Jill Abramson Is Launching A Media Startup

image via The Boston Globe

image via The Boston Globe

Jill Abramson and David Carr kicked off WBUR’s new series Fast Forward at Boston University this week. While the pair rarely stayed on-topic, the night was full of candid moments, debate, and Abramson’s latest breaking news — she’s launching a media startup with Steve Brill.

Want to know what else you missed from Carr’s chat with Abramson? Check out our BuzzFeed story.

Top 5 Things I Learned from the Watergate Break-In

shadowWhat if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein needed to fight for clicks? Would they have had to break their Watergate stories into a series of listicles? Would that make for better journalism?

Listicles are, of course, the legacy of Buzzfeed, which has turned itself into a social media click machine, and clicks are the currency of the journalism world today. Or, at least that’s what I’m repeatedly reminded by journalists who tell us at HB Agency that if a story can’t get clicks, they’re not interested in writing it. The New York Times also realizes this, having done its own exhaustive study of the Grey Lady’s online presence.

Oddly, journalism can be saved by the very organization that changed it: Buzzfeed! Years ago Jonah Peretti, the founder of Buzzfeed described the work of the Huffington Post, which he also helped create, as the “mullet strategy,” all business up front with carefully crafted articles and then a party in the back with people posting whatever they wanted. The Huffington Post hated that description and apparently asked him to stop using it.

Buzzfeed is, in many ways, the opposite, with party-like click-bait up front and then important stories in the back written by well-respected reporters and editors. While most people know Buzzfeed for stories about cats, babies with eyebrows and quizzes like “Which Star Wars Character are you?” it’s less known for its longform work, such as the article exposing the fact that the last American journalist has been ousted from Yemen, or how those from Africa seeking Asylum in the U.S. first need to move through Latin America. The last story is not at all in Listicle form and, in fact, runs more than 2500 words. Still, Buzzfeed breaks the Islamic extremist organization ISIS down to a 22-part listicle.

Which begs the question, would the Watergate story have gotten the attention and financial support it deserved when competing for clicks with cat videos?

Essayist Julie Wittes Schlack would probably say “no,” since she wrote the wonderful essay “6 Reasons Listicles Must Die.” Her premise is that some ideas are just too complex to be broken down into a short list with a bunch of funny GIFs. Sure, that works when you’re giving out something fun and light, like the 26 Childhood Moments that Always Made Your Day, but at this point listicles have taken over all forms of journalism, from consumer to B to B tech pubs.

The problem for early-stage companies promoting new ideas is that new, tech-heavy concepts aren’t always popular but still need champions. It doesn’t make the stories about these technologies “bad journalism” or even unpopular, it just means that the people haven’t fully understood yet what these technologies are about and how they can change lives. In 2004 this meant helping people understand social networking, in 2007 people needed help understanding Twitter and today they need help grasping the the benefits of the “connected home” or the “Internet of Things.”

Of course, maybe listicles can say it all. Otherwise, why would we have “10 Fascinating Facts about Watergate 42 Years Later”?

The Promise of Cleantech

At HB, we’re invested in learning about and supporting the cleantech industry. So when 60 Minutes ran a report on January 5 called, “The Cleantech Crash,” we scrambled to learn more.

60 Minutes Cleantech Crash

60 Minutes Cleantech Crash

According to correspondent Lesley Stahl, the cleantech industry is dead. In her interview with venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Stahl examined his personal investments in cleantech and the millions of dollars the federal government has poured into (depicted as: wasted on) the industry. Throughout the piece Stahl was laser-focused on portraying major failures and supporting a clear message: run away from cleantech.

However, not even ten days later, Khosla emerged unedited with his own, differing message in an open letter to CBS. His bottom line? Cleantech is at a crossroads (not a sharp decline) and the 60 minutes piece was a case of poor reporting, biased editing and haphazard fact checking. GigaOm reporter Katie Fehrenbacher provides a great review of what 60 Minutes got right and where they really missed the mark.

