer publishers a better deal, as noted by the Wall Street Journal.

Google Chrome will continue to take share from Apple's Safari and other browsers thanks in part to the trend toward more more sharing of documents and use of the cloud, and more use of web apps based on HTML5. Also, more people will discover that the "incognito" function in Google Chrome helps protect privacy and avoid certain kinds of tracking. More people will use Google Docs and find they can make do without Microsoft Office software.

And people will want the ability to use Google Books to more easily read e-books they got from somewhere other than the Amazon or the iBookstore.

Social Media Will Not See a Dip

Some have predicted that social media are riding a "hype cycle," a term coined by the Gartner Group consultancy to quantify how trends rise then flatten over time. I don't think social media will fall into the trough of the hype cycle this year. Yes, any individual social medium, be it Twitter, Digg or Delicious, may find itself on the outs.

But it's clear that communicating in real-time across screens with mixes of text, video, pictures, graphics and other overlays (be they hashtags, location, links or something that hasn't been invented) will continue. Email, after all, is a form of social media, as are chat, SMS texting and MMS. People are too used to communicating, sharing, spreading and integrating it all into their daily lives to let it all go away. Not to mention the efforts by large companies spending significant dollars to reach people through social media.

Anyone can say with confidence that Facebook will not go away. Too many power players, including Goldman Sachs, according to today's New York Times, are invested in its success to let it fade any time soon. Facebook will continue to experiment with new interfaces and where to draw the line to keep people in its realm versus letting them interact with functions outside its control. The increased attention to privacy may again cause the company some discomfort. A newcomer like the now-delayed Diaspora open-source social network may pick off a few users, but Facebook should remain strong.

So Where Does This Leave You?

If you're a media professional, you'll want to hedge your bets and not assume things will break one way or another. Don't be wedded to any one model, but do be wedded to trying things with your audience, and giving them more of what they want, within the bounds of your business and editorial principles. Know that a lot of what you do can be mimicked or copied outright, but count to three and consider the benefits before you lash out against someone who copies you. There may be a win-win solution, in which you both reap benefits. Make sure that every contract with every distributor has an "out" clause, and that you're not wedded to any one technology or platform for long.

If you're a consumer, don't buy any device you can't afford, because it may not be of as much use a year from now. Reward those media companies who behave in ways you appreciate by buying what they make or visiting their ad-supported operations. Contribute and share it with everyone. And hold on for a very fun, if sometimes infuriating, ride.

Me, I'm going to go play with my company's new iPad (I know what I said, but I have to learn it for professional reasons, and am having a little personal fun, too), buy a new Android device, hack a used netbook computer I bought for my daughter, and see if I can keep my eyes on where the waves are cresting as I try to help media entities like MediaShift negotiate these wonderfully roiling seas.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

December 17 2010

17:48

Books in Browsers? Google, Amazon Bring E-Books to the Masses

For authors and publishers already overwhelmed, last week's news about the Google eBooks store and Amazon's Kindle for web only added to the waterfall of controversy pouring into an already raging river of e-book and publishing hype. The big takeaway from these two announcements, and a recent "Books in Browsers" event that I attended, is that the web browser is an important player in e-books.

Self-publishers can benefit from adding browser-based e-book options to the services they should already be using to sell their books, such as Smashwords, Scribd, and Amazon DTP. This best-of-breed group will get their books in all the dedicated e-book readers, mobile, and multi-use devices, and now, delivered in the browser.

Now here's why browsers are so important, and how to get your books in them.

Browsers: The Forgotten Platform

In the frenzy of formats, platforms, and devices, awareness of the web's importance as a e-publishing platform simply faded into the background. But the Books in Browsers conference in October brought the browser to the attention of many publishing insiders. BIB10 was an astonishingly high-level gathering of 120 people from nine countries, including publishers, librarians, and toolmakers (many of whom were notable and even famous names), for a two-day working meeting. It was hosted by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, who is largely concerned with building a digital library and providing universal access to books, music, movies and, via the WayBackMachine, its billions and billions of archived web pages.

