Mark Higginson

How people's attention flows on the web

The web is a social artifact.
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27 April 2013

AmEx’s OPEN forum took four years to get 1 million people aboard and now gets over 150,000 unique visitors per month.

This quote is from a presentation about ‘trends’ in digital content. It was from a talk to the Content Marketing Association and is an example of the kind of assertion I see in many presentations of this type related to ‘brands as publishers’.

The inference of the above is that AmEx is running a successful content destination: 1 million members! 150,000 unique visitors!

Click. On to the next slide. But wait. Is this true? Is the presenter simply confirming a bias they already hold and members of the CMA are likely to have?

Let us visit AmEx’s OpenForum.

“OPEN forum is an online community for business owners, connecting them with insights, advice, and tools to help them manage and grow their companies.”

Is this a community?

Have a look at the sidebar and visit the posts under ‘most commented’. On the day I visited the five highlighted posts had no more than two comments each.

The most viewed posts had no comments on them. Strange.

Either this is a very quiet community with millions of page views or in fact there is no community here and no real readership. There is a big difference between visitors and readers; as I have previously highlighted they need to:

The OPEN forum Facebook Page shows 329,164 ‘Likes’ yet on the day I checked only 865 were ‘People Talking About This’. That is 0.26%.

Their Twitter Profile has 189,815 followers yet in the past month posts have averaged low single to double digit retweets. The highest was about 26 RTs. Have a look through the follower list and see what you make of the profiles of some of these ‘people’.

Their YouTube Channel has one very popular video with over 7,000,000 views yet the next most popular video only has 38,000; views then fall off a cliff. Judging from the stats this was because they probably paid for the bulk of those several million views on the top video. Anytime you see a chart that looks like a rocket lift-off and then a flat-line is a dead giveaway.

On this evidence I would be very cautious about using this as a good example. Yet here we have someone standing up in front of a bunch of people and repeating unreferenced ‘facts’ to support an argument.

Interestingly there seems to be no shortage of posts congratulating AmEx on a successful job despite no verifiable evidence this site is working as a community or content destination:

“Beginning in 2007, OPEN forum established itself as a leading source of business insight and advice.”

American Express OPEN keeps ‘pulse’ on small business with social media

“This enlightened perspective has made a runaway success.”

What Amercian Express’ Open can teach us about social media

“Tumblr is a vibrant channel for OPEN forum and it is increasingly becoming important for its business audience.”

AMEX OPEN Forum taps New York City’s startup community

None of these quotes are believable.

tl;dr It is disturbing, yet entirely typical of the marketing echo-chamber, to repeat these messages because it suits the narrative the industry wishes to create for itself. And marketers then stand up in front of audiences and propagate these messages, largely unchallenged.

I feel like the kid in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

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10 April 2013

After hundreds of stories and videos… we couldn’t be happier with our team’s effort… Storyboard has run its course for now, and our editorial team will be closing up shop and moving on.


Using stories as marketing and getting people interested in the result is hard work.

Tumblr is getting rid of the team given the job of “highlighting talented creators and their work, as found within and around the massively diverse Tumblr community” after only one year.

Update: Valleywag claims that Chris Mohney, the editor-in-chief who was getting fired, wrote the memo for David Karp annoucing the closure of Storyboard, which rather explains why it sounds the way it does.

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01 April 2013

NYT haiku

Times Haiku

Headlines in a handy haiku format.

Were the recently acquired Summly to summarise articles in this format I would think they were on to something. Instead I am completely puzzled as to why so much money has been spent on something that apparently does not work very well and is based on a technology licensed from someone else. I have however witnessed and been confounded by similar deals, especially on the subject of ‘big data’ so cannot say I’m surprised.

This article is good to think about: What’s Actually Wrong with Yahoo’s Purchase of Summly. The ratio of glue vs. thought is interesting to consider in regards any project.

Thing is, I generally find the title of an article to be a more than adequate summary and use RSS to stay on top of multiple sources of content. I just do not see what problem Summly is solving.

A haiku generator however… that I would pay for handsomely.

Update: I was surprised to find that the haikus keep on coming; not sure they really entirely fit the form however.

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30 March 2013

We didn’t see any statistically significant relationship between our buzz and our short-term sales.

Buzzkill: Coca-Cola Finds No Sales Lift from Online Chatter

The above is a quote from Eric Schimdt of Coca-Cola at a conference last week. From my own experience this is a completely correct assessment of the situation around how brands are mentioned on the web.

Unfortunately as Coca-Cola has by now no doubt spent significant sums on investing in ‘social media’ and is one of the ‘most popular’ brands on various social platforms this is tantamount to heresy. Hence Wendy Clark, also of Coca-Cola, playing the ‘social is part of an integrated approach’ card by claiming “we’ve been able to track closed-loop sales from site exposure to in-store purchase”.

This recalls the McKinsey consumer decision journey where apparently awareness, familiarity, consideration and purchase all lead to loyalty. Of course no data is given to support any of this.

What this shows is how large businesses still lack an understanding of how people talk about things on the web. In this context ‘buzz’ implies excited discussion that is relevant in some way to the brand. It is no such thing. ‘Buzz’ is simply a keyword-matched mention that could be anything and is most likely being used in a context of very little relevance to a brand’s marketing activity.

‘In one 2010 study where Coke pulled out more than 1,000 social-media messages randomly and had human raters compare them to automated sentiment analysis by one vendor, there were widespread differences. “When we say it’s positive, the machine about 21% of the time says it’s negative,” he said. “That can cause some problems in our understanding” of how buzz impacts sales.’

Expecting an algorithm to give you context is foolish. It does not work. Inaccurately counting mentions as positive or negative tells you nothing. ‘Buzz’ cannot be directly linked to sales. Take out the spam and what you have is a background hum. If you are one of the most heavily marketed brands on the planet then that amounts to a severe case of tinnitus.

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27 March 2013

Audiences don’t want to hear an advertisement. They want to be gripped by a compelling story.

The Art and Science of Great Brand Storytelling

This post was strangely not in itself a great story. It was yet another promotional post for content marketing, in this case for a self-described ‘post-advertising agency’. The author states:

“Audiences simply have no patience for branded messages that feel like advertising. Somehow, though, when audiences are exposed to content that is valuable, entertaining, emotive and simply enjoyable — even if it’s branded — they miraculously have as much as 30 minutes to watch. Instead of folding their arms and sitting back, audiences lean forward, open up and listen, often helping spread the message to their own audiences without prompting.”

No supporting evidence is supplied beyond links to a few big-budget campaigns, that require the kind of ‘deep pockets’ the author decries. As I said in a prior post, if you claim something that is apparently commonplace on the web:

“… you should be able to show a hundred examples of you doing this exact thing and a thousand more examples of other people doing the same, all with a measurable outcome.”

If you are going to claim something works universally then show it working, repeatedly, at scale.

I don’t doubt a story can be an advert — a really great advert is a compelling story.

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