Of course some of the information presented during Stahl’s interview with Khosla is true. But do the many failed ventures and cleantech companies amount to an industry in demise?

This question about failure begs us to ask yet another question: how do we define progress and success?

Khosla touches upon this when he states that we need to take big risks in order for the cleantech industry to achieve the huge success we believe it’s capable of. In other words, the big risks inherent in cleantech investment beget both stumbles and strides. And in an industry that is constantly learning from its own evolution, these failures also form the fundamental building blocks of progress.

Not all of the media is down on cleantech either. Two days prior to airing the piece, The New York Times wrote about the solar power craze on Wall Street and its popularity among investors.

Here at HB, we see this buzz about cleantech as a good thing—even if it includes some bad press. Though the conversation is already exploding, we think there are five key drivers to growing and sustaining the industry until it explodes (in a good way, Lesley!) in the near future:

Innovation – This may have been the buzzword of 2013 but the truth is, crazy, out-of-the-box ideas are exactly the innovative projects that will propel cleantech to the next level. What’s the next big thing? What’s the next Tesla? Organizations like The Cleantech Open encourage innovative entrepreneurs with big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges. These innovations, with the support of various accelerator and incubator programs, are what we need to create a more environmentally friendly society.

Community – Not only are we noticing more and more accelerator and incubator programs for cleantech startups, we’re also watching a community of people and organizations join forces to create a more sustainable planet. Luckily for the cleantech startups based in the Boston area, the nation’s premier community for such groups is right in their own backyard.  Greentown Labs has quickly emerged as the go-to example of what a cleantech community should represent. The 37 member companies are all working to develop the next revolutionary cleantech product. While working in the prototyping space, lab space or office space, the companies are given an opportunity to network with other members and participate in educational events to spread their cleantech innovations on a local and national scale. As organizations continue to follow in Greentown Labs’ footsteps, the cleantech community will continue to grow.

Sentiment According to a recent Navigant Research Study, “the average favorability rating for the 10 Cleantech concepts, which fall under the categories of clean energy, clean transportation, smart grid, and building efficiency, rose to 51 percent, the highest level seen in Navigant Research’s annual survey since 2010.” Favorable views toward cleantech will only help spread awareness and understanding of why and how Cleantech can help improve the world we live in. The more people who adopt a favorable attitude, the more likely the greater population will agree that renewable energy is a key part of our future.

Adoption – Every day we notice more specialized industries adopting different varieties of cleantech. From commercial buildings using energy recovery ventilation to decrease their carbon footprint or breweries adopting waste water treatment and reuse systems, implementation is happening all around us. There’s a reason we’re seeing “eco-friendly” and “green-building” everywhere we look and it’s because people are jumping on the cleantech bandwagon. Lesley, you’re welcome to join!

Action – Cleantech is not smoke and mirrors—it’s happening all around us. Whether it’s an energy-efficient light bulb, a new hybrid car or a power management tool that reduces the consumption of energy, cleantech is everywhere and it’s here to stay. Just look at Google’s recent acquisition of Nest Labs, the maker of the Nest Thermostat. This acquisition is Google’s 15th renewable energy investment; clearly the professionals in the renewable energy industry are doing something right.

During Khosla’s interview with Stahl he notes his drive and steadfast commitment to the cleantech industry. “Look, we have to take risks. And risks mean the risk of losing money. So let me ask you a question. We’ve been looking for a cure for cancer for a long time. How much money has the U.S. government spent?  Billions and billions of dollars. Should we stop looking for a cure for cancer because we haven’t found a cure?”

So we haven’t found the cleantech golden goose yet, that innovation that will solve all of our environmental struggles. Maybe we never will. But there are a growing number of success stories that are changing the way we think about our businesses, our homes, and our planet. Not bad for a failing industry, IMHO.

