The Valley of Ambiguity

The Valley of Ambiguity

From Annalee Newitz’s (excellent) theory on viral journalism and the valley of ambiguity. Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9 and author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction.

TED videos, often seasoned with cheery platitudes, become viral for the same reason that grumpy cat pictures do. They don’t ask us to think critically — just to enjoy, or be amused and enlightened without the time-consuming labor of skepticism and doubt clouding our clicks. Why do we want to share these stories? Because in some sense they are not open to interpretation. You don’t have to worry whether your friends will wonder why you shared this — it’s obvious.

The same goes for viral journalism on the other side of my chart. These stories, like explainers, how-to guides, Mythbusters-style debunkery, and truth-telling investigative journalism, are in some ways the opposite of a stupid video or a LOLcat. They are about truth, rather than amusement. But in fact, they go viral for exactly the same reason LOLcats do. They are not open to interpretation.

I guess we can all publish more feel-guide self-help guides, or just pretend that our low tweet counts (ahem) are a sign that we have asked our readers to do some critical thinking — and, by extension, we’re brilliant.

Prescient Print Ads from the 70s #tbt

The spirit of #tbt got me flipping through old print ads from the 1970s, and among them I noticed a few that feature an unexpected element of soothsay-ery.

For example, it’s like the copywriters at American Airlines in 1976 wrote a joke about the company’s commitment to customer service whose punchline would be delivered three decades later: “The less time passengers spend with me,” says the employee featured in the ad, “the better.”

American Airlines Print Ads 1970s

In Apple’s case (in this ad from 1979), it’s as if they knew they’d roll out Apple TV one day and “turn any color TV into a dazzling array of color graphics.”

Apple Print Ad 1979

Word Association Ads at Starbucks

Is this new, or have Starbucks and Google been running these silly-question ads for a while? I just logged on to the free wifi at a Starbucks location in San Francisco, and it served up a quick word-association quiz. When I say salsa, do you say dancers or tacos? After I picked tacos, I was served a taco-oriented video ad (provided by Google) for my viewing pleasure.

Word Association Ad at Starbucks

I wonder how this format is working. I participated in Part I (I answered the quiz question), but skipped Part II (watching the video ad). Anyone have experience with this kind of campaign? Are people other than me tuning in to the ads?

Being Authentic In Your Fakeness, Part II

Authentic Food Court Flavor

In response to that Fozzie and Kermit video, and my comment that an admission of fakeness can increase one’s authenticity, Boing Boing’s David Pescovitz alerted me to Bourbon Chicken Grill’N Dip, which promotes its “Authentic Food Court Flavoring.” Yum.

His source: James Gilmore and Joe Pine, authors of The Experience Economy and Authenticity.

Liking a Brand Enough That You’ll Never Sue Them

Cheerios Necklace
(Photo from My Natural Family.)

Early Wednesday morning, sitting above my cereal bowl — full of oats most likely toasted by General Mills — I read that clicking the Like button on the Facebook page of my favorite brands might abdicate my right to sue the company if it later does something that causes me harm. From the New York Times:

General Mills, the maker of cereals like Cheerios and Chex as well as brands like Bisquick and Betty Crocker, has quietly added language to its website to alert consumers that they give up their right to sue the company if they download coupons, “join” it in online communities like Facebook, enter a company-sponsored sweepstakes or contest or interact with it in a variety of other ways.

In fact, consumers may not even need to hit the Like button to give up their right to sue:

In language added on Tuesday after The New York Times contacted it about the changes, General Mills seemed to go even further, suggesting that buying its products would bind consumers to those terms.

This is hard for me to get my head around. Obviously a brand doesn’t make a move like that with the intention of delighting its customers. (It’s Friday, almost three days after the news broke, and it continues to dominate the conversation — none of it positive — on Twitter for #Cheerios.)

#Cheerios in Twitter

So why do it?

General Mills seems to have a gigantic number of happy customers who spent almost $18 billion on General Mills cereals and baking mixes last year, up seven percent from the year before. Do a lot of them end up suing the company in the end? I’m guessing they don’t. A chipped tooth here, or the occasional turd in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, right? It’s not like they’re selling toxic, smokable chemicals or fire arms.

Which put a weird thought in my head. I froze mid bite, staring down a spoonful of milky breakfast flakes, and wondered: Do the lawyers at General Mills know something I don’t? Some secret poisonous ingredient we don’t know about yet?!

