Al-Jazeera axes the “Comments” section on its English-language website.

What took them so long?

This past week, al-Jazeera.com, the English-language website run by the Qatar-based international media company, announced that it is disabling the comments section on its site.

In a written statement, the company complained that what was originally designed to “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with one another” had devolved into a free-for-all, with the comments sections “hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.”

“The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent,” the al-Jazeera statement added – as if any further explanation for their action was needed.

I have a comment of my own in response to al-Jazeera: “Welcome to reality.”

Al-Jazeera is hardly an innocuous website in cyberspace. It reports on some of the most explosive developments affecting the most volatile regions of the world.  Considering the sparring parties in these never-ending conflicts, complaining about “sectarianism” is almost laughable.

Is there a more “sectarian” group of people on the face of the earth than those who are exorcised about the inhabitants of the Middle East – or of Muslims, Christians and Jews in general? I don’t know of any.

As for the comments section being a repository of derision and hate, how is anyone surprised? What other result could one expect – especially since there was little or no attempt by al-Jazeera personnel to moderate the comments section?

The fact is, unmoderated comments sections that also allow for poster anonymity are a blanket invitation for “the inmates running the asylum.” Comments that are left in these “anything’s allowed” forums chase the well-intentioned participants away – and fast.

On the other hand, I’ve found plenty of well-moderated forums and comments sections that are as valuable as the underlying articles themselves.

That doesn’t happen all by itself, of course. Good moderation takes effective policies – requiring commentators to identify themselves for a start.  It also requires an ever-watchful eye.

Evidently, al-Jazeera and others like them found the not-insignificant effort required to perform this degree of moderation to be unworthy of their time or financial resources. And as a result, their forums became worthless.

And now they’re history.

Harris Poll: What Americans say they want in news coverage.

When it comes to the news, Americans say they’re tired of so much attention on celebrity gossip and scandal stories … but are they really?

news mediaExperience has shown that healthy foods on the menu at fast food establishments test well in consumer attitudinal surveys — only to bomb big time when actually introduced.

It seems as though many people answer the way they think they’re “supposed” to respond, even though they’ll never actually opt for the apple slices in lieu of the order of fries.

I wonder if the same dynamics are at work in a recent Harris Poll, which queried ~2,500 Americans age 18 or over about their preferences for news topics.  The online survey was conducted in August 2014, with the results released this past week.

For starters, three-fourths of the respondents felt that celebrity gossip and scandal stories receive too much coverage.

Indeed, many believe that entertainment news in general receives too much attention in the news:

  • Celebrity gossip and scandal stories: ~76% claim too much attention is paid in the news
  • Entertainment news in general: ~49%
  • Professional spectator sports: ~44%
  • Politics and elections: ~33%

And which topics do people feel aren’t covered sufficiently in the news? It’s everything that’s “good for you”:

  • Education topics: ~47% believe too little attention is paid in the news
  • Local/national humanitarian issues: ~47%
  • Science topics: ~45%
  • Government corruption and scandals: ~44%
  • Corporate corruption and white collar crime: ~42%
  • Global humanitarian issues: ~33%
  • Health topics: ~30%

I suspect that the “actual reality” is different from how the survey participants responded. If news organizations weren’t seeing keen interest generated by their celebrity, entertainment and sports stories, they would stop producing them.  Simple as that.

Harris Poll logoYou can view more findings from the Harris survey, including data tabulations, here. Among the interesting findings is the degree of trust people have for various different news media:  network TV news, local TV news, local newspapers, national newspapers, online news sources.

Hint: trust levels are nearly where they should be …

What are your thoughts about news topics? Which ones are getting proper coverage versus too much?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

What’s happening with marketing analytics right now?

MarketingSherpa logoWith so many promotional tactics available to marketers these days, figuring out how to measure the success of each may be just as challenging as choosing which ones to employ to begin with

That’s the reasoning behind the release of research firm MarketingSherpa’s first-ever marketing analytics research report

MarketingSherpa was seeking insights as to how marketers track metrics for a whole host of channels like PPC advertising, SEO initiatives, social media, display advertising, e-mail marketing and content marketing, among others.