Want to Create Compelling Content? Then Ask the Right Starting Question

"UH Cheerleaders Cheering" by D Services

“UH Cheerleaders Cheering” by D Services

I hate the phrase “compelling content.”

I know that content marketers love it; they use it as shorthand for “hire me because I know how to turn your written junk into SEO gold!” But frankly, the phrase doesn’t say much. It just states the obvious: Write stuff that people want to read.

Oh great, thanks. It’s kind of like saying “if you want to be rich then make a lot of money.”

Such helpful advice.

The real problem isn’t that people don’t want to write compelling content, nor that they don’t know what compelling is, they do. It’s that their perspective keeps them from creating something that others want to read.

In short I believe there are three core perspectives to this:

  • Marketers: Most inbound marketing sites are run by marketers. Marketers, by training, have things they want to tell you, actions they want you to take and goals you can help them meet. Their opening question: “What do I need to tell my audience.”  During a presentation at PRNews Digital PR conference, Amy Africa provided some insight into how humans naturally utilize base reactions in ways that almost always supersede our conscious minds. Marketers live and die on these things. But it also means that for them, “compelling” means “elicits an action.” 
  • Journalists: This dying breed understands the concept of “compelling content” like no other, not because they tell better stories, but because they start with the question “what does my audience want to know?” It seems so basic, and it is, but while marketers are thinking “what do I want to tell you,” journalists ask themselves the opposite. They often run into problems when asked to serve a different master and convey a concept or idea that may need to be forced upon their audience. They take their credibility seriously, and they should. So while it makes them great content creators, it can make them lousy marketers. 
  • Public Relations Writers: Of course I’m biased on this since we produce a lot of content for our clients, and I like to believe it can be pretty compelling. Our goal is to straddle the roles of journalist and marketer. We balance the questions “what does our audience want to know” with “what does our client need to say?” It’s not easy, sometimes we can lean too far one way or another, but it’s what makes good PR people worth the time and investment. 

I can’t say that all of journalism truly understands the impact of “compelling content.” According to the Pew Research “The State of the News Media 2013” report, 40 percent of local TV news is now devoted to weather, sports and traffic. That’s what local TV news believes its audience wants and as a former TV newscast producer I can tell you, this is nothing new. Traditionally ratings always rose with the storm warnings.

But viewership has dropped, especially by those under 30, and while 2012 showed inflated ad numbers thanks to election-year spending, most ad spending is down by more than a third. Worse, the report points out, weather, traffic and sports are easily replaced by other sources. Show of hands, how many of you get your weather on your iPhone? Yeah, thought so.

So you can expect many more TV journalists to find themselves without jobs over the next few years. They’ll join the thousands already laid off, cuts that Pew Research notes has created a death-spiral of sorts for traditional media. Researchers found that most people stop reading a news outlet not because they suddenly found their iPhone, but because the publication no longer gives them the information they expected.

Nearly one-third—31%—of people say they have deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to, according to the survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults in early 2013. And those most likely to have walked away are better educated, wealthier and older than those who did not—in other words, they are people who tend to be most prone to consume and pay for news.

So where do all these unemployed journalists go? PR of course!

In a piece on PandoDaily, Marco Greenberg pointed out how many journalists jump to the PR world but then flame out when asked to promote something that may not be up to snuff. Their critical nature makes the unsuited for the “rah-rah” culture of the PR firm. In writing about Dan Lyons, who recently jumped from the ashes of Newsweek to the reborn ReadWrite, only to jump again to HubSpot, Greenberg asked “What happens the first time Dan Lyons has to bite his tongue when a client wants him to promote a genuinely silly idea?”

Frankly, I often fall victim to the same problem, looking for holes in stories that clients tell so that we can find and fix them before others do.

This is a Liger, a lion and tiger. A hybrid that’s not a Toyota, but sponsored by them. Fun Fact: the Newton high school aged robotics team is the Ligerbots, for the Lions of Newton South and Tigers of Newton North.

