What Media Insiders Were Thinking (And Writing) In 2021

Note: This is a year back look at the posts in the Media Insider Column on Mediapost, for which I write every Tuesday. All the writers for the column have been part of the Marketing and Media business for decades, so there’s a lot of wisdom there to draw on. This is the second time I’ve done this look back at what we’ve written about in the previous year.

As part of the group of Media Insiders, I’ve always considered myself in sterling company. I suspect if you added up all the years of experience in this stable of industry experts, we’d be well into the triple digits. Most of the Insiders are still active in the world of marketing. For myself, although I’m no longer active in the business, I’m still fascinated by how it impacts our lives and our culture.

For all those reasons, I think the opinions of this group are worth listening to — and, thankfully,  MediaPost gives you those opinions every day.

Three years ago, I thought it would be interesting to do a “meta-analysis” of those opinions over the span of the year, to see what has collectively been on the minds of the Media Insiders. I meant to do it again last year, but just never got around to it — as you know, global pandemics and uprisings against democracy were a bit of a distraction.

This year, I decided to give it another shot. And it was illuminating. Here’s a summary of what has been on our collective minds:

I don’t think it’s stretching things to say that your Insiders have been unusually existential in their thoughts in the past 12 months. Now, granted, this is one column on MediaPost that leads to existential musings. That’s why I ended up here. I love the fact that I can write about pretty much anything and it generally fits under the “Media Insider” masthead. I suspect the same is true for the other Insiders.

But even with that in mind, this year was different. I think we’ve all spent a lot of the last year thinking about what the moral and ethical boundaries for marketers are — for everyone, really — in the world of 2021. Those ponderings broke down into a few recurring themes.

Trying to Navigate a Substantially Different World

Most of this was naturally tied to the ongoing COVID pandemic.  

Surprisingly, given that three years ago it was one of the most popular topics, Insiders said little about politics. Of course, we were then squarely in the middle of “Trump time.” There were definitely a few posts after the Jan. 6 insurrection, but most of it was just trying to figure out how the world might permanently change after 2021. Almost 20% of our columns touched on this topic.

A notable subset of this was how our workplaces might change. With many of us being forced to work from home, 4% of the year’s posts talked about how “going to work” may never look the same again.

Ad-Tech Advice

The next most popular topic from Insiders (especially those still in the biz, like Corey, Dave, Ted and Maarten) was ongoing insight on how to manage the nuts and bolts of your marketing. A lot of this focused on using ad tech effectively. That made up 15% of last year’s posts.

And Now, The Bad News

I will say your Media Insiders (myself included) are a somewhat pessimistic bunch. Even when we weren’t talking about wrenching change brought about by a global pandemic, we were worrying about the tech world going to hell in a handbasket. About 13.5% of our posts talked about social media, and it was almost all negative, with most of it aimed squarely at Facebook — sorry, Meta.

Another 12% of our posts talked about other troubling aspects of technology. Privacy concerns over data usage and targeting took the lead here. But we were also worried about other issues, like the breakdown of person-to-person relationships, disappearing attention spans, and tears in our social fabric. When we talked about the future of tech, we tended to do it through a dystopian lens.

Added to this was a sincere concern about the future of journalism. This accounted for another 5% of all our posts. This makes almost a full third of all posts with a decidedly gloomy outlook when it comes to tech and digital media’s impact on society.

The Runners-Up

If there was one branch of media that seemed the most popular among the Insiders (especially Dave Morgan), it was TV and streaming video. I also squeezed a few posts about online gaming into this category. Together, this topic made up 10.5% of all posts.

Next in line, social marketing and ethical branding. We all took our own spins on this, and together we devoted almost 9.5% of all posts in 2021 to it. I’ve talked before about the irony of a world that has little trust in advertising but growing trust in brands. Your Insiders have tried to thread the needle between the two sides of this seeming paradox.

Finally, we did cover a smattering of other topics, but one in particular rose about the others as something increasingly on our radar. We touched on the Metaverse and its implications in almost 3% of our posts.

Summing Up

To try to wrap up 2021 in one post is difficult, but if there was a single takeaway, I think it’s that both marketing and media are faced with some very existential questions. Ad-supported revenue models have now been pushed to the point where we must ask what the longer-term ethical implications might be.

