Fake headlines and other viral tricks to avoid

youtube on I phone

The stupendously popular viral video with an irresistible product message is the marketeer’s Holy Grail. But how can you give your product a story that attracts legions of fans?

Lots of so-called experts claim to know how to make videos go viral. But from what I’ve seen, most of them are hawking a combination of the obvious and some flat-out bad advice.

Wharton School marketing prof Jonah Berger has received attention far and wide as the author of the New York Times bestseller Contagious: Why Things Catch On. It’s a catchy title—one of his so-called secrets is to use catchy titles. That in itself is no big revelation. But what exactly is “catchy”? There’s no simple answer. Provocative? Curiosity-inspiring? Against the grain? Yes, yes and yes.

But what about using fake headlines to seduce viewers into clicking only to take them to something quite different (and therefore thoroughly disappointing)? Though a staple of many successful You-Tube spoof videos, this approach nearly always backfires for the product promoter. You’re not looking for more haters for your brand, are you?

That doesn’t stop Berger from using this tired trick himself. An article he penned for Tech Crunch titled “The Secret Science Behind Big Data and Word of Mouth” features absolutely zero “big data.” The headline draws you in; the article disappoints.

Kiri Blakely admitted in her 2011 Forbes post Why Does something Go Viral? that randomness is often the only explanation why one blog posts gets hundreds of thousands of hits and another goes virtually unnoticed. As an experiment, Blakely loaded 20 of her posts on a variety of topics onto the site StumbleUpon. One of the posts received more than 100,000 hits; most of the others received less than 1,000 and a few none at all. What distinguished the virally popular one?  “If I knew that, I’d make a fortune,” she writes. Still she did offer some tips:

  • Keep it simple. “The Susan Boyle video had a very simple beginning, middle, and end structure that quickly encompassed human dreams everywhere: An unattractive, middle-aged woman waddles onto the stage, gets laughed at, and soon transcends with soul-lifting, heart-swelling triumph. It’s the template for millions of movies, bestsellers, and fondly-remembered wars.”
  • Make it relatable. “People like to read about things that they can relate to or that they’ve had conversations with their friends about.”
  • Make it snarky. “The Internet loves snark. And kittens.”
  • Try various social media venues until you hit the right audience. “Sometimes it takes awhile to find your location: some stories are LinkedIn stories, others do well on Twitter, some on Reddit.”

But also keep in mind that videos that go viral often have received quite a bit of behind-the-scenes help. As Godwin Delali Adadzie writes on tech site GADEL said what?   “Most YouTube videos that you see as a viral success are in fact made by top viral marketing firms. These marketing firms pay people to blog about these videos, send links to top influencers on Twitter and Facebook.”

Lessons from White House attack Twitter hoax: Vigilance; don’t ‘stop loss’

The hacking of the AP’s Twitter account  this week–about a fictitious attack on the White House–sent the stock market diving reminiscent of the “flash crash” of 2010. Two quick observations:

  • Hackers can be more sophisticated than the social media sites we’re all using. If they want to get past your social media firewall, they almost certainly can. So be vigilant in monitoring your own Twitter and Facebook sites, and even your corporate blog–look what happened to Joel Osteen last week. If a mischievous hacker has taken over your social identity, act quickly to let stakeholders and the media know about the fraudulent posts. Redouble your efforts to beef up your cyber security–but know that you’re still vulnerable. (Here’s a very helpful FAQ from Bloomberg about corporate hacking.)
  • The stock exchanges really need to address susceptibility to flash crashes that certainly unsettle investors and undoubtedly cost many of them significant amounts of their savings. And here’s a tip for the individual investor: We used to be told that we should maintain “stop-loss” orders on our investments to automatically trigger in the event a share price declines precipitously, thereby limiting our losses. In the case of a flash crash, doing nothing is far better than automatically selling into a steep drop that quickly reverses back up. Stop-losses are so 20th century.

source url - Jon Harmon


Finding Meaning in the Twitterverse Without Being a Buzz Killer

During the Presidential campaign this fall, news organizations were eager to discern patterns of meaning from raw (and unfathomable) social media data. We learned that the first Presidential debate generated 10.3 million Tweets to become the “most tweeted event in political history” (as if the only portion of political history that matters is that since the launch of Twitter way back in 2006).  The news organizations breathlessly reported the moments during the debates that generated the most tweets.  And they tracked the most popular Twitter hash tags being used–”Big Bird” and “malarkey” were two that jumped out of the first presidential and the vice presidential debates, respectively. All that was interesting but told us very little about what people were actually thinking or feeling about a topic or candidate. The sheer number of tweets made it impossible to provide any useful quantitative discernment on attitudes reflected by the tweets. 

