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  • feedwordpress 18:28:47 on 2021/01/01 Permalink
    Tags: africa, , , covid, , , , , , , , , spacs, , Top Posts   

    Predictions 2021: Disinformation, SPACs, Africa, Facebook, and a Return to Tech Optimism 


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    Never in my five-plus decades has a year been so eagerly anticipated, which makes this business of  prediction particularly daunting. I’m generally inclined to be optimistic, but rose-colored glasses stretch time. Good things always take longer to emerge than any of us would wish. Over 18 years of doing this I’ve learned that it’s best to not predict what I wish would happen, instead, it’s wise to go with what feels most likely in the worlds I find fascinating (for me, that’s media, technology, and business, with a dash of politics given my last two years at The Recount). As I do each year, I avoid reading other folks’ year-end predictions (though I plan on getting to them as soon as I hit publish!). Instead, I just sit down at my desk, and in one rather long session, I think out loud and see where things land.

    And off we go….

    1. Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. In some ways, this is foolhardy – like predicting that the election would drive 2020, only to see it overwhelmed by COVID-19. The topic of disinformation feels a bit cerebral and hard to pin down – not as concrete as a pandemic or an election cycle. But I’m convinced 2021 will be the year we all realize that our media/information ecosystem is broken – with disinformation, propaganda, and brazen falsehood its most pernicious externality. Businesses are waking up to the threat this  poses to their bottom lines (and to society at large), most scholars and policymakers are already there. In the words of former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, speaking on a recent Recount podcast: “In a society where there is no ability to distinguish between the truth and the lie, democracy will be lost.” 2021 will be a year where we search for the root causes of our failures over the past few years, and at the center of that failure is a communication system that mindlessly manufactures disinformation. A free and open democratic economy can’t run on bullshit. I’m personally devoting 2021 to exploring how we can navigate the collision of technology platforms, unfettered capitalism, broken media models, and feckless regulatory oversight. More on that soon…

    2. Facebook’s chickens come home to roost. Related to #1, yes, and it’s certainly passé to beat up on Facebook. As an OG in the space (“Facebook Can’t Be Fixed,” et al), I’m reluctant to go there once more – our troubles are bigger than one company alone. And for years the company has steamed ever forward, its fortunes unaffected by endless cycles of bad PR. But in 2021, the good ship Facebook will start taking on serious water. Incoming President Joe Biden will set the tone with his distaste for the company, and company’s tone deaf approach to communications will finally fail to deliver the company a pass. (If you missed it, you must watch this insanely scripted game of dodgeball between journalist Tamron Hall and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg). The company’s own employees are increasingly uncomfortable with their leadership, and its consumers and marketing partners are increasingly looking for alternatives to a platform they see as toxic and unwilling to change. Toss in policymakers’ thirst for an easy target and a media industry tired of the doubletalk, false narratives, and outright lies, and 2021 will be a dismal year for Facebook – in particular in the United States, where the company will likely admit that it has failed to grow user engagement. And that, to put a fine point on it, will tank the stock, full stop.

    3. AI has a mid-life crisis. The past few years have witnessed the shining resurgence of artificial intelligence – breakthrough after breakthrough has led to justifiable optimism that AI-driven innovation will solve both the mundane (Look! It can untangle corporate supply chains!) as well as the divine (Look! It can cure every disease known to humankind!). All of this and more is likely true, but humanity has yet to fully comprehend the potential negative externalities of AI, much less mitigate them. Chastened by our last bout with externality ignorance (see Facebook, above), 2021 will be the year society takes a step back and thinks hard about where this is all going. Setting up the narrative is Google’s mishandling of its relationship with leading AI critic Timit Gebru, but by year’s end, the AI narrative will be as much about hand wringing and regulatory oversight as it is about revolutionary breakthroughs.

    4. Then again, a wave of optimism around tech-driven innovation takes root. This is the counter narrative to five-plus years of a “tech as bogeyman” trope. 2021’s optimism will be driven by two major factors: First, a belief that we’re on a path to correct the worst mistakes of the past decade (see #1 – #3 above). And second, a slew of long-developing and real world proofs that technology-driven breakthroughs will bring serious benefits to society at scale. Candidates include biotech and bioinformatics (the core technologies behind the COVID vaccine), blockchain (though I’m certain bitcoin will have at least one of its several crashes this year), and lithium batteries (giving us hope on climate change and driving my otherwise random prediction on gas-powered cars, below).