If anything, I would say the past year has marked the beginning of our industry realizing that a lot of unintended consequences have now come home to roost.

COVID And The Chasm Crossing

For most of us, it’s been a year living with the pandemic. I was curious what my topic was a year ago this week. It was talking about the brand crisis at a certain Mexican brewing giant when its flagship brand was suddenly and unceremoniously linked with a global pandemic. Of course, we didn’t know then just how “global” it would be back then.

Ahhh — the innocence of early 2020.

The past year will likely be an historic inflection point in many societal trend lines. We’re not sure at this point how things will change, but we’re pretty sure they will change. You can’t take what has essentially been a 12-month anomaly in everything we know as normal, plunk it down on every corner of the globe and expect everything just to bounce back to where it was.

If I could vault 10 years in the future and then look back at today, I suspect I would be talking about how our relationship with technology changed due to the pandemic. Yes, we’re all sick of Zoom. We long for the old days of actually seeing another face in the staff lunchroom. And we realize that bingeing “Emily in Paris” on Netflix comes up abysmally short of the actual experience of stepping in dog shit as we stroll along the Seine.

C’est la vie.

But that’s my point. For the past 12 months, these watered-down digital substitutes have been our lives. We were given no choice. And some of it hasn’t sucked. As I wrote last week, there are times when a digital connection may actually be preferable to a physical one.

There is now a whole generation of employees who are considering their work-life balance in the light of being able to work from home for at least part of the time. Meetings the world over are being reimagined, thanks to the attractive cost/benefit ratio of being able to attend virtually. And, for me, I may have permanently swapped riding my bike trainer in my basement for spin classes in the gym. It took me a while to get used to it, but now that I have, I think it will stick.

Getting people to try something new — especially when it’s technology — is a tricky process. There are a zillion places on the uphill slope of the adoption curve where we can get mired and give up. But, as I said, that hasn’t been an option for us in the past 12 months. We had to stick it out. And now that we have, we realize we like much of what we were forced to adopt. All we’re asking for is the freedom to pick and choose what we keep and what we toss away.

I suspect  many of us will be a lot more open to using technology now that we have experienced the tradeoffs it entails between effectiveness and efficiency. We will make more room in our lives for a purely utilitarian use of technology, stripped of the pros and cons of “bright shiny object” syndrome.

Technology typically gets trapped at both the dread and pseudo-religious devotion ends of the Everett Rogers Adoption Curve. Either you love it, or you hate it. Those who love it form the market that drives the development of our technology, leaving those who hate it further and further behind.

As such, the market for technology tends to skew to the “gee whiz” end of the market, catering to those who buy new technology just because it’s new and cool. This bias has embedded an acceptance of planned obsolescence that just seems to go hand-in-hand with the marketing of technology. 

My previous post about technology leaving seniors behind is an example of this. Even if seniors start out as early adopters, the perpetual chase of the bright shiny object that typifies the tech market can leave them behind.

But COVID-19 changed all that. It suddenly forced all of us toward the hump that lies in the middle of the adoption curve. It has left the world no choice but to cross the “chasm” that  Geoffrey Moore wrote about 30 years ago in his book “Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers.” He explained that the chasm was between “visionaries (early adopters) and pragmatists (early majority),” according to Wikipedia.

This has some interesting market implications. After I wrote my post, a few readers reached out saying they were working on solutions that addressed the need of seniors to stay connected with a device that is easier for them to use and is not subject to the need for constant updating and relearning. Granted, neither of them was from Apple nor Google, but at least someone was thinking about it.

As the pandemic forced the practical market for technology to expand, bringing customers who had everyday needs for their technology, it created more market opportunities. Those opportunities create pockets of profit that allow for the development of tools for segments of the market that used to be ignored.

It remains to be seen if this market expansion continues after the world returns to a more physically based definition of normal. I suspect it will.

This market evolution may also open up new business model opportunities — where we’re actually willing to pay for online services and platforms that used to be propped up by selling advertising. This move alone would take technology a massive step forward in ethical terms. We wouldn’t have this weird moral dichotomy where marketers are grieving the loss of data (as fellow Media Insider Ted McConnell does in this post) because tech is finally stepping up and protecting our personal privacy.

Perhaps — I hope — the silver lining in the past year is that we will look at technology more as it should be: a tool that’s used to make our lives more fulfilling.