For example, we can track how many hundred thousand people tweet per minute when the subject of “gun control” comes up in a debate, or the number of times #guncontrol is mentioned, but if we can’t separate the number of tweets for and against the idea of controlling guns, how useful is this? Sure, we can look at a sample of tweets, judge them as pros and cons, and extrapolate to the larger population–but that seems so Twentieth Century. Can’t we automate that?

One way is to ask a yes/no or multiple choice question and ask followers to respond using different hashtags. Be careful to make it absolutely clear what you’re asking (e.g., does “no” mean “no to guns” or “no to gun control”?); if you confuse even 10% of respondents, your data could be grossly misleading. Still, not everyone tweeting cares to respond to a contrived question. Much better is to find ways to sort through naturally occurring Twitter traffic.

This is where Twitter will surely evolve to meet our incessant need to count and track–creating a simple, instantaneous mechanism for tweeters to use to express pro and con opinions, whatever the topic. Something more meaningful than a “like this” option but equally easy to click. With a little evolution, Twitter will provide instantaneous snapshots of mass public opinion.

Of course, getting answers to a complicated issue is seldom a matter of picking between two clear choices. Twitter totals aren’t ever going to reveal nuance. We’ll continue to need to dig deeper (through some manner of focus group probing) to delve into gray areas and to answer why? and how? questions.

An even more basic limitation is that much of social media conversation is said in fun and jest, not to be taken seriously or counted. And being at the center of a fun and frivolous conversation is pretty much what buzz is all about. We can measure the amount of buzz being created around a topic or brand quite easily, but asking for more detailed information can be a Twitter buzz-killer.

– Jon Harmon 

Limitations of the Twitterverse–what’s needed is what will surely come

Most consumer companies have by now embraced social media as an important, if mysterious, part of their integrated communications aimed at building awareness and opening the door for positive consideration. But is it working?

Social media is all about conversations, not about shouting at the marketplace like traditional advertising. We want to prompt interest and to participate gently in conversations involving our products and brands.  So when we are looking to gauge the relative effectiveness of a social media campaign, it shouldn’t be just about counting followers and the number of times we tweeted a message. It should be about counting engaged followers and in listening to what they have to say about us and to us. This will require both a change in how we use social media and an evolution in social media itself.

First, the listening part: Clearly we need to devote the resources to read and quickly respond to tweets and messages directed to us through our social media accounts. And we should, of course, be paying attention to key words that indicate conversations involving our brand or company or idea. (Listen always; join in a conversation as appropriate.)  But we also can glean a lot about the changing external environment shaping the resonance of our brand or proposition by listening for cultural trends. See Sam Ford’s informative post in Fast Times:  ”5 Ways of Listening to Culture That Will Change Your Business.”

Second, the counting part: To make sense of the raw data, we want to count not the number of our followers but the number who actually saw and read our post. This is exactly analogous to mass media–raw circulation numbers don’t provide an accurate number of those who actually read the story about our company or product.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves with inflated follower totals. A service called Fake Follower Check attempts to quantify bot-generated fake followers, as well as real but inactive followers. “It’s not perfect, though — it only takes a sample of your followers and it relies on educated guesses about their status,” says Jeff Sonderman at Poynter. (Using this service, I’ve ascertained that 84% of Force for Good’s Twitter followers are “good,” 10 percent are “inactive” and 6% are “fake.” I suppose that’s relatively reassuring, but what else does it tell me?)

What we really want to get at is the number of engaged followers. Twitter’s advertisers have access to an analytics service that tracks the number of clicks, mentions and retweets generated by each tweet and for key words (like your brand name). These numbers provide more meaningful insight into the level of external engagement around your brand, company or idea. But it still doesn’t provide much insight into what those people are actually thinking and feeling. Anything generating real conversation is likely to have haters as well as likers (and perhaps some lovers). If all you  care about it creating awareness (what I call “the Mae West School of PR“), then counting haters the same as supporters is just fine. But in most cases, understanding some dimension of favorability is important.

Most social media, including Facebook and LinkedIn, count the number of people who “like” a certain post or topic. It’s a start, but not really very useful. Can’t we do better?

NEXT POST: Beyond “Likes”: How social media will surely evolve to become more useful in revealing mass audience attitudes.

- Jon Harmon

Journalism moves beyond straight reporting; PR pros must adjust

The practice of  journalism is rapidly evolving with huge implications to the media relations practitioner.

