Living With (and Working Against) Fake News

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

First, let me say this is not a political post. Sometimes, understandably, I garner partisan comments and critiques on my marketing observations about elections and campaigns, or current events and what we can learn from them as marketing and communications practitioners. I welcome all comments — but there is no intended political agenda here.

Second, there’s been a lot of media attention around “fake news,” “alternative facts” and “bad ads” this past week, and in this digital age, it’s not surprising to see these phenomena come forward. These are not political manifestations — I believe they happen because of human nature, unchanged over time, and in the digital realm, there are new opportunities for bad behavior.

My point here is that we’ve allowed this to happen.

Let’s be honest with ourselves: decades past have had their days of yellow journalism and snake-oil salesman. While I may long for the days of fair and impartial voices in journalism — a la, Walter Cronkite — there’s always been an element in media that’s sponsored by one interest or another, perhaps for entertainment, even if the veneer is authoritative, informative and educational. For years, “feel good” stories are inserted in evening newscasts. And product placements appear in morning television. In cable television news, is there any news at all or is it mostly commentary and entertainment? So, I continue to worry about who pays the freight for U.S. journalism, even as I recognize and welcome the fact that advertising foots the bill.

We need, perhaps desperately, in American democracy the check and balance of a well-financed, vibrant Fourth Estate. The “Media Opposition Party” is hardly monolithic — and that’s why I still care about the practice of journalism that takes time to fact check and to keep its editorial opinions on the Editorial Page. That’s why I also watch public television and listen to public radio — no interest there, except to the public (or at least the members of the public that is its donor base). News versus analysis versus commentary — there needs to be a distinction.

Once again, we’re in a new age where there’s a slush — not a firewall — between church and state (publishing and editorial). The rise of “Native Advertising,” social influencers, “clickbait content,” brand journalism, pay-to-play speaking gigs, even who’s sitting next to you in a bar, muddies the distinction between editorial and paid content — particularly on a digital or mobile device. One from the other is a click away to an untrained eye. It is true that there is value, immense value, in paid content, but it’s also wise to know — as a citizen, as a consumer — when you’re engaged with paid media, from earned media, from editorial opinion, from entertainment.

Sometimes, when a PR practitioner is pitching an editor, reporter or conference organizer for earned media, he or she is presented with a paid media option instead. My client may well opt for the paid media option, but I make sure that my editorial pitch is really about editorial content. I’ll let my client know the availability of a paid media option, should they wish to pursue this.

Now, all that being said, I’m happy accepting earned media assignments (my bread and butter), as well as paid media assignments (content marketing). Let’s simply make sure they are distinct and differentiated when and where they appear. It’s not just the Federal Trade Commission who cares about this, I do, too! Hence, my blog today — and it is not a soap box.

Add More Traffic With Universal and Extended Search Optimization

If your organic search optimization plan does not include optimization for pertinent elements of both universal and extended search, you may be missing out on a surprising amount of traffic.

SEOIf your organic search optimization plan does not include optimization for pertinent elements of both universal and extended search, you may be missing out on a surprising amount of traffic.

In the beginning, organic search optimization was focused on the pursuit of top placements for your site’s pages. Search has evolved and so, too, must your optimization plan.

Today, instead of 10 blue links on a page, most contain 8.5. An array of universal and extended search elements enhance and complement the Google search results pages. The inclusion of maps, images, video results, the Knowledge Box and Twitter results enhance the user experience and speed searchers to their desired information.

A recent white paper from Searchmetrics looked at the results from approximately 500,000 general, frequently searched terms. Because Google increasingly is applying different algorithms for mobile vs. desktop searches, the results from both were analyzed. This study clearly shows that any optimization plan is incomplete, unless it includes the elements of both universal and extended search.

Universal Search — Vertical Search Integrated Into the Results Page

Universal search, launched in 2007, was Google’s integration directly into the search results of vertical search elements that had previously been developed as separate search engines. These included: shopping, news, videos, images and maps. Although showing up integrated into the search results page, these vertical silos of information can still be accessed from tabs on the Google results page.

The type of elements displayed vary depending on the keyword search. For example, a search for a “Zen frog fountain” yields a results page rich in images and shopping details. There is even a video. A search for your local hospital will yield a results page with a map and directions.

Each element in universal search has its own optimization requirements, and many organic SEO plans employ them. The SEO can clearly guide the optimization of images so that relevant product images will be included in the array of images shown for keyword searches.

For e-commerce merchants, it is quite important to optimize all of your images, because they can drive substantial amounts of traffic. Similarly, video content can be readily optimized using available guidelines.