The View from the Other Side

After a life time in marketing I am now sitting on the other side of the table. Actually, I’m sitting on all sides of the table. In my newest venture it’s just me, so I have to do everything. And I don’t mind telling you I’m overwhelmed. These past few years have given me a whole new appreciation of how damned difficult it is to be a business owner. And my circumstances are probably better than 90% of others out there. This started as a hobby that – with surprisingly little direction from me – somehow grew into a business.  There

Is no real financial pressure on me. There are no sales numbers I have to hit. I have no investors to answer to. I have no debt to service. My business is very limited in scope.

But still – somehow – I feel like I’m drowning. I couldn’t imagine doing this if the stakes were higher

It’s Hard to Find the Time to Build a Better Mousetrap…

I’ve always been of the opinion that the core of the business and the marketing of that business should be inseparable. But as I’ve learned, that’s a difficult balancing act to pull off. Marketing is a vast black hole that can suck up all your time. And in any business, there is just a lot of stuff that requires a lot of time to do. It requires even more time if you want to do it well. Something has to give. So what should that something be? That sounds trite, but it’s not.

Take me, for example. I decided to offer bike tours. Sound simple enough, right? I had no idea how many permits, licenses and authorizations I needed to have. That all takes time. And it was time I had to spend before I could do anything else.

Like I said, to do things well takes time. Businesses naturally have to evolve. Almost none of us gets it right out of the gate. We make mistakes and then have to figure out how not to make those mistakes again. This is good and natural. I believe a good business has to have a leader that sweats the details, because the details are where shit goes wrong. I’m a big picture guy but I’ve discovered that big pictures are actually a mosaic of a million little pieces that someone has to pay attention to. And that takes time.

The Fear of a Not Doing Everything Right Now

New companies used to have the luxury of time. No one expected them to hit the home run in their first year. Well, Google and Facebook screwed that up for everyone, didn’t they? We are now all supposed to operate within some ridiculously compressed timeline for success. Our business lives are all about rushing things to market, rapid iteration, agile development. And while we’re doing all that, we should also be keeping up with our Instagram posts and building a highly engaged online community. If we don’t successfully do all those things, we feel like we’ve failed.

I’m calling bullshit on that. Most studies done on this subject show the odds of survival for a new company lasting five years are somewhere between 40 and 50%. That’s not great, but I have to believe that given the coin toss survival rate, there are a lot of companies that may not have a fully optimized Facebook business page that have somehow managed to survive bankruptcy. And even the businesses that do wrap it up are not always financial failures. Many times it’s because the founder has just had enough.

I completely understand that. I started this busIness because I wanted to have fun. And while not many of us give that reason for starting a business, I don’t believe I’m the only one. If this isn’t fun, why the hell are we doing it? But juggling a zillion balls knowing that I’m guaranteed to drop many of them isn’t all that much fun. Each morning begins with a dropped ball inventory. It seems that business today is all about reactive triage. What did I do? What didn’t I do? What might kill me and what’s only going to hurt for a while?

I’d like to end this column with some pat advice, some strategy to deal with the inevitable inundation of stuff that is demanding your time. But I’m struggling. I believe it’s hidden somewhere between my two previous points – deal with what’s potentially fatal and try to have some fun. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

Basic Instincts and Attention Economics

We’ve been here before. Something becomes valuable because it’s scarce. The minute society agrees on the newly assigned value, wars begin because of it. Typically these things have been physical. And the battle lines have been drawn geographically. But this time is different. This time, we’re fighting over attention – specifically, our attention – and the battle is between individuals and corporations. Do we, as individuals, have the right to choose what we pay attention to? Or do the creators of content own our attention and can they harvest it at their will? This is the question that is rapidly dismantling the entire advertising industry. It has been debated at length here at Mediapost and pretty much every other publication everywhere.

I won’t join in the debate at this time. The reality here is that we do control our attention and the advertising industry was built on a different premise of scarcity from a different time. It was built on a foundation of access and creation, when both those things were in short supply. By creating content and solving the physical problem of giving us access to that content, the industry gained the right to ask us to watch an ad. No ads, no content. It was a bargain we agreed to because we had no other choice.

The Internet then proceeded to blow that foundation to smithereens.