2013 Marketing Analytics Benchmark Report from MarketingSherpaThe results compiled by MarketingSherpa are based on research and data collected during 2012 from more than 1,100 marketing professionals across a full range of industries worldwide. 

The research covers a wide variety of marketing analytics tools and practices, along with challenges and budget constraints faced by marketers in the course of carrying out their responsibilities.

The 2013 Marketing Analytics Benchmark Report is big – to the tune of ~325 presentation slides and 425+ data charts plus commentary – and rather costly as well. 

But it may be just the ticket for marketers who are looking for the latest insights on how to tackle measurement in today’s “smorgasbord” marketing landscape.

One set of data points that I find particularly interesting is in identifying the marketing metrics that companies routinely track.  The MarketingSherpa research has found that that e-mail open rates and clickthrough rates continue to be the most prevalent forms of measurement:

  • Open rate:  ~78% routinely track this metric
  • Clickthrough rate:  ~73%

Several other metrics are tracked by about half (or more) of the respondents:

  • Unsubscribe rate:  ~65% routinely track
  • Deliverability rate:  ~55%
  • Conversion rate:  ~54%
  • Clicks-per-link in e-mail:  ~49%
  • List size:  ~48%

On the other hand, several other metrics are being tracked by a distinct minority of companies:

  • ROI:  ~28% routinely track
  • Complaint rate:  ~25%
  • Social sharing rate:  ~21%

On one hand, seeing ROI tracking so far down the list is disappointing … until we remind ourselves that accurate ROI measurement is a function of having good data on 5 or 10 other factors.  If any one of them is off by a significant degree, it affects the veracity of the ROI conclusions.

Yet another example where “talk” is most definitely “cheap.”

But for more insights on measurement factors and other marketing topics, you can order and download the full report and see for yourself.

The American middle class may be squeezed … but why?

Middle class under attackIn recent years, there have been numerous analyses and articles addressing threats to the middle class in America, and who or what is to blame for what’s happening.

The latest article, The American Dream, Downsized, is written by Amy Sullivan, a writer and former editor at TIME and Washington Monthly  magazines and was published in the National Journal magazine this past week.

The statistics presented by the author – including those showing the middle class “squeeze,” a smaller proportion of Americans falling within the middle class as compared to poorer or richer segments – are indeed sobering.

But in reading the article, I also got the sense that the premise of the argument – that the economic conditions in the America of 50 years ago represented the “norm” – may be flawed.

What if the conditions today represent the “norm” and the conditions back then are the ones that were “skewed”?

I shared the article with my brother, Nelson Nones. As someone who has lived and worked outside the United States for years (in Europe and Asia), to me his thoughts on world economic matters are always worth hearing because he has the benefit of weighing issues from a global perspective instead of simply a more parochial one (like mine).

Here’s what Nelson shared with me:

I have a very no-nonsense view of what’s happening to the American middle class, and why. The American Dream was “real,” the article says, during the post-World War II prosperity of the 1950s when a “middle-class family bought a house, put a car (or two) in the driveway, and raised children who ran around a safe neighborhood and later went to college with their parents’ support.”

This characterization paints a scene that is peaceful, tranquil, secure and prosperous – but it completely misses a couple salient points:

  • The Cold War – The 1950s were also a time of fallout shelters and fighting Communism. It’s easy to forget all that.
  • The Communist and Socialist countries – two of which today are part of the “BRIC” countries (Brazil-Russia-India-China). Russia (then the Soviet Union) and China barricaded themselves and their vassal states behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains – and slowly but inexorably starved themselves to death economically. The other two, Brazil and India, barricaded themselves to a degree as well. As an example, they threw out Coca-Cola and forced the locals to drink the disgusting domestic variants Campa-Cola in Brazil and Thums Up in India, just to thumb their noses (no pun intended) at those wicked ex-Colonialists and American capitalists.