Google’s emphasis on quality of the information and the authority of the source has driven the evolution of news optimization from press releases to publishers. Today, the news integration includes just the freshest and most authoritative sources. Because the news elements evolved from vertical search, there are a set of guidelines for optimization of news.

Not all elements are equally important for every business, but traffic can be gained by optimizing all the germane elements.

Extended Search — More Boxes and Features

Extended search is the term applied to the additions to the search results that are not based on vertical search engines. These results are algorithmically developed from a variety of internal and external sources available to Google. Extended search includes: The Knowledge Graph, the image carousel, the Twitter Cards, the direct answer/fact boxes, the related questions that are delivered along with the direct answers, and the app packs found in mobile searches.

Because the results pull information from a number of sources, they are much more difficult to optimize for. They are best viewed as the result of a broad footprint of information that will satisfy the demands of these elements.

For example, the Knowledge Graph relies on Google My Business and Wikipedia information. If your company has a complete profile on these two key sources, you will be feeding the information needed to drive the Knowledge Graph. Similarly, sites with recipes, events and reviews can use structured data to enhance the likelihood of appearing in the direct answers boxes.

As we move into the fourth quarter and plan for the next year, do be sure to review the universal search and expanded search elements that have the most traffic-driving potential for your business and strategize for how to include them in your optimization planning.

Journalism: Where Are We Going and Who Will Pay for It?

What a time to be a chronicler of news. In 2015, being a newspaper journalist just overtook lumberjacking as the worst job in America — posting a 13 percent decline in employment prospects. (Broadcast news wasn’t far behind, at third worst.)

news-1172463_640Is journalism — the chronicling of the day’s news and analysis about that news – under threat? Of course it is.

Last month, I visited my alma mater for the 50th Anniversary of the University of Connecticut and its journalism department. There were panels of alumni reporters, editors and news entrepreneurs — some with Pulitzers in big-city papers, some with broadcast backgrounds and some stringers for local news in hometowns, U.S.A.

A dominant discussion was the future of journalism — and who will pay for it? There were hopeful statements, for certain — just being a reporter these days demands resiliency among other mind and skill sets — but there was also plenty of worry.

What a time to be a chronicler of news. In 2015, being a newspaper journalist just overtook lumberjacking as the worst job in America — posting a 13 percent decline in employment prospects. (Broadcast news wasn’t far behind, at third worst.) Certainly digital news sites abound, but print historically demanded a subscription — and consumers just don’t pony up to online news sites and their paywalls like they used to do offline.

The original sin of the Internet was not the first display ad, it was giving it all away for “free.” Some argue the “big give away” democratizes information. Others see it as an alarmist trend toward socialism. The rise of the citizen journalist (I’m one here) doesn’t necessarily translate to the most learned of fact gatherers, fact checkers, superb editing and the advancement of human knowledge. Too often, it’s the lowest common denominator — rumor and innuendo, celebrity and entertainment, prurient subjects — that gather the most clicks and distracts the electorate (and quite a few candidates) from more considered concerns.

Just think about it — music, news, sports, weather, apps and so many other conveniences — how many of us, as users, pay online for what some more seasoned of us used to pay offline. Even where we do pay, is it at the level we once shelled out in print, or dollars to dimes?

And yet, our nation’s fourth estate — the vibrancy of our democracy — is at stake. Who is served when diversity of news and opinions are concentrated only in deep pockets, amid a hurry to post online and worry about fairness and accuracy tomorrow? When a columnist at a Las Vegas newspaper can’t even write about community business leaders who are owners of casinos — is this what journalism is coming to?

Let me conclude with some upbeat answers. When paid subscriptions wither, we all know who is there to fill the bill: advertisers. The division of church and state — keeping the newsroom independent of the publishing side of the business — is a time-honored and necessary check and balance inside most media organizations. Where it’s blurred, the integrity of information is sacrificed. That’s always worried me about native content trends. However, there are many journalists (alumni friends) who are very happy that advertising, advertisers and ad tech exist. They well know that without us, diversity of content, news and opinion, professionally gathered and edited, would go the wayside along with their livelihoods. It might be dimes instead of dollars, but it’s some compensation. Our hometowns, our nation, our world and now the Internet cannot afford anything less, and it’s certainly worth a lot more.

Why Millennials Don’t Consume Mass Media … And Why That’s OK

Every semester, I ask the students in my undergraduate classes: “Does anyone read the newspaper?” No hands raised.

Every semester, I ask the students in my undergraduate classes: “Does anyone read the newspaper?” No hands raised.

“Does anyone watch the network news on TV?” No hands raised.