By removing the physical constraints that restricted both the creation and distribution of content, technology has also erased the scarcity. In fact, the balance has been forever tipped the other way. We now have access to so much content; we don’t have enough attention to digest it all. Viewed in this light, it makes the debate around ad blockers seem hopelessly out of touch. Accusing someone of stealing content is like accusing someone of stealing air. The anti-blocking side is trying to apply the economic rational of a market that no longer exists.

So let us accept the fact that we are the owners of our own attention, and that it is a scarce commodity. That makes it valuable. My point is that we should pay more attention to how we pay attention. If the new economy is going to be built on attention, we should treat it with more respect.

The problem here is that we have two types of attention, the same as we have two types of thinking: Fast and Slow. Our slow attention is our focused, conscious attention. It is the attention we pay when we’re reading a book, watching a video or talking to someone. We consciously make a choice when we pay this type of attention. Think of it like a spotlight we shine on something for an extended period of time.

It’s the second type of attention, fast attention, which is typically the target of advertising. It plays on the edge of our spotlight, quickly and subconsciously monitoring the environment so it can swing the spotlight of conscious attention if required. Because this type of attention operates below the level of rational thought, it is controlled by base instincts. It’s why sex works in advertising. It’s why Kim Kardashian can repeatedly break the Internet. It’s why Donald Trump is leading the Republican race. And it’s why adorable Asian babies wearing watermelons can go viral.

It’s this type of attention that really determines the value of the attention economy. It’s the gatekeeper that determines how slow attention is focused. And it’s here where we may need some help. I don’t think instincts developed 200,000 years ago are necessarily the best guide for how we should invest something that has become so valuable. We need a better yardstick that simple titillation for determining where our attention should be spent.

I expect the death throes of the previous access economy to go on for some time. The teeth gnashing of the advertising industry will capture a lot of attention. But the end is inevitable. The economic underpinnings are gone, so it’s just a matter of time before the superstructures built on top of them will collapse. In my opinion, we should just move on and think about what the new world will look like. If attention is the new currency, what is the smartest way to spend it?

Some Second Thoughts on Mindless Media

When I read Tom Goodwin’s Online Spin last week, I immediately jumped on his bandwagon. How could I not? He played the evolutionary psychology card and then trumped that by applying it to the consumption of media. This was right up my ideological alley.

addict_f1pjr6Here’s a quick recap: Humans evolved to crave high calorie foods because these were historically scarce. In the last century, however, processed food manufacturing has ensured that high calorie foods are abundantly available. The result? We got fat. Really fat. Tom worries that the same thing is happening to our consumption of media. As traditional publishing channels break down, will we become a society of information snackers?

We’re rewarding pieces that are most-clickable or most easily digested, and our news diet shifts from good-for-us to snackable.”

Goodwin also mourns the death of serendipitous discovery – which was traditionally brought to us by our loyalty to a channel and the editorial control exercised by that channel. If we were loyal to the New York Times, then we were introduced to content they thought we should see. But in the age of “filter bubbles” our content becomes increasingly homogenized based on algorithms, which are drawing an ever-narrowing circle bounded by our explicit requests and our implicit behavior patterns. We become further insulated from quality by mindless social media sharing – which tends to favor content pandering to the lowest common denominator.

But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if this wasn’t a little paradoxical? Tom’s very thoughtful column, which hardly qualifies as intellectual fast-food, didn’t come to us through traditional journalism. Tom, like myself, is not a professional journalist. And while MediaPost does provide some editorial curation, it’s purpose it to provide a fairly transparent connection between industry experts like Tom and other experts like you. Tom’s piece came to us through a much more transparent information marketplace – the very same marketplace that Tom worries is turning us into an audience of mindless media junkies. And I should add that Tom’s piece was shared through social circles over 200 times.

So where is the disconnect here? The problem is that when it comes to human behaviors, there are no universal truths. How we act in almost any given situation will eventually distribute itself across a bell curve. Let’s take obesity, for instance. If we talk trends, Tom is absolutely correct. The introduction of fast food in North America coincided with an explosion of obesity, which as a percentage of the US population rose from about 10% in the 1950’s to almost 35% in 2013. But if we accept the premise that we all mindlessly crave calories, we should all be obese. Obesity rates should also continue to be going up until they reach 100% of the population. But those two things are just not true. Obesity rates have plateaued in the last few years and there are indications that they are starting to decline amongst children. Also, although fast food is now available around the world – obesity rates vary greatly. Japan has one of the highest concentrations of McDonald’s outlets per capita (25 per million) in the world but has an obesity rate of 3.2%, the lowest in all OECD countries. The US has a higher concentration McDonald’s (45 per million) but has an obesity rate 10 times that of Japan. And my own country, Canada, almost matches the US McDonald for McDonald (41 per million) but has an obesity rate half that of the US (14.3%).