I mean why else would they go after their very best customers — the one who are befriending them in Facebook, and trumpeting their brands across social media? Baffling. Maybe the CMO was out sick the day they updated the privacy policy.

Being Authentic In Your Fakeness

“Well Fozzie, the thing of it is though you’re not a real bear. You’re not a real natural bear. I mean, you’re talking about a bear in its natural habitat…. What do you have, you have sort of a fake fur. You’ve got foam rubber. You’ve got foam rubber and fake fur. You’re an artificial bear. Have you ever seen a bear with a magenta nose?”

It’s funny: As I watched Kermit and Fozzie call each other out for being fake, I found them to be more real than ever. Sure, they’re fake animals, but we already knew that. Meanwhile, they are so authentic as — what, brands? — that a lot of people consider them friends.

From a camera test for original The Muppet Movie back in 1979. Full story at Laughing Squid.

Low Likelihood That Disengaged Readers Will Return To Your Site

Shocking but true!! New data from Chartbeat shows a pretty tight correlation between reader engagement (measured in minutes spent visiting a website) and propensity to return to that site within a week.

Time Spent v Likelihood to Return

From Herbert Lui’s post at Contently:

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile believes in measuring the time readers spend on the page engaging — scrolling, clicking, writing, reading, and watching — and correlating that number with the average reader’s propensity to return. This method helps determine the progress of publishers’ platform development based on the likelihood of readers to return in 30 days.

Don’t build traffic, says Lui, build an audience. Amen. I recently made a similar argument, that media doesn’t work if no one is paying attention.

3D Advertising in Newspaper’s Classifieds Section

3D Classifieds Advertising

From Adweek:

Innovative newspaper ads are a rare beast…. Here’s an interesting one from Colombia. It’s an ad for kitchens hidden inside a fake classifieds page — thanks to a nifty 3-D effect applied to the text. “The kitchen you are imagining is in HiperCentro Corona,” says the headline.

Pretty excellent, I say.

Native Ad That Even The Sponsor Didn’t See Coming

Among my favorite email publications (ever) is Dave Pell’s NextDraft. Pando Daily calls it “perhaps the world’s best email newsletter,” and who am I to argue? I even like how Dave does integrated advertising. Yesterday, among his list of the ten most fascinating news stories of the day, he gave over the Number Nine spot to a thank-you note aimed at the newsletter’s sponsor, Automattic, maker of WordPress and other software products.

Native Advertising on NextDraft

It’s pretty cool that Automattic supports Dave’s newsletter with sponsorship dollars and doesn’t ask for anything in return, like say banner ads or harvested logs of session cookies. Maybe they think the mere existence of great websites and newsletters might inspire more people to launch their own, perhaps becoming Automattic customers in the process. Who knows. Some companies just go further than others to take care of business partners, and maybe Automattic is one of them. I bet they aren’t regretting that practice today.

Storytelling, Consumer Attention and Making Money on Media

Earlier this month, at Stanford University’s Future of Media Conference, I was asked to share some thoughts about this moment in media and what’s ahead. Since I’m at least as bad as anyone else at divining the future, I focused on something more obvious and fundamental: paying attention.

Media doesn’t work if no one is paying attention. Forget about paywalls and CPMs, meters and bundles. The foundation underneath anything and everything we do in media is consumer attention. On the business side of media, it’s attention, really, that we’re selling. If our stuff is worth enough of the consumer’s attention, she might buy a subscription, make a donation, or buy a ticket. Advertisers, of course, are buying access to that same attention.

Before we get too far into this, I want to talk about one possible unit by which attention might be measured: Kardashians. Media scholar Ethan Zuckerman, who teaches at MIT’s Media Lab, has proposed (partly in jest) that we use this new metric to quantify the attention we pay to media. One Kardashian is “the amount of global attention Kim Kardashian commands across all media over the space of a day.”


What I especially like about Zuckerman’s Kardashian system is that it’s a measure of SURPLUS attention. It measures the kind of thing you can look at without really paying much attention.

The attention I’m talking about is a different kind — one that’s harder to measure in Kardashians. I’m talking about the way we pay attention when we travel on vacation — when everything is so vivid, and we still think about it a year later. Or when we’re watching an amazing movie, or we get caught up in book, and the whole world just falls away for a little while. We’re transported. We’re not checking email, and we’re not even thinking about checking email. These moments of attention aren’t actually work. They’re a gift. The minutes when we’re paying attention to something more absorbing and gratifying than a Kardashian. When I refer to time spent in minutes, it’s those kind of minutes. The really, actually paying attention kind.

