Clueless at the Capitol

Lawmakers’ cringeworthy questioning of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg calls into question the government’s ability to regulate social media.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill, April 2018. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

With the testimony on Capitol Hill last week by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, there’s heightened concern about the negative side effects of social media platforms. But in listening to lawmakers questioning Zuckerberg, it became painfully obvious that our Federal legislators have next to no understanding of the role of advertising in social media – or even how social media works in its most basic form.

Younger staff members may have written the questions for their legislative bosses, but it was clear that the lawmakers were ill-equipped to handle Zuckerberg’s alternatively pat, platitudinous and evasive responses and to come back with meaningful follow-up questions.

Even the younger senators and congresspeople didn’t acquit themselves well.

It made me think of something else, too. The questioners – and nearly everyone else, it seems – are missing this fundamental point about social media:  Facebook and other social media platforms aren’t much different from old-fashioned print media, commercial radio and TV/cable in that that they all generate the vast bulk of their earnings from advertising.

It’s true that in addition to advertising revenues, print publications usually charge subscribers for paper copies of their publications. In the past, this was because 1) they could … but 2) also to help defray the cost of paper, ink, printing and physical distribution of their product to news outlets or directly to homes.

Commercial radio and TV haven’t had those costs, but neither did they have a practical way of charging their audiences for broadcasts – at least not until cable and satellite came along – and so they made their product available to their audiences at no charge.

The big difference between social media platforms and traditional media is that social platforms can do something that the marketers of old could only dream about: target their advertising based on personally identifiable demographics.

Think about it:  Not so many years ago, the only demographics available to marketers came from census publications, which by law cannot reveal any personally identifiable information.  Moreover, the U.S. census is taken only every ten years, so the data ages pretty quickly.

Beyond census information, advertisers using print media could rely on audit reports from ABC and BPA.  If it was a business-to-business publication, some demographic data was available based on subscriber-provided information (freely provided in exchange for receiving those magazines free of charge).  But in the case of consumer publications, the audit information wouldn’t give an advertiser anything beyond the number of copies printed and sold, and (sometimes) a geographic breakdown of where mail subscribers lived.

Advertisers using radio or TV media had to rely on researchers like Nielsen — but that research surveyed only a small sample of the audience.

What this meant was that the only way advertisers could “move the needle” in a market was to spend scads of cash on broadcasting their messages to the largest possible audience. As a connecting mechanism, this is hugely inefficient.

The value proposition that Zuckerberg’s Facebook and other social media platforms provide is the ability to connect advertisers with more people for less spend, due to these platforms’ abilities to use personally identifiable demographics for targeting the advertisements.

Want to find people who enjoy doing DIY projects but who live just in areas where your company has local distribution of your products? Through Facebook, you can narrow-cast your reach by targeting consumers involved with particular activities and interests in addition to geography, age, gender, or whatever other characteristics you might wish to use as filters.

That’s massively more efficient and effective than relying on something like median household income within a zip code or census tract. It also means that your message will be more targeted — and hence more relevant — to the people who see it.

All of this is immensely more efficient for advertisers, which is why social media advertising (in addition to search advertising on Google) has taken off while other forms of advertising have plateaued or declined.

But there’s a downside: Social media is being manipulated (“abused” might be the better term) by “black hats” – people who couldn’t do such things in the past using census information or Nielsen ratings or magazine audit statements.

Here’s another reality: Facebook and other social media platforms have been so fixated on their value proposition that they failed to conceive of — or plan for — the behavior inspired by the evil side of humanity or those who feel no guilt about taking advantage of security vulnerabilities for financial or political gain.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg interviewed on the Today Show, April 2018.

Now that that reality has begun to sink in, it’ll be interesting to see how Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook — not to mention other social media business leaders — respond to the threat.

They’ll need to do something — and it’ll have to be something more compelling than CEO Zuckerberg’s constant refrain at the Capitol Hill hearings (“I’ll have my team look into that.”) or COO Sandberg’s litany (“I’m glad you asked that question, because it’s an important one.”) on her parade of TV/cable interviews.  The share price of these companies’ stock will continue to pummeled until investors understand what changes are going to be made that will actually achieve concrete results.

In digital retail, there’s Amazon and then there’s … everyone else.

When it comes to online retailing in the United States, Amazon’s been cleaning up for years. And now we have new data from comScore that reveals that Amazon is as dominant online today as it’s ever been.

This chart illustrates it well:

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* MediaMetrix Multi-Platform, US, December 2017. Source: comScore 2018 State of the U.S. Online Retail Economy.

The chart shows that when comparing actual time spent by Americans at each of the Top 10 online retailers, Amazon attracts more viewing time than the other nine entities combined.

Even when considering only mobile minutes, where so much of the growth is happening for digital retailers, Amazon’s mobile viewing time exceeds the combined total digital traffic across eBay, Walmart, Wish, Kohl’s and Etsy.