My point is not to debate whether we’re getting fatter. We are. But there’s more to it than just the prevalence of fast food. And these factors apply to our consumption of media as well. For example, there is a strong negative correlation between obesity levels and education. There is also a strong negative correlation between obesity and income. Cultural norms have a huge impact on the prevalence of obesity. There are no universal truths here. There are just a lot of nebulous factors at play. So, if we want to be honest when we draw behavioral comparisons, we have to be accepting of those factors.

Much as I believe evolution drives many of our behaviors, I also believe that more open markets are better than more restrictive ones. As the mentality of abundance takes hold, our behaviors take time to adjust. Yes, we do snack on crap. But we also have access to high quality choices we could have never dreamed of before. And the ratio of consumption between those two extremes will be different for all of us. Consider the explosion of TV programming that has happened over the last 3 decades. Yes, there is an over-abundance of mindless dreck, but there is also more quality programming than ever to choose from. The same is true of music and pretty much any other category where markets have opened up through technology.

The way to increase the quality of what we consume, whether it be food, information or entertainment, is not to limit the production and distribution of those consumables through more restrictive markets, but to improve education, access and create a culture of considered consumption. Some of us will choose crap. But some of us will choose the cream that rises to the top. The choice will be ours. The answer is not to take those choices away, but rather to create a culture that encourages wiser choices.

Today, Spend Some Time in Quadrant Two

First published April 17, 2014 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I ranted, and it was therapeutic — for me, at least. Some of you agreed that the social media landscape was littered with meaningless crap. Others urged me to “loosen up and take a chill pill,” intimating that I had slipped across the threshold of “grumpy old man-itis.” Guilty, I guess, but there was a point to my rant. We need to spend more time with important stuff, and less time with content that may be popular but trivial.

Hey, I’m the first to admit that I can be tempted into wasting gobs of time with a tweet like: “Prom season sizzles with KFC chicken corsages.” This is courtesy of Guy Kawasaki. Guy’s Twitter feed is a fire hose of enticing trivia. And the man (with the team that supports him) does have a knack of writing tweets with irresistible hooks. Come on. Who could resist checking out a fried chicken corsage?

But here’s the problem. Online is littered with fried chicken corsages. No matter where we turn, we’re bombarded by these tasty little tidbits of brain candy. Publishers have grown quite adept at stringing these together, leading us from trivial link to trivial link. Personally, I’m a sucker for Top Ten lists. But after succumbing to the temptation for “just a second” I find myself, 20 minutes later, having accomplished nothing other than learning what the 10 Biggest Reality Show Blunders were, or where the 10 Most Extravagant Homes in the U.S. happen to be.

Entertaining? Absolutely.

Useful? Doubtful.

Important?  Not a chance.

merrillcoveymatrixWe need to set aside time for important stuff. A few decades ago, I happened to read Stephen Covey’s “First Things First,” which introduced a concept I still try to live by to this day. Covey called it the Urgent/Important matrix. It’s a simple two-by-two matrix with four quadrants:

1 – Urgent and Important – for example, a fire in your kitchen.

2 – Not Urgent but Important – long-term planning.

3 – Urgent but Not Important – interruptions.

4 – Not Important and Not Urgent – time-wasters.

Covey’s Advice? Better balance your time in these quadrants. Quadrant One takes care of itself. We can’t ignore these types of crises. But we should try to minimize the distractions that fall into Quadrant Three and cut down the time we spend in Quadrant Four. Then, we should move as much of this freed-up time as possible into Quadrant Two.