One of the advantages of the web

birdbook.pngbrowser is that it does not constrain text inside a container. With proper formatting, HTML can provide a beautiful reading experience on a 19-inch flat-screen or a three-inch mobile device. The browser even gracefully delivers transmedia books with embedded audio, video, images, and graphics -- something today's e-book readers are hard pressed to do. Even if a book is enclosed in a container (providing discovery, sales, and downloads), the browser delivery system lets book buyers access their downloads from the cloud -- using any device they happen to be near that has an Internet connection, as long as it has an HTML5-compatible browser. It's worth noting that computers and smartphones are able to take advantage of books in browsers, but many dedicated e-readers can't.

Rise and Fall of Dedicated E-Readers

ereaders.pngWith over a billion browser-friendly, web-enabled devices worldwide we are suddenly back to the future with e-book publishing. One has to wonder, why did all the device and e-book publishers feel like they had to create e-book readers?

One answer is because multi-use devices are simply not as light and comfortable as a book. That's going to change, and when it does, your Kobo, Kindle, Nook and Sony Reader will become inconvenient and redundant -- or get smarter and lighter and do more things. Today's versions are pretty dumb and are considered "transitional devices" by people who gaze into tech's crystal ball. For example, Craig Morgan of Publishers Weekly and Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired, talk about this in an interview about Kelly's book, What Technology Wants.

Big Name Game Changers

sony-ebook-store-google-books.jpgThe launch of Google eBooks last week has put books in browsers in the headlines. Hours after the announcement, Amazon announced Kindle for Web, making browsers even more relevant. Kahle saw this coming a long time ago.

"Google's promised Google Editions [rebranded Google eBooks] are going to be available in browsers," he predicted in his Books in Browsers 2010 keynote speech back in October.

Kahle also told us, "Amazon is putting its toe in the books-in-browser world with its recent beta. Then there's Starbucks and LibreDigital's recent announcement that they will make bestsellers readable in browsers while at a Starbucks. Ibis Reader, Book Glutton, rePublish, sBooks, and the Internet Archive BookReader are other emerging technologies for reading in browsers."

Readers can now buy hundreds of thousands of e-books from Google, or download over two million public domain titles for free. They can access their downloaded books on any device with an HTML5-enabled browser from their computers or via apps for iPhones, iPads, and Android-powered smartphones. Buyers can access the books they purchased on any e-reader based on an open platform, like EPUB, which includes the Sony Reader and the B&N Nook. (The Sony Reader Store is the search, purchase, and download engine for Google eBooks.)

Self-Publishing Strategy

If you're self-publishing, you should add Google eBooks to your list of places to sell books. This will get your book into the largest number of e-tailers and devices, not to mention brick-and-mortar bookstores like Books Inc. and Diesel, who are helping their customers buy digital. In order to make this happen, here are your tasks:

Upload your book to Google eBooks and promote it through their partner program.


• Upload your book to the Amazon store through Amazon DTP. (If you publish your POD book through CreateSpace they'll give you a DTP formatted version.)


• Upload your book to Smashwords for sale in their store. Distribute in their catalogs: Their Premium Catalog aggregates your book to major retailers and their Atom/OPDS Catalog gets your book in major mobile app platforms. They also provide HTML and text formats easily read in browsers.


• Upload your book to Scribd for social media attention, previews, sale, and distribution to the customer's device or for display in their browser-based reader.

If formatting is not your forte, or you just don't have the time, you can throw about $250 at a service like eBook Architects who will do it for you.

Ignore the Hype

The above covers the vast majority of sales outlets, but that doesn't mean that other products, services, and programs aren't also begging for attention. I try them out as they come along, but mostly give up in frustration due to their difficult, buggy, and largely beta interfaces.