Jeff Zucker

Jeff Zucker, the former CEO of NBC, is famous for his pithy comments about the erosion of advertising rates as an audience moves online. “We are trading analog dollars for digital dimes,” he said. (He later upgraded dimes to quarters.) In other words, CPMs for digital advertising are much lower than CPMs for TV or print.

It’s the same premium content and the same upscale audience. Why, then, won’t advertisers pay the same rate to advertise to them? It’s just not fair, is it?

Hal Varian

Well, maybe it is. Hal Varian, the chief economist at Google, has studied the role of format and context in the news business. Zucker wasn’t talking about news specifically, but Varian’s stats regarding consumer attention are relevant to the current issues facing the entire media business — news outlets, magazines and television alike.

On the one hand, digital has been great for news media. More people read news now than ever before, and 40% of Internet users look at news every day. But if you measure attention in minutes spent reading, laptops — it seems — have been very very bad for news publishers. Newspaper readers who get the print edition spend 25 minutes per day reading the news; those who consume it online spend only 70 seconds.

Let’s face it: If the digital version of a media product gets a fraction of the attention captured by its analog counterpart, the digital ad space is just less valuable.

Yikes. Consumers are fast moving from analog to digital media. If that means they will soon lose their ability to pay attention to media in general, then it also means ad rates for media in general won’t support premium journalism and storytelling. And consumers aren’t likely to pick up the slack if they aren’t drawn deeply into the digital media experience either. First we pay attention, and only then — maybe — will we pay for a ticket, a membership or a subscription.

But hold on a nanoKardashian.

We do pay attention to lots of digital media. We bought 457 million eBooks in 2012. We binge-watch TV shows when Netflix posts the entire season all at once. And we’re starting to read really really long articles on our phones.

So there’s something wrong with the argument that we can’t pay attention to media if it’s digital. It can’t be a platform problem. There’s nothing magical about paper, nor is there an ideal screen size that will save the media business. Instead, capturing attention comes down to three things.

Storyteller and Children

1) Tell a story

There are different ways to unveil a piece of content, and they are all good in their own ways. The narrative structure, however, affects how readers will read it.

News reporting, for example, starts with the most important part of the story, the “news lede,” to make sure we get the bulletin right up top just in case we don’t have time to read the whole article. The goal of the news publisher is to deliver the news, not hold our attention and delight us with narrative surprises.

Many digital media outlets have another goal: To drive social sharing, to create viral goodness. And, like news, they’re not optimizing for attention. In this line of publishing, there’s no reward for driving readers to a story, sucking them in, getting them to volunteer a half hour of their time. The goal here is retweets, Facebook Likes and racking up large numbers of unique visitors to a website — regardless of how long they stay or how deeply they lose themselves in the stories.

Great television shows, movies and magazines take a different approach. They make different decisions on how much of the story and when to reveal it, and how to create delight as those pieces of the story are revealed — delight in exchange for some attention. (A great example is Caitlin Flanagan’s recent feature for The Atlantic, The Dark Power of Fraternities. Read the first two paragraphs and see if you can put the story down.)

We rely on different types of media for different styles of content and levels of commitment. But if you create compelling stories that reward the reader for offering his or her attention, you have a better chance of winning it, no matter the platform.

House of Cards Season 2

2) Tap into tribal urgency

I don’t mean FOMO, fear of missing out. It’s more like FOMSA — fear of missing something awesome. That’s a fear that grabs our attention. Especially if it’s a media event that is important to your inner circle, your posse of most-respected friends, your “tribe.” Big global mass media event like the Super Bowl may not matter to your inner circle, in which case they are miss-able media events. But if your crew all watches House of Cards, you better start binging.

When you make media more like a live event, audiences are reluctant to miss out, and they make an appointment to be there.

Leisure Time Readers

3) Reach them in leisure time, not work time

After work, before work, and over the weekend we don’t have to divide our attention among meetings, IM, the boss, and the project we’re being paid to work on.

Hal Varian makes this point in his study of the news business: It’s actually not about format, it’s about context. Reading the newspaper on your laptop at work is the context in which we only spend 70 seconds doing something that used to capture 25 minutes of our daily attention. People who read newspaper apps on their tablets spend roughly the same amount of time with the news as the print newspaper readers of old.

His diagnosis? When we read things at work, we aren’t able to pay much attention. When we read outside of work — on the couch, in bed, at the beach or (in the case of news) at the breakfast table — we spend much more time doing it.

(A version of this post originally appeared at Ad Age.)