Covey’s Quadrants are more applicable than ever to the online world.  I suspect most of us spend the majority of time in the online equivalents of Quadrant Three (responding to emails or other instant forms of messaging that aren’t really important) or Quadrant Four (online time wasters). We probably don’t spend much time in Quadrant Two (which I’ll abbreviate it to Q2). In fact, in writing this column, I tried to find a quick guide to finding important stuff online. I have a few places I like to go, which I’ll share in a moment, but despite the vast potential of online as a Q2 resource, it doesn’t seem that anyone is it making it easy to filter for “importance.” As I said in my last column, we have filters for popularity and recency, but I couldn’t find anything helping me track down Q2 candidates.

So, here is my contribution to helping you set aside more quality Q2 time:

Amazon Kindle and DevonThink: Reading thought-provoking books is my favorite Q2 activity.  I try to set aside at least an hour a day to read. Anytime someone suggests a book or I find one referenced, I download immediately it from Kindle and add it to the queue. Then, as I read, I use Kindle’s highlight feature to create a summary of the important ideas. After, I copy my highlighted notes into DevonThink, a tool that helps track and archive notes and resources for future reference.

Scientific American & Science Daily: I’m a science geek. I love learning about the latest advances — in particular, new discoveries in the areas of psychology and neuroscience. When I find an interesting article, I again save it to DevonThink.

Google Scholar and Questia: Every so often, I dive into the world of academia to find research done in a particular area, usually related to a blog post or column idea. Google Scholar usually unearths a number of publicly available papers on most topics. And, if you share my predilection for academic research, a subscription to Questia is worth considering.

Big Think, weforum.org and TED: Looking for big ideas — world-changing stuff? These three sites are the place to find them.

HBR, Wired, The Atlantic and The Economist: Another favorite topic of mine is corporate strategy — particularly how organizations have to adapt to a rapidly evolving environment. I find sites like these great for giving me a sense of what’s happening in the world of business.

Hey, it may not be a fried chicken corsage, but these aren’t bad ways to spend an hour or two a day.


The Momentum of Marketing

First published May 23, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

After becoming a parent, I discovered that there are no shortcuts to being a Dad. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no such thing as “quality time” with kids… there’s just time. You have to be there, as much as you can be, because you never know when those moments will occur that will cement your relationship with your children. You keep trying, you keep putting in the time, you keep doing the things you have to do to be a parent. Think of it as relationship “momentum.”

The same is true, I believe, in all worthwhile endeavors. Activity breeds success. And that includes marketing. If you take your foot off the gas, you lose momentum.

I’ve found that myself in the last few years. The marketing strategy of our company was all about activity. We conducted research, we published whitepapers, we blogged, we spoke at conferences, we held webinars — we never missed an opportunity to generate awareness. It was a lot of activity, aimed at maintaining our marketing momentum. And it worked. We had a profile in the industry that was probably out of proportion to our actual share of business. When it came to maintaining a profile, I think we punched above our weight.

I was the producer of much of this activity, so as our company profile rose, so did my own personal one. I was constantly fielding requests to speak, comment, participate or write.

But for various reasons, I’ve taken my foot off the gas recently. I’m not nearly as active in the industry as I was previously. My assumption was that the momentum would carry me for some period of time. I was wrong. The minute the activity decreased, so did the opportunities.

Now, this was partly by design. I knew that my previous industry profile would start to slip and so I didn’t panic. But still, I was surprised at how quickly it happened. And because of that, I suspect there’s a cautionary tale here for marketers. If you produce content or generate thought leadership, a hiatus can be costly. That lost momentum can take several months to build again. In fact, you might never get it back.

For myself, I’m now entering a new phase of my career, so my activity will change over the coming months. I still intend to be active — perhaps more so than ever — but it will be aimed in a new direction. I do have the advantage of past experience. I know it can work, because it has worked in the past.

So I leave you with these words of advice — be active in your marketing efforts. Always be producing new content, generating awareness, and raising your profile. I believe busy parents are generally good parents — and the same is true, I suspect, for marketers.

The Berkowitz Guide to Creating Content that Matters

First published September 6, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I made it! I got through the summer without writing too many “filler” columns triggered by the realization it was already Wednesday and my editor was expecting something in her inbox by end of day. There were no summer vacation columns, no “10 things I learned about [fill in blank],” and with the exception of one column about the joy of digging holes, no lame reminiscing about the zillion years I’ve spent doing this. Sometimes I even managed to write about search.