This is a profitable marketplace -- self-publishing is seeing three-digit growth! -- so there is lots of activity and the hype is not likely to die down anytime soon. Meantime, best practices for self-publishers include sticking with the above best-of-breed products and services, and focusing on quality. Participate in membership organizations and communities (like the Small Publishers Association of North America) that can help separate hype from truth, and concentrate on getting your book to (virtual) press, which means paying attention to writing, editing, design, and marketing.

Carla King is an author, a publishing and social media strategist, and co-founder of the "Self-Publishing Boot Camp" program providing books, lectures and workshops for prospective self-publishers. She has self-published non-fiction travel and how-to books since 1994 and has worked in multimedia since 1996. Her series of dispatches from motorcycle misadventures around the world are available as print books, e-books and as diaries on her website.

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November 17 2010

23:48

Are Magazine iPad Apps Profitable in the Long Haul?

Magazine editors and publishers are excited about tablet devices like the iPad.

In them, they see a chance to give consumers the best that digital media can offer -- and to be able to charge them for the content.

But does the profit from the apps justify the expense of building and marketing them?

Conde Nast, Meredith, Hearst and other leading magazine publishers have all been experimenting with the iPad. They are touting their successes, while acknowledging it's too soon to tell what the ultimate business will be.

"Our tablet strategy," said John Loughlin, executive vice president and general manager of Hearst Magazines, at the recent Ad:Tech conference in New York, "is to learn by doing." To determine what's sustainable, what's a fad, and what's "a significant new component to our business model."

Here Come the Apps

Conde's Wired magazine in June released a $4.99 iPad app that sold 100,000 copies of that month's issue, more than the 73,000 newsstand copies typically sold at the same price, according to WWD.

Earlier this month Conde's fashion flagship Vogue announced the release of an app as well, adding to a growing stable of magazine apps from the publisher.

It's easy to see why the editors are excited. After watching print subscriptions, newsstand sales and advertising drop sharply, and unable to make up the difference on the web, they now see a way to regain the ability to not only charge consumers but also make advertisers pay a premium to reach them.

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Loughlin ticked off some encouraging figures: Popular Mechanics sold 54,000 single copies in its first six to seven weeks; there will be eight magazines on the Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader by the end of the month; most titles will also be on the iPhone, PC, Mac and Android devices, which compete with the iPad and iPhone. Users were using Hearst magazine apps "well beyond the issue expiration date," which presumably gives Hearst a way to continue to reach them for more sales and advertising.

Lauren Weiner, who oversees Meredith publications' digital and emerging media business, said at Ad:Tech that the company was working to transform itself "from a print publishing entity into a multimedia powerhouse," and that apps were a part of that strategy.

Loughlin noted how his company was moving beyond simply putting magazines with complementary video and interactivity into apps and was instead gearing experiences for the devices themselves. He mentioned Cosmopolitan magazine's version of the Kama Sutra which was revamped in an app called "Sex Position of the Day" and sold more than 100,000 copies for the iPad. A version has also been released for Android.

Weiner talked of popular for-pay recipe apps that lived separately from the many popular home-oriented titles Meredith publishes such as Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, and Ladies Home Journal.

Is There a Profit?

Still, despite the froth, it's difficult to make a case for apps as a savior for the magazine industry.

Weiner noted it can cost $75,000 to $300,000 to produce a paid app worthy of her magazines' brands.

Even assuming a generous 50 percent margin on each app sale, that means a magazine would have to sell 30,000 to 120,000 copies at $4.99 before it breaks even (assuming they aren't selling iPad-specific ads). That doesn't include added costs such as reconfiguring the app for other platforms and marketing it to consumers.

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And users can be notoriously fickle in buying single-issue copies. Wired's iPad app sales were reported to have plunged to 31,000 in July and 28,000 in August.