In other words, while income equality and middle class prosperity were peaking in America between 1945 and 1970, the situation at the global level was exactly the opposite.

As we all know, the political and economic barricades fell quickly in late 1980s and early 1990s. The effect is precisely what political economist Adam Smith predicted in The Wealth of Nations (1776):

“If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it from them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”

Not coincidentally, Singapore’s per capita GDP today, at US$50,800 (according to the CIA World Factbook) exceeds that of the United States, at US$48,400. Of course Singapore is a small country and it’s just one example – but it’s a telling one.

I would argue that the American Dream, or at least the ideal of it framed in the 1950s, might have been “real” at the time (people, after all, were buying real houses and cars with real money).  But it was temporary. And it could never be permanent if you believe Adam Smith.

Consider this: Many of the middle-class breadwinners were union workers. Their rising incomes were directly attributable to collective bargaining agreements that American companies could afford to enter into because they had little or no foreign competition and hence could pass rising costs on to the very consumers who benefited from those agreements.

Today, some of those same companies are bankrupting themselves just to rid themselves of unions and the unfunded pension liabilities they took on board when the good times were rolling. And why is this? Because they have to fight foreign competition just to stay alive.  (This CNBC article, published just a few days ago, says it all.)  

I would also contend that today’s “scaled back” notions of the American Dream might reflect the more realistic (less idealistic) views of the vast number of immigrants who have come to America since the barricades have fallen – many of whom fall squarely within the article’s definition of “middle class” (which I calculate to be $13,725 – $39,215 per year per capita, using the per-household figures quoted in the article divided by the current average U.S. household size).

For these immigrants, the assurance of being able to “hold on for dear life” is actually a big step up from the mayhem, extortion, hidebound traditions and general hopelessness that often run rampant in the countries or societies they’ve fled.

It astonishes me that this National Journal article hardly mentions any of the above: The word “foreign” can’t be found anywhere in the article … “immigration” appears only once in the context of how Hispanic immigration is exerting a “steady downward pull on income” … and “union” is stated only once in the context of children in the 1950s skipping college and entering the workforce with a “secure, often union-protected job.”

How could the article’s author have missed what is so obvious? I’m quite sure she’s not so ignorant … so she must have an agenda. But if that’s the case, and if I were to believe her agenda-based screed, what would that make me?

Just like author Any Sullivan, my brother Nelson has a strong point of view about the current situation of the American middle class!

As for me, I think the article’s statistics are real. But I also believe that post-war conditions in America were an anomaly borne of special circumstances. For the author to treat them as the “baseline” for evaluating the “fairness” of all that has come since … reveals a serious flaw in the underlying argument.

Besides, what’s “fair” today versus what was “fair” 50 years ago takes on a completely different complexion based on where one lives in the world!

OK, readers:  Have at it. What’s your perspective? Please share your thoughts here.

Is Social Media a Platform for Narcissists?

Narcissism on social mediaOver time, I’ve been seeing more articles and blog posts cropping up that broach the topic of social media and narcissism.  Here’s just one of the latest examples.

The issue boils down to this:

  • Do social media platforms cause people to become narcissistic?
  • Or is social media merely a conduit by which people who already possess narcissistic tendencies get to indulge in “self-referential behavior” on steroids?

One could probably start at the very beginning:  Is Mark Zuckerberg a narcissist?”    (Don’t answer that question!)

My own view is somewhat conflicted.  I see evidence of some people who cheerfully relish the bullhorn – and attention – that social media appears to give them.

But social media can be deceiving in that a “personal environment” can be built that seems like the whole world is watching and listening – but in reality it’s just a constructed edifice more akin to a Potemkin village.

How many people are actually reading anyone’s Twitter posts?    (Don’t answer that question!)

But I can also see clear evidence of some of the more “Type B” people I know who have made quite an impact on social media by virtue of some very impressive contributions – written information, videos, photography, etc.