Of course, now that we’re safely past Labor Day, all that comes to a crashing halt. Because, yet again, it’s Wednesday (as of the time I’m writing) and, yet again, the well is dry.  So, it was sad yet somehow consoling that I read the final column of David Berkowitz, the one MediaPost writer I know who has actually logged more columns (400) than I (383 as of this one). David recapped what’s he’s learned from writing a little over 300,000 words, squeezed out every week over the past eight years. As David so astutely says, “I know not every post is amazing, but I still put in the time. It takes just as long to write an average column as it does to write a great one.”

I would urge you to take the time to read David’s column. I’ve been talking a lot lately about the importance of content creation. In the new information economy, content is currency. We all have to start thinking like publishers. And that means that many of us will have to create content. David’s lessons are valuable ones.

One of the thing’s I’ve most admired about David is his ability to write both from his heart and his head. He has a keen intellect, but he’s also a good and decent person, and both qualities shine through in his writing. Being genuine is an often-overlooked gift.

Whatever forms your content takes, make sure you’re creating it for the right reasons. Speak because you have something to say, not just to fill a room (or blog post) with noise. I especially liked David’s Lesson #2: “Big ideas matter, even if they don’t spread.” The columns I’m most proud of are often the ones that got the fewest retweets or comments.

Long ago, when I started writing and speaking, I had to come to terms with the fact that I will seldom go “viral.” I don’t seem to have a flair for creating memes.

But after watching other speakers who are more “meme”-worthy get swarmed after a presentation while I stood quietly to the side, I began to notice a pattern. Often, someone would come up and say, “Thank you so much for what you talked about. It was a different angle and it gave me something to think about.” I decided then and there that it was these individuals I was writing and presenting for. There may be only a handful of them in the room, or reading my column on any given week, but if I can pass along something that causes them to adjust their perspective and see something that was previously undiscovered, it’s been worth it. Retweets are not always the best measure of importance.

Writing should never be a “to-do” task. Yes, the weekly rhythm of this column can frankly be a pain in the butt some days when my to-do list overflows —  but that feeling always goes away when I start writing. As David said, “Each column is a learning experience, starting with a thesis, or a hypothesis, or a half-decent idea for the middle of a nonexistent story.”

Yes, writing is a learning experience, forcing you to put some semblance on structure to half-formed thoughts, but it’s also a chance each week to learn a little bit more about yourself. I like to think of writing as sharing little shards of your soul. You put yourself out there in a way that few others do.

At least, you do if you write as well as Mr. Berkowitz does.

Living a B-Rated Life

First published August 16, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I love ratings and reviews — and I’m not alone.  4.7 people out of 5 people love reviews. We give them two thumbs up. They rate 96.5% on the Tomato-meter.  I find it hard to imagine what my life would be without those ubiquitous 5 stars to guide me.

This past weekend, I was in Banff, Alberta for my sister’s wedding. My family decided to find a place to go for breakfast. The first thing I did was check with Yelp, and soon we were stacking up the Eggs Benny at a passable breakfast buffet less than two miles from our hotel. I never knew said buffet existed before checking the reviews — but once I found it, I trusted the wisdom of crowds. It seldom steers me wrong.

Now, you do have to learn how to read between the lines of a typical review site. Just before heading to my sister’s wedding, I spent the day in Seattle at the Bazaar Voice user event and was fascinated to learn that their user research shows that the typical number of reviews scanned is generally about seven. Once people hit seven reviews, they feel they have a good handle on the overall tone, even if there are 1,000 reviews in total. This seems right to me. It’s about the number of reviews I scan if possible.

But we also rely on the average rating summaries that typically show above the individual reviews and comments. When I read a review, I tend to follow these rules of thumb:

  • Look for the entry with the most reviews.
  • Find one that has a high average, but be suspicious of ones that have absolutely no negative reviews (unusual if you follow Rule One).
  • Scan the top six or seven reviews to get an overall sense of what people like and dislike.
  • Sort by the most negative reviews and read at least one to see what people hate.
  • Decide whether the negative reviews are the result of a one-off bad experience, or possibly an impossible-to-please customer (you can usually pick them out by their comments).
  • Do the “sniff test” to see if there are planted reviews (again, they’re not that hard to pick out).

I’ve used the same approach for restaurants, hotels, consumer electronics, cars, movies, books, hot tubs – pretty much anything I’ve had to open my wallet for in the past five or six years. It’s made buying so much easier. Ratings and reviews are like the Cole’s notes of word of mouth. They condense the opinions of the marketplace down to the bare essentials.