The market for apps is much more limited than for magazines. Consumers with iPads, other tablets and e-readers are a fraction of the media-consuming public, and those who would buy magazine apps are a fraction of those. Even if a subscription model comes to all the devices, revenues in the near- or even medium-term are not likely to match print.

Magazines like Wired and Popular Mechanics have a natural appeal to the technically adept who are using tablet devices. Many magazines, though, sell only in the low thousands for their apps.

Not a Savior

"Will the tablet save the magazine industry? No," said noted magazine and digital media designer Roger Black, who is a partner in a new e-reader platform venture called Tree Saver. "Will they get a percentage of the market? Sure."

The paid magazine apps, which tend to range in price from $2.99 to $4.99 for single issues, also compete with free ones, like Conde Nast's Epicurious recipe app and their one for Style.com.

Commenters in the iTunes store, meanwhile, show their ire, complaining about the pricing, and in some cases, the technology. "Boycott full price mags," wrote one, adding, "Digital magazines are fantastic but we should be able to buy a year's subscription for close to the price of a paper subscription." It was a call repeated by many others.

"Would give five stars [as a rating], but paying that much for a magazine is ridiculous," wrote a user ID'd as William Shelton on the Popular Science page, where the app, which had been $2.99, now lists for $4.99. He gave one star.

To justify the cost of producing apps, magazines have to amortize them over time. But "what happens in the year 2012 when Steve Jobs announces that, 'We've upgraded,' and your app suddenly no longer works?" Black asks.

Magazines are also competing on the iPads for attention from social networks like Twitter and Facebook; apps for TV shows; movies and music; mashup applications like Flipboard that combines social networks and media; games and more.

True, development costs are coming down as more programmers learn the tablet programming languages. Plus companies like AppMobi are helping web developers write programs in JavaScript that can then be ported over to mobile devices. HTML5, which allows new kinds of functionality and interactivity in a browser, could also prove to be a solution.

The technology is improving, and there will be economies of scale, as well. As Loughlin noted, this is an experimental period, when magazines are learning what they can offer and how much they can charge. Some apps will be breakout hits. A combination of web, apps, mobile and print sales may bolster magazines and give them new life and sustained profitability.

But the excitement over apps has some difficult realities to confront until that day is reached.

A former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA, Dorian Benkoil has devised and executed marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk.

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October 14 2010

17:28

10 Truths About the Modern Music Business

I've been covering the digital music business for MediaShift for more than 18 months, and in that time I've chronicled new services and examined key trends and news. Below is a look at 10 things that I've come to believe are true about the modern music business.

1. The "DIY Revolution" has Been Relatively Ineffective

Although going it on your own was all the rage in 2009, reality has shown that the majority of artists still need a team around them to reach any substantial level of awareness, sales, and revenue. However, this team doesn't necessarily need to resemble the traditional record label department structure. For many artists, surrounding themselves with a few tech-savvy friends and some seed money can generate the momentum necessary to fuel a moderate indie career. To reach far and wide enough to live off of one's art, the task list is simply too long to tackle alone. In reality, DIY can work just fine if you modernize the traditional definition of the term.

2. Tech Can Replace/Enhance Some Functions

Technology has removed many barriers and allowed almost anyone to play the game. It has also removed the need for some of the team members that have always been needed. Recording, mixing and mastering music can be done faster and cheaper than ever before. Distributing the output digitally is near instant and inexpensive. Anyone can create digital tools that collect email addresses, stream music, sell tickets, and engage with fans. Just remember that with technology, "build it and they will come" is pure fantasy.

3. Direct-to-Fan is Valuable When Executed Properly

Even with all the hype, direct-to-fan (D2F) has proven itself as a valuable strategy when implemented correctly. D2F, when viewed as a set of best practices, can supplement list Screen shot 2010-10-13 at 9.58.02 PM.pnggrowth, sell high-margin offerings, and give artists a chance to engage their biggest supporters in innovative ways. However, the idea that D2F is simply creating a Topspin account and building a splash page is a myth -- proper D2F involves content and offer curation, a well-planned timeline, some existing reach, and savvy marketing both online and off.