    5. Google does in 2021 what I predicted it would in 2020. And what was that? That Google zags. I wrote: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” I think this is even more likely given Google is fighting off a terrifying array of massive regulatory actions, and desperately needs to avoid looking like Facebook in the eyes of its employees, consumers, and business partners.

    6. Nothing will get done on tech regulation in the US. Blame antitrust. Whether or not Biden decides to continue Trump’s FTC and DOJ actions, he will likely start his own, and keep the focus on antitrust, rather than more thoughtful legislation around disinformation, machine readable data portability, or privacy. There will be some movement – net neutrality will probably get reaffirmed and we’ll fix Trump’s H1-B messes, for example. But by year’s end folks will realize that antitrust suits are essentially kabuki, an exercise designed to go nowhere and maintain the status quo. When Facebook is aggressively calling on Washington to regulate the Internet, you know they’ve done the math and concluded nothing is really going to change. Everyone’s talking about how it’s about time for the government to step up and do something, but I’m deeply cynical about anything changing in 2021. That doesn’t mean we won’t (or shouldn’t) make progress…just that it won’t happen in a year.

    7. A “new” social platform breaks out in 2021. I’ve made versions of this prediction in the past, but my timing was off. Given the handcuffs 2021 will place on the traditional players in Big Tech, this coming year presents a perfect opportunity for a breakout player to redefine the social media category. There’s plenty of VC money ready to invest here, and both Tik Tok and Snap  have had their moments in the sun. It won’t be some ripoff version of what already exists (sorry, Parler). I’d either look to something like an evolved Signal, an app that already has a growing user base, or a from-nowhere startup that gets super hot, super fast because it’s fundamentally rethought social media’s traditional, serotonin-driven models for engagement and advertising .

    8. The markets take a breather, and SPACs get a bloody nose. Back in 1987 I was a cub reporter covering the technology industry. One of the first stories I ever wrote involved a software startup run by a fellow I immediately judged to be a hustler. In our initial interview, he laid out how he was going to use financial engineering to take his small company public via a shell company. It struck me as dodgy then, and it strikes me as dodgy now. I have plenty of industry pals who are involved in SPAC mania now, and as far as I can tell, they’re on the up and up. SPACs can be a healthy and innovative approach to financing companies. But alas, this SPAC trend stinks of easy money and honeytraps for unsophisticated investors and shady operators. So in 2021, SPACs will lose their luster, driven in large part by several spectacular failures (or worse). Related, overall stock markets won’t crash, but by year’s end, they’ll sputter as tech stocks fall out of favor and society begins to realize how much debt needs to be worked through before true growth can reassert itself.

    9. 2021 will be prove to be the last year of growth in gas-powered automobiles. There, I did it – I wrote a prediction I wish for, rather than one I can back up with my own lived experience. That said, the aforementioned breakthroughs in lithium battery technology will lead to a wave of new options for vehicle buyers, and in the long lens of history, the early 2020s will be celebrated as the period where we finally overcame our addiction to burning fossil fuels. Please, MAKE IT SO.

    10. Africa rising, China…in question. A few years ago, I predicted China was going to crash, but I now realize the world needs China to counter US hegemony. With that in mind, the breakout continent of 2021 will be Africa, home to many of the fastest growing countries in the world, and the focus of years of Chinese investment and diplomacy. After four years of US neglect, the Biden administration will realize it’s dangerously close to losing Africa altogether, and announce a massive investment in the continent. Biden’s China policy will be fascinating to watch, but I’d not wager a cent on where it lands this year.