Pertaining to the mobile sphere, there is an interesting twist that comScore has found in consumer behavior. It turns out, there’s a considerable disparity between the amount of time spent with mobile compared to its share of dollars spent – to the tune of a 40% gap:

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MediaMetrix Multi-Platform and ecommerce / mCommerce Measurement, Q4 2017. Source: comScore 2018 State of the U.S. Online Retail Economy.

In essence, the data show that whereas mobile represents nearly two-thirds of the time spent with online retail, it accounts for only one-fourth of the dollars spent on goods and services.

But this difference is easy to explain:  As the largest player in the field, Amazon fulfills a role similar to what Expedia or Trivago do in the travel industry.

Amazon gives consumers a way to scan the marketplace not only for product details but also for prevailing prices, giving them a sense of the expected price ranges for products or services — even if they ultimately choose to purchase elsewhere.

The escalating “arms race” in the adblocking arena.

Have you noticed how, despite installing adblocking software on your computer or mobile device, a lot of online advertising is still making it through to you?

That isn’t just your imagination. It’s happening – and it’s getting worse.

According to a recent report based on findings prepared by researchers at the University of Iowa, Syracuse University and the University of California – Riverside, the extent of “end runs” being successfully made around adblockers is quite high – and it’s growing.

According to the research, more than 30% of the Top 10,000 Alexa-ranked websites are thwarting adblockers in order that millions of visitors will continue to see online advertisements despite running adblocking software.

As the universities’ report states:

“Online publishers consider adblockers a major threat to the ad-powered ‘free’ web. They have started to retaliate against adblockers by employing anti-adblockers, which can detect and stop adblock users.   

To counter this retaliation, adblockers in turn try to detect and filter anti-adblocking scripts.”

Some of the more “forthright” publishers are being at least a little transparent about the process – first asking visitors to stop blocking ads. If those appeals go unheeded, the next step is to notify visitors that if they fail to whitelist the site, they will no longer be able to access any of its content.

The problem with this scenario is that many visitors simply go elsewhere for content when faced with such a choice. Still, it’s nice that some online publishers are giving people the choice to opt in … in an environment where the publisher’s content can be monetized to some degree.

Other sites aren’t so courteous; instead, they’re overriding the adblock software and serving up the advertising anyway. That certainly isn’t the way to “make friends and influence people.”

But “violating consumer intent” is kind of where we are in this arena at the moment, unfortunately.

The New York Times: Out of print in ten years?

It isn’t anything particularly special to hear people talking about the declining market for print newspapers, and how market dynamics and demographic trends have put the traditional newspaper publishing model at risk.

At the same time, most newspaper publications have found it quite challenging to “migrate” their print customers to paid-subscription digital platforms. The plethora of free news sites online makes it difficult to entice people to pay for digital access to the news – even if the quality of the “free” coverage is lower.

New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, appearing on CNBC’s Power Lunch program (February 12, 2018).

But it was quite something to hear a forecast made by Mark Thompson, The New York Times’ CEO.  Earlier this month, Thompson made remarks during CNBC’s Power Lunch broadcast that amounted to a prediction that the NYT’s print edition won’t be around in another ten years.

Thompson went on to explain that his company’s objective is to build the digital product even while print is going away:

“The key thing for us is that we’re pivoting. Our plan is to go on serving our loyal print subscribers as long as we can.  But meanwhile, to build up the digital business so that we can have a successful growing company and a successful news operation long after print is gone.”

It’s one thing for newspapers in various cities across the country to be facing the eventuality of throwing in the towel on their print product. It’s quite another for a newspaper as vaunted as The New York Times to be candidly predicting this result happening.

It would seem that the NYT, along with the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and possibly USA Today would be the four papers most able to preserve their print editions because of their business models (USA Today’s hotel distribution program) or simply because of their vaunted reputations as America’s only daily newspapers with anything approaching nationwide distribution.

I guess this is what makes the Thompson remarks so eyebrow-raising. If there isn’t a long-term future for The New York Times when it comes to print, what does that say about the rest of the newspaper industry?  “Hopeless” seems like the watchword.

It will be interesting indeed if, a decade from now, we find no print newspapers being published in this country save for hyper-local news publications – the ones which rely on print subscribers seeing their friends and family in the paper for weddings, funerals, community activities, school sports and other such parochial (or vanity) purposes.

Interesting … but a little depressing, too.

Consumer reviews are important to online shoppers. So, are more people participating now?

Based on new research, the time-honored “90-9-1 rule” may no longer be accurate.

The 90-9-1 rule states that for every 100 people active online, one person creates content … nine people respond to created content … and 90 are merely lurkers – consuming the information but not “engaging” with it at all.

But now we have a survey by ratings and reviews platform Clutch which suggests that the ratio may be changing. The Clutch survey finds that around 20% of online shoppers have written reviews for some of their purchases.

That finding would seem to indicate that more people are now involved in content engagement than before. Still, when just one in five shoppers are writing and posting customer reviews, it continues to represent only a distinct minority of the market.