Remember the ideal of a fair-and-balanced, impartial, “just the facts, ma’am” news reporter? Gone like yesterday’s newspaper.

So says Columbia University’s Tow Center of Digital Journalism in a lengthy report “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

News today is increasingly parsed together by computer algorithm, viewed on smart-phones, reduced to snarky headlines and tweeted and retweeted within like-minded communities. “Citizen journalists” provide instant on-the-scene accounts devoid of fact-checking. (Here‘s another excellent perspective–from Naureen Aqueel in Pakistan–on the integration of cit-j into the new newsroom.)

The result, say the authors of the report:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation. …

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.

Today’s professional journalists must dig deeper, add perspective and nuance. They must inject their personalities into the stories they cover. (Back in the day, they called that “New Journalism”–e.g., Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. What’s old is new again.)

The Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman reflects on the Tow Center “manifesto” in a thought-provoking column today (thereby demonstrating this new ideal by adding clarity and insight):

This is an era for the journalist who uses critical thinking to interpret and analyze, whether it’s working with data sets, interviewing aggressively or calling BS on conventional wisdom.

This is an era for the journalist who knows how to put herself into her work. Not, necessarily, her opinions or biases — but her personality, energy and voice. “The more we feel engaged with a journalist through his persona, the more we want to hear what he has to say about the world,” the authors write. “Public persona was once the exclusive territory of the high-profile columnist. Now it is part of the job of every journalist.”

The Tow Center report focuses, of course, on the implications for journalists. But what does all this mean to the PR pro?

My take? We should think about potential news coverage two ways.

  • Hard news”  like earnings and personnel announcements should be kept brief and to the point. What the old dogs among us will remember as “inverted pyramid.” Get the principle facts in the first sentence or two, uncluttered with hyperbole or fluff. Follow that with a single hyper-pertinent quote from the appropriate senior person. Then provide a link to a more detailed summary that leads to another link to the full text. Remember you are writing for news aggregators and your Twitter community. Don’t feel put out that they will read only a sentence or two plus one quote. Be happy you have their momentary attention and work to regain it again and again. (And work diligently to quickly correct misinformation through traditional media, the news aggregators and directly to your followers.)
  • click here Feature stories and in-depth reporting requires a different approach. Get to know the reporters who cover your company and industry (this hasn’t changed; PR has always been a people profession). Understand each individual’s expertise, interests and quirks. Be on the look-out for ways to invite a writer in and participate in the story. The pay-off is obvious–if the journalist enjoys the experience, so will the readers/viewers.

- Jon Harmon

Secret for brand success in social media: Take a walk in shoes of customers, critics

Complete this thought:

Corporate communicators seeking to use social media to connect with customers and other constituents should concentrate on …

If you ask Peter Hirshberg, CEO of The Re:imagine Group, he'd say "empathy."

Brands are shaped by conversations "out there" and the brand messages a company puts out must be in sync with those conversations or they will have no traction in the market. You probably know that already.

But there's something even more basic to success in social media engagement, Hirshberg says. Our ability to shape conversations depends on our ability to truly empathize with the people inside those conversations.

Hirshberg provided the keynote address last night at the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations' second annual Celebration of Leaders in Chicago. Hirshberg's credentials are most impressive: a nine-year run at Apple, followed by Chairman/CEO roles at Elemental Software, Interpacket Networks, Gloss.com and Technorati (the world's leading aggregator of user-generated content).

Social media provides the on-going narrative to learning empathy, he says. That means more than just listening and responding to what we might see as factual errors. It means putting ourselves in our customers' — or our critics — shoes and seeing the world from their point of view before responding.

A not surprising viewpoint if you consider another aspect of Hirshberg's impressive resume. He is a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute — the Henry Crown Fellowship seeks "to develop the next generation of community-spririted leaders by honing their skills in value-centered leadership."

watch – Jon Harmon

Restoration of Internet, cell service in Egypt would be sign populist revolution being accepted by government

The Mubarak government shut off all Internet access in the country early Friday morning (shut down made possible because of single Internet provider in Egypt unlike most countries). By Saturday, unconfirmed reports had some Internet transmission restored, although cell phone service is still out.

Like the images of protesters riding jubiliantly on tanks, the return of Internet and cell phone service could be a sign that powers within the government are siding with the populist uprising. With incredible pressure on Mubarak to resign, the world is watching to see how a power vaccuum may be filled. Transition government until national elections can be held? Will the people prevail pushing Egypt to emerge as a more democratic republic? Will radical fundamentalists seize power? How will the uprisings continue to spread throughout the Arab world?