In those cases, social media has been a way to extend influence well beyond a small circle of friends or colleagues – and far more than could ever be possible before.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on this topic and what have you observed?  Please share them here if you’re so inclined.

(Don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of narcissism!)

Teens’ Rites of Passage: Technology Trumps Transportation

Technology, not cars with teens.
Technology, not cars, are where it’s at with teens today.

Thirty years ago, the rite of passage going from being a kid to adulthood had to include having your own automobile.

Not so today.

In fact, the percentage of young adults who even have their driver’s license has declined considerably:  In the early 1980s, nearly half of 16-year-olds in America had a driver’s license. By 2010, that percentage had dropped to just ~28%.

What happened between then and now? A number of things, but the biggest may be the rise of consumer electronics and social media.

Recall what an automobile could provide a young adult in the 1980s: access to all of the kid-popular activities of the day: shopping, music, movies, getting together with friends, and so forth.

Today, teens can access pretty much all of that right at their fingertips via the Internet or a smartphone.

You want clothes? Order them online.

Music? Download it to your smartphone.

Communicate with friends? Just Skype or text away.

Meanwhile, between more sophisticated, costly auto maintenance and the high price of gasoline, owning a car has only become more expensive.

Auto insurance premiums for teens? Outta sight.

Plus, it’s just more of a hassle to get a license today. Driver education classes are disappearing from many a public school classroom, the casualty of budget cuts. Stricter state laws make it much more difficult and time-consuming to rack up the necessary behind-the-wheel training hours prior to taking driving tests.

The result is fewer kids getting licensed during their teen years.

In 1983, nearly 70% of 17-year-old Americans had drivers licenses … a figure that dropped to just ~46% by 2010.

Even for 18-year-olds, the percentage holding drivers licenses declined from ~80% in 1983 to only about 60% in 2010.

A recent survey conducted by Zipcar found that millennials (people age 18 to 34) would rather shop online than in stores. No car needed for that.

And when presented the choice between giving up their phone or their tablet computer or their car … two thirds of the Zipcar survey respondents would forego the car.

This is a veritable sea change in attitudes about wheels.

In fact, one could conclude that the very things that cars once represented – the “vehicle” that enabled you to “do what you want, see who you want and be what you want” – is what actually describes the digital and social media world today.

Meanwhile … the car is now just a way to get to your part-time job. Ugh.

BlackBerry in 2013 … like Studebaker in 1965?

1965 Studebaker Commander station wagon
The end of the road: The 1965 Studebaker Commander station wagon.

BlackBerry has announced that it will finally introduce its new Z10 touchscreen smartphone model in the United States next week, in conjunction with its AT&T program.

That’s about a month after sales of the Z10 began in the United Kingdom, Canada and several other countries.

Does this signify a comeback of sorts for BlackBerry?

If it does, it will be a dramatic reversal of fortune, as the company has been on a steady downward trajectory ever since the release of the first Apple iPhone in 2007.

But speaking as the owner of a BlackBerry device, I have to admit that the company has seemed to be hopefully behind the curve for quite a few years now. And this latest, last-ditch effort is coming up against stiff competition, such as Samsung’s new Galaxy smartphone which is debuting at the very same time.

BlackBerry’s recently installed CEO, Thorsten Heins, has stated publicly that the company has to regain some of its market share in the U.S. in order to be successful.

But the news on this front doesn’t look promising at all, as corporate accounts — long the company’s bread-and-butter busines– appear to be falling away.

In February, The Home Depot reported that it was replacing all of its company-issued BlackBerry devices with iPhones.

And just last week, Yahoo announced that it will be phasing out its app for BlackBerry devices as of April 1st (yep, you got that right: April Fool’s Day).

Also, as of last September Yahoo no longer offers BlackBerry smartphone options to its own employees – just as with The Home Depot.

Rather than endorsements, these seem more like ringing indictments.

For those of us who love our BlackBerry keyboards, the company is promising that a keyboard version of the new smartphone (the Q10) will be available in the United States by this summer.

The question is, will it be too late by then?

We’ll know that answer soon.