“Does anyone listen to the radio?” Some who commute by car raised their hands.

As someone who has two newspapers delivered to the house every day and faithfully watches the network news on TV, I was disturbed by this, smacking my forehead with a “these kids today!” exclamation. I feared that the world view brought to them by social media was very narrow and limited to the viewpoints of people who were just like them. A few of my Facebook friends have very different political views from mine (their posts sometimes annoy me), but most of those in my social network are aligned with my views. I believed that young people would have an even less diverse pool of opinions from which to draw.

So I did some research to confirm my point of view, ignoring David Ogilvy’s warning that many agencies and clients “use research like a drunkard uses a lamp post – not for illumination but for support.” What I found was illuminating.

The social networks of Millennials are not as homogenous as those of older people: “31 percent of Baby Boomers on Facebook who pay attention to political posts say the posts they see are mostly or always in line with their own views, higher than both Generation Xers (21 percent) and Millennials (18 percent),” according to Pew Research Center Journalism & Media.

A study by The American Press Institute (opens as a PDF) finds that most Millennials report that the people in their social networks have diverse views. “Contrary to the idea that social media creates a polarizing ‘filter bubble,’ exposing people to only a narrow range of opinions, 70 percent of Millennials say that their social media feeds are comprised of diverse viewpoints, evenly mixed between those similar to and different from their own. An additional 16 percent say their feeds contain mostly viewpoints different from their own. And nearly three-quarters of those exposed to different views (73 percent) report they investigate others’ opinions at least some of the time — with a quarter saying they do it always or often.”

The news is not a destination for Millennials, but rather something that’s woven into their daily social media activity. “Millennials consume news and information in strikingly different ways than previous generations, and their paths to discovery are more nuanced and varied than some may have imagined … just 47 percent who use Facebook say that getting news is a main motivation for visiting, but it has become one of the significant activities they engage in once they are there. Fully 88 percent of Millennials get news from Facebook regularly, for instance, and more than half of them do so daily.”

Of course, it’s not just Facebook … YouTube and Instagram serve the same purposes for Millennials. As marketers, we need to stay tuned-in (sorry) to how the most populous generation consumes news, social and lifestyle information simultaneously on social media platforms, and how we can best make our messages relevant there.

Pop Culture, News and Politics in Content and Direct Marketing

On a recent marketing team conference call, someone asked if everyone was happy. I said, “sure!” and remarked how a recent song, “Happy”—the infectious hit by Pharrell Williams—had been playing in my mind all day. “What’s that?” was the reaction from the team. Those on the call agreed that they don’t pay attention to or care about hit songs. Which, by extension, suggests they are missing what’s going on in

On a recent marketing team conference call, someone asked if everyone was happy. I said, “sure!” and remarked how a recent song, “Happy”—the infectious hit by Pharrell Williams—had been playing in my mind all day. “What’s that?” was the reaction from the team. Those on the call agreed that they don’t pay attention to or care about hit songs. Which, by extension, suggests they are missing what’s going on in pop culture.

Now, some of you may disagree that “Happy” is a song that merits the description of being pop culture (the definition being “cultural activities reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people”). But this is a No. 1 song from the hit movie “Despicable Me 2,” and it was showcased on the Oscars, which was the first time I heard the song and experienced its energy. The official Happy music video has been viewed over 200 million times on YouTube.

Listening to this song, which energizes my creative juices, got me thinking about the use of pop culture, news and politics in content and direct marketing messages.

The fact is, when properly and responsibility used, pop culture icons, news headlines or politics work to get attention. Why else do you suppose you find the names of political leaders in promotional headlines?

Feel-good pop culture at one end of the spectrum, and negative headlines, at the opposite end, are proven to work. It’s all a part of the way our brains are wired, with the left amygdala reacting to positive messages and the right amygdala engaged with negative messages. So as you look for ways to make content and direct marketing work for you, consider the possibilities:

  1. News Headlines: Borrowing from the news shows your audience that you’re timely. Headlines can be either positive or negative. Marketing and PR guru David Meerman Scott, calls this effective technique “newsjacking.”
  2. Politics: Be careful with this one, but you can grab attention when you put a political spin on your story. This is usually negative, and why negative ads during campaigns are used (and work—it’s how our brains are wired).
  3. Pop Culture: Feel-good happy moments are few and far between. People embrace positive news, especially in social media. Pop culture can be a big winner when you need to grab onto something positive (even if possibly outrageous).

Obviously, the hard news/politics/pop culture combination doesn’t work for everyone or every product. But, if you want attention, consider how you can ramp up your content and direct marketing messaging with pop culture, news or politics.