- Jon Harmon

Popular discontent sweeps through Arab world despite crack-downs on social media

Watching the massive protests in Egypt live on Al Jazeera English is fascinating but disconcerting. By all accounts a genuine ground-swell of protest, with no identifiable leader.

What will be the outcome of this tsunami of disenchantment?

Like Tunisia, where the government of President/dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben-ali was toppled two weeks ago, the insurrection seems to fueled by the economic and social discontent of young people.

And like the protests in Iran in 2009 over that country’s rigged national election, social media has been a galvanizing force, even as the besieged leaders have tried to “turn off” Internet access and cell phone transmission. The images and the stories inevitably get out, and take on even greater meaning.

In Iran, the jubilant, youthful energy of the “Green party” protesters in 2009 did not lead to regime change. Indeed, “President’”Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to be recognized as the legitimate head of state nearly two years after the highly dubious elections. Will the apparent success of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings provide a new spark to the young populists in Iran?

And, what of the upheaval in Lebanon and Yemen? Will all this popular discontent lead to greater freedoms or provide an opportunity of instability for new fanatical regimes to seize power?

The world is watching. And thousands of on-the-spot images from cell phone cameras and other forms of citizen social media provide not only a fascinating window into the chaos but a galvanizing force as well.

- Jon Harmon

Family brought together by Thanksgiving

Today I'm thankful for family brought together by the holiday. Just having our four sons and future daughter-in-law together is fantastic, but we also are blessed to be joined by my older brother's family. They've come from near and far, mostly far: Michigan, Indiana, Florida, Maryland and downstate Illinois to our Chicago home.

Modern careerism means mobility in all its forms. Skype, Facebook, email and texting, and good 'ol fashioned cell phones help keep us connected.

But nothing can replace a real, honest-to-goodness, in-person visit.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

http://holidaysigns.com/master-thesis-web-design/ - Jon Harmon

Can reporting co-ops save the local newspaper?

Newspapers simply will not survive under their existing business model. Readers and advertisers are leaving in droves. Newspapers are losing out to competition from alternative news sites–including aggregators such as Yahoo! News and Google–delivering pithy electronic news bites to on-the-go consumers. Newspapers’ own websites are increasingly displacing the printed word, but they haven’t been able to sufficiently monetize content as on-line readers resist having to pay for content and advertising hasn’t delivered enough revenue.

In the six months from April to September, the top 400 newspaper in the U.S. saw their weekday circulation decline by a staggering 10.6%, and that followed what had been considered a horrific circulation decline of 6.1% the previous six months, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation’s latest data.

Unless something changes quickly, you can write the newspaper’s obituary.

Along with similar pressures facing traditional television news operations, the death of the newspaper could spell the end to strong, competent news reporting. Who will provide the reporting for the news aggregators to collect and distribute? Or will hard reporting largely go by the waste side, largely replaced by entertainment fluff and gossip? And even if a few strong, national news organizations–such as the Wall Street Journal and USA Today–survive, who will do the indispensable but not very lucrative work of reporting on local issues?

One possible remedy to this dark picture could be provided by local news co-ops. The New York Times has begun publishing a local edition in San Francisco and is moving ahead with plans for a Chicago edition as well, stepping into voids in those markets caused by newspaper bankruptcies. The Wall Street Journal has similar plans. While these localized national papers will put additional financial pressure on truly local newspapers in those markets, they also are spawning news co-ops that may be the future of serious local news journalism.

In Chicago, the non-profit news co-op will be headed by James E. O’Shea, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times and a former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, and other well-regarded journalists will step into key reporting and editing responsibilities. The co-op will provide content for the NY Times’ Chicago edition as well as for Chicago public TV and radio stations. It will compete with the news organizations of the Tribune and Sun-Times, both in bankruptcy, at least as long as those newspapers continue to exist.

In smaller markets, perhaps non-profit news co-ops will supply reporting for all of the area’s newspaper, broadcast and web news outlets just as pool arrangements today cover national news stories that are either prohibitively expensive or are not conducive to being covered by the full circus of dozens of camera and sound crews.

Whenever a full complement of news organizations are replaced with a single reporting operation, the worry grows about compromised or less than fully objective news coverage. But as the economics of news organizations grows increasingly dismal, it may be the only local alternative.

P.S. – Nearly three years ago, I posed the question here: “Does the newspaper have a future?” But I certainly did not foresee the dire situation newspapers find themselves in currently. In fact, the lead of my post was: “Reports of the death of the newspaper have been greatly exaggerated.”

- Jon Harmon