It’s little wonder that Google is starting to invest heavily in this area, with recent acquisitions of Zagat and Frommer’s. These are companies that built entire businesses on eliminating risk through reviews. The aggregation and organization of opinion is a natural extension for search engines. Of course, we should give it a fancy name, like “social graph,”, so we can sound really smart at industry conferences, but the foundations are built on plain common sense. Our attraction to reviews is hardwired into our noggins. We are social animals and like to travel in packs.  Language evolved so we could point each other to the best cassava root patch and pass along the finer points of mastodon hunting.

As Google acquires more and more socially informed content, it will be integrated into Google’s algorithms. This is why Google had to launch its own social network. Unfortunately, Google+ hasn’t gained the critical mass needed to provide the signals Google is looking for. I personally haven’t had a Google+ invite in months. Despite Larry Page’s insistence that it’s a roaring success, others have pointed out that Google+ seems to be a network of tire kickers, with little in the way of ongoing engagement. Contrast that with Pinterest, which is all the various women in my life seem to talk about — and is outperforming even Twitter when it comes to driving referrals.

I personally love the proliferation of structured word-of-mouth. Some say it negates serendipity, but I actually believe I will be more apt to explore if there is some reassurance I won’t have a horrible experience. Otherwise, this weekend my family and I would have been having Egg McMuffins at the Banff McDonald’s — and really, is that the life you want?

The Virtuous Cycle of SEO

First published August 9, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Virtuous cycles are anomalies. They fight the universal law of entropy, and for that reason alone, they are worth investigation. Rather than a gradual slide toward dissipation and equilibrium, virtuous cycles build upon themselves, yielding self-sustaining returns cycle after cycle.

In marketing, there are not a lot of virtuous cycles. Most marketing efforts need to be constantly fueled by a steady stream of dollars. The minute the budget tap is closed, so is the marketing program. But there are a few, and SEO is one of them, if done correctly. Let’s take a quick look at the elements required to build a truly virtuous cycle.

The Power of Positive Feedback

Positive feedback is the engine of a virtuous cycle. It’s what drives sustainable growth. Think of it as the compound interest paid on your marketing efforts.

In an SEO program, positive feedback comes in the form of the algorithmic love shown to you by the search engines, dragging in an ever-increasing number of eyeballs. These eyeballs also contribute to the feedback loop, creating new links, new user-generated content, new activity, all of which continue to drive rankings, up, which drives new eyeballs, which… well, you get the idea. And the cycle continues.

Investment Required

Virtuous cycles require an upfront investment, and it’s usually a significant one. You can’t collect compound interest on a zero balance. Cycles don’t start from scratch.

In SEO, the investments required come in the form of content and an engaging user experience. You have to give a user a reason to come, to engage and to evangelize to really leverage the benefits of SEO. You can evaluate if you have the makings of a virtuous cycle by asking yourself the following questions:

–      What are my users coming for?

–      What will they do?

–      How can they engage?

–      Why will they care?

–      Will their expectations be exceeded?

If you have a less than satisfactory answer to any of these questions, you don’t have what it takes to create a virtuous cycle.

Appealing to Human Nature

If your cycle depends on human behavior, as most do, you have to appeal to one of the basic tenets of human nature. As complicated as we can be, we are generally driven by a surprisingly small number of basic needs. Harvard professors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence, in their book “Driven,” identified four fundamental human drives: We need to acquire, to learn, to bond and to defend. Examine any virtuous cycle, and you’ll always find at least one of these drives at the heart of it.

Ask yourself how your online presence contributes to these drives. Remember, for a cycle to begin, positive feedback is required. And positive feedback depends on engagement from your visitors.

Universally Beneficial

Finally, a virtuous cycle needs to benefit all parties in order for it to be sustainable. It needs to be a win/win/win. If, somewhere along the line, someone gets screwed, the cycle will ultimately fall apart.

In SEO, this means you must play along with the algorithm rather than try to beat it. Short-term thinking and virtuous cycles never go well together. One algorithmic update to crack down on a SEO loophole will shut down your cycle in a heartbeat. But if you work with a search engine to make a great user experience discoverable, the cycle will begin.