So, the big question for brands and e-commerce providers is how to encourage a greater number of people to post reviews, since such feedback is cited so often as one of the most important considerations for people who are weighing their choices when purchasing a new product or service.

A few of the ways that businesses have attempted to increase participation in customer reviews include:

  • Make the review process as efficient as possible by requesting specific feedback through star ratings.
  • Provide additional rating options on product/service performance sub-categories through quick guided questions.
  • Offering incentives such as a contest entry might also help gain more reviews, although the FTC does have regulations in place that prohibit offering explicit incentives in exchange for receiving favorable reviews.
  • Providing timely customer service – including resolving products with orders – can also increase the likelihood of garnering reviews that are positive rather than negative ones.

This last point is underscored by additional Clutch results which, when the survey asked why online shoppers write reviews, uncovered these reasons:

  • Was especially satisfied with the product or service: ~33%
  • Received an e-mail specifically requesting to leave feedback: ~23%
  • Was offered an incentive to leave feedback: ~5%
  • Was especially dissatisfied with the product or service: ~2%

For companies who might be concerned that negative feedback will be given lots of play, the 2% statistic above should come as some relief. And even if a negative review is published, the situation can often be rectified by reaching out to the reviewer and providing remedies to make things right, thereby “turning lemons into lemonade.”

After all, most consumers are pretty charitable if they sense that a company is making a good-faith effort to correct a perceived problem.

Fact Checkers: The “New-Old” Job in Journalism

The topic of “fake news” is all over the journalism ecosphere these days. It’s the subject of charges and countercharges tossed back and forth between politicians, industry specialists, the scientific community and the media.

In the current environment, even the slightest mistake in the media – no matter how innocuous – can turn into a contentious social media debate, whereas in the past it might have merited just a quick corrective notation as a follow-up.

These days, more often than not everyone gets sullied in the process – even innocent parties caught in the crossfire.  So, it isn’t surprising that as the issue of “fake news” has risen in prominence, fact checking in journalism has taken on more importance than ever.

An IFCN global summit conference held in Madrid Spain in July 2017.

In 2015, the Poynter Institute established its International Fact-Checking Network to support initiatives aimed at ensuring better accuracy and journalistic best practices. In addition, over the past year the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers have brought more fact checkers on board – not merely to verify the information being reported, but also to work in “real time” with journalists – checking breaking news stories for accuracy as they are being produced.

These new fact-checking resources have been added without a lot of fanfare, but it’s a quiet acknowledgement that the “fake news” controversy is one that strikes at the heart of the press’s reputation.

But there’s a significant shortcoming:  The new emphasis on fact-checking is consequential in just one corner of the news universe.  The arena of “news” now extends well beyond traditional outlets to also encompass social media platforms, blogs and a myriad of informational websites that frequently offer a distinct “point of view” in their reporting.

So, while the fact-checking resurgence may help buttress the reputation of “legacy” news organizations such as high-profile newspapers, national TV networks and marquee online news sites, that doesn’t mean it’s reaching into the many other places where people encounter and consume news.

I suspect that the “fake news” phenomenon is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, despite all of the good-faith efforts to keep it in check.

The end of an era? Newsrooms are going dark in more ways than one.

nrWhen people stop reporting statistics on an industry, it could be a sign of increasing irrelevance.

Unfortunately, that seems to be what’s happening in the newspaper and print magazine segment, slowly but surely.  Over the past few years, there’s been a steady decline in the number of benchmark reports being published about the industry.

In 2014, Publishers Information Bureau, the longstanding publisher of annual statistics on print advertising pages and ad revenues for magazine titles, ceased providing such data after migrating to a digital audience reporting format.

A year later, the Newspaper Association of America (aka the News Media Alliance) stopped reporting annual revenue figures for the newspaper industry.

Its counterpart in the radio media segment – the Radio Advertising Bureau – has done the same thing as well.

No longer reporting on advertising and revenues is one thing. But now the American Society of News Editors has stopped publishing annual estimates on the total number of journalists working in the newsrooms of America.

For years, those statistics have been a proxy for gauging the overall health of American journalism. And in recent years, what the stats were showing was something pretty ugly.

Between 2001 and 2015, ASNE’s statistics showed a decline in the number of journalists of more than 40%, with the total head count dropping from ~56,400 to ~32,900 over the period.

Perhaps it’s understandable that the news industry doesn’t want to chronicle the continuing decline of a once-vibrant and vaunted profession. But stopping the reporting of stats on it may be sending the wrong message – or adding to the implosion.

At a time of heightened incidences of “fake news” in the media, and when the business model for traditional journalism is increasingly precarious, to take the “real facts” of what’s happening and shove them under the carpet seems short-sighted at best.

By averting our eyes to what’s happening, it could well be exacerbating the trend lines. And then at some point, it won’t be that much of a stretch to think of journalism as a quaint, historical concept that is irrelevant in today’s world.

I hope we never get there. But at the rate we’re going, it’s looking more and more like the “great disappearing journalism.”