4. The Aggregator Market Has Solidified

Very little has changed in this area over the past couple years. With a few clear leaders emerging, artists have no problem getting their content to the marketplace. Other than some simple distinguishing features, most digital aggregators provide an identical core service: Get your music on iTunes, Amazon, and many other digital storefronts. Tunecore, CDBaby, IODA, Reverbnation, and a few others have effectively cornered the market.

5. Marketing Tools Have Diversified

The emergence of multiple tiers of artists has also allowed products to follow suit. Companies that offer similar products are finding their own market niches by catering to specific classes of artists (hobbyist, middle-class, established, legacy, etc.). The distinction between services is often based on feature sets, and that typically correlates to price. We'll see this trend continue as the tiers further solidify and the realities of what different artists can spend (and need) come to light.

6. Facebook Gaining on Email

Traditionally, email has been the Holy Grail of communicating with fans, but as social media and SMS adoption grows, Facebook and text messages are giving email serious competition. Many bands are turning to Facebook as their core communication channel; for many types of audiences this makes perfect sense -- Facebook allows for standard communication but also offers sales, research, and data collection opportunities in one location. By owning the entire ecosystem, Facebook makes the call-to-action process much simpler.

7. The Official Site is Critical (Again)

I'd argue this has always held true, but most artists in most genres have begun to truly grasp the importance of an official site. Official sites allow levels of control that are unrivaled by any other platform. Artists can have full control over sales, data capture, and fan engagement on their own site, whereas other platforms such as MySpace and Facebook have limitations in these areas. However, some artists are keeping it simple and can implement those core functions on even the most simple of platforms; the benefit here is little to no cost and minimal administration and maintenance. The right strategy is to understand the value of different platforms, and find the right mix based on audience and needs.

8. Physical Fulfillment is Still a Logistical Puzzle

The hardest logistical part of running an artist's business is physical fulfillment. This is an area that has always been tough and it's only become marginally easier through new services and technology. There are a number of ways to fulfill physical goods -- do it yourself, find willing partners, use an established fulfillment house, or sign a formal distribution deal. These each have their pros and cons, but ultimately it comes down to the complexity of the offerings and the quantity of business a band is doing. No matter what method, someone must be managing the process at all times; with so many moving parts (manufacturing, delivery, shipping, stock levels, customer service, etc.) fulfillment management can be a full-time job.

9. The Value of Mobile and Apps is Still Cloudy

The music space in mobile is still somewhat like the Wild West. Their are certain sectors Screen shot 2010-10-13 at 9.59.56 PM.pngthat are entering adulthood -- SMS marketing for example, where Mozes has become the clear leader. However, other areas are far from fully formed. Music apps for mobile phones are plentiful, but they rarely generate acceptable levels of revenue. One thing has become clear -- for almost all artists, charging for a music app is the wrong business model; give it away for free and utilize in-app purchases.

10. Monitoring Tools: A Race to The Top

There is no excuse to not know what events and metrics surround an artist or release. There are so many analytics platforms that the challenge is figuring out exactly which data is important to the current state of a project, and then finding the easiest way to aggregate the information. Check out RockDex, Next Big Sound, BandMetrics, Radian6, and BuzzDeck to see the range of platforms and services. Although they cater to different audiences, they are all racing to determine the ultimate set of useful data and develop the most effective ways of interpreting and displaying it. The real challenge is then telling the user what to do next.

*****

What truths have you discovered about the modern music business? Please share them in the comments.

Jason Feinberg is vice president, direct to consumer marketing for Concord Music Group. He is responsible for digital and physical direct-to-fan solutions for CMG's frontline and catalog including the Rounder, Fantasy and Stax labels. Recent campaigns include Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Ray Charles, Carole King/James Taylor, and Crowded House. Follow Jason on Twitter @otmg

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