This is also why PR plays such an important role in this world of owned, earned and paid media. Companies like BuzzFeed create branded content that blends “advertising” and “advertorial” with “sharable” content. Its paid media is meant to be shared just as its independent content is meant to be shared. At Social Media Weekend, Jonathan Perelman, editor at Buzzfeed, showed a great example of this with an article called “20 Coolest Hybrid Animals” sponsored by Toyota. It’s content Buzzfeed probably could have written regardless, but Toyota paid and got branding for its hybrid vehicles.

It’s high-level stuff, not the kind of action-oriented and lead-generation concepts that marketers often crave, but it works.

It’s just a matter of coming at the problem with the right perspective.

In Clicks We Trust: The Dark Side of Analytics

Does the public know what it wants? Steve Jobs famously shunned focus groups by saying that the public doesn’t know what it wants until you give it to them. Henry Ford said the Model T could be painted in any color, as long as it was black. Many of the advances we now take for granted started with basic research, with people searching for needs and answers to questions with little initial regard to which practical business outcomes may lay at the end of their work.

Research is a good thing, at all stages of the marketing process. Here at Fresh Ground, we rely extensively on our clients’ web and application analytics to inform and direct our efforts. But while we’ve been complaining for years that growing followers should not be a top KPI for your social media program, only recently have we as an industry started to complain about the Google Analytics analogue of Twitter followers: page views.

Trust Us: We Know What You Click On

Pageview Journalism holds that the most important and valuable posts are those that are opened the most. It’s based on the premise that people do, in fact, know what they want when it comes to news and information. And it doesn’t just happen with big stories on big outlets in big networks. Sure, Gawker is built on this idea with a big board in the front of their offices showing reporters what stories get the love. But it’s also true in the smaller publications, even in the tech community.

Several times over the past few years I’ve had reporters tell me that they couldn’t cover a particular company because it was just too small and wouldn’t get the clicks. It’s an obvious paradox: if reporters don’t write about smaller companies, than people don’t know about them. If people don’t know about them, then they won’t know to click on the stories.

What is a company to do about it? In a sense, its own community is key to its own broader success, if you can drive the clicks to the story then the reporter will get the inbound love they need to keep the editors happy. Taken one step further, if the reporter sees that writing about a particular company or topic is of interest, then it’s obviously something they want to continue doing.

To Count, or Not to Count

For the PR practitioner the work is twofold: First, we must create stories that attract clicks and social traffic. No, the company you’re pitching may not be of interest, but if you can find the trend or competitor that is, then the first step is a bit of guerrilla work. Second, we must communicate to the reporters that a particular story is capable of driving traffic. Of course, this needs to be done carefully, as some reporters admit openly that pageviews matter, but others aren’t so keen to do so.

While researching Wednesday’s excellent blog post, colleague Ruth Bazinet lamented the vast quantities of linkbait posts out there.

During a conversation with one online reporter I myself asked whether clicks mattered. I was told flatly, “no.” A few minutes later she slipped into conversation that if she needs clicks, she just writes a story about Google.

Um… OK.

Clicks are Ephemeral, Relationships Last

Our obsession with pageviews is short-sighted at best. If we step back and look at our program goals from a long-term PR perspective, we realize that our ultimate (or penultimate, assuming the final goal is a sale or some kind of conversion) goal is to build a community through our outreach efforts. It’s a step-by-step process, just as it’s always been. A PR program should be bringing together elements of content creation, content curation, engagement, media relations and analyst relations. Yes, there will be some quick hits that drive traffic, but success should be measured in long-term blocks, not short-term boosts.

Keep in mind that two cultural TV touchstones of the 80s and 90s, Cheers and Seinfeld, would have been cancelled their first year had ratings been the only decision-making factor for NBC. Instead executives stuck with the programs even as they struggled, giving them time to find an audience.

If you stick with a solid program over a long period of time the questions of pageviews won’t come as regularly. Instead, the reporters will just see them happen.