    11. Everyone loses their shit, in a good way. Because we deserve one big ass party, damnit, when this pandemic finally lifts. This is the easiest one to predict, because, well….I’ll be right there with you. Until then, folks, stay safe, wear a f*cking mask when in public, and do what you can to help others get through what is still a dark damn time in our history. See you on the other side.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2020

    2020: How I Did

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 22:51:41 on 2020/12/23 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , , misinformation, , , , predictions 2020, , , Top Posts   

    Well That Was A Year: A Review of My 2020 Predictions 


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    From the Department of Didn’t See THAT Coming…

    Yes, it’s true: Last year, I did not predict a global pandemic in 2020. COVID is a gravitational force that warps everything it touches, so I approach this annual ritual of self-grading with trepidation. As I start, I honestly don’t remember what I predicted twelve months ago…but regardless, I’m expecting a train wreck. I’ll read each one in turn, repeat the prediction below, and then free associate some thoughts on what actually transpired. Grab a glass of your favorite beverage…and let’s go:

    1. Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. OK, Facebook did NOT do this – well, not exactly. What the company DID do was ban political advertising altogether – but only in the week before, and a short period after the US election. Of course, you can certainly say that by banning all political advertising, the company ended up banned microtargeting as a result. So that’s one argument for giving myself a “Nailed it.” If that’s too weak an argument, let’s go to the fine print in my original prediction: “The pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory.” And that is exactly what the company did. I mean, exactly. I also wrote: “The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop.” Yup. Nailed it.
    2. Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. This prediction requires a bit of clarification. I was not claiming Netflix would open the door to advertising on its platform, but rather that it “may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming.” What I didn’t realize when I made this prediction was that Netflix was already deep into product placement deals for its Netflix Originals, and that it had already made sure the money changed hands somewhere else (such as between a production company and a brand).  There is no doubt that marketing money positively benefits NetFlix’s bottom line – and the  practice absolutely accelerated in 2020, as did everything streaming-related during COVID. But there was not a significant shift in NetFlix policy related to marketing that I can find, so I’m going to say I whiffed on this one.
    3. CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. This is exactly what happened. In fact, it’s happening as I type this – Trump is just vetoed a veto-proof defense funding bill because it doesn’t repeal 230, and Biden has already indicated he plans on rethinking 230 next year. But even though tens of millions of American citizens became familiar with Section 230 this year, nothing came of all that noise. Nailed it.
    4. Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. OK I have GOT to stop writing predictions about obscure academic terminology. I mean, what the actual f*ck? What I was trying to say was this: In 2020, there would be a robust debate about the best ways to regulate Big Tech, and the ideas behind “adversarial interoperability” would get a rigorous airing. This did not happen, and just like Jeffrey Katzenberg, I blame COVID. Exactly no one wanted to debate tech policy in the middle of a global pandemic. Making things worse, toward the end of this year multiple governmental agencies decided it was time to go after Big Tech, and they went batshit with proactive lawsuits – the DOJ and a majority of states sued Google (three times, no less), the FTC sued Facebook, and I’d put money more suits are coming (looking at you, Apple and Amazon). The suits revolve around antitrust law, so the debate will now be dominated by whether or not the government can prove its case in court.  This effectively postpones intelligent debate about remedies for years. I find this state of affairs deeply annoying. But a grade must be given, and that grade is a whiff, unfortunately.
    5. 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. Literally stop me from ever writing predictions after hitting the flash evaporator, OK?! This was another policy-related prediction, and if I was going to miss #4 above, I’m certainly going to whiff here as well. In the very rare case you want to know what I was on about, this is how I described the concept: “The concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right.” Well, in fact, if you believe Google Trends, “data provenance” did have a marked lift in 2020. Does that qualify it for “becoming a thing”? I have no f*cking idea. And again, thanks to COVID, marketers were not exactly focused on public ledgers and blockchain in 2020. Note to self: Stop predicting that something will “become a thing.” Inane. Whiff.
    6. Google zags. Oh man, oh man, I feel so close on this one. I mean, there are still a few days left in 2020, right? I honestly think this is about to happen. Here’s how I explained it one year ago: “Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020.” Google’s problems with both public perception (hello, three government lawsuits!) and an unhappy workforce only deepened this year – the Timnit disaster was just the most public of its struggles. But so far the company hasn’t produced a dramatic “game changing” move. Sure, the FitBit acquisition finally closed, but if that proves material, I’ll … start using a FitBit again. I firmly believe that Google must make a game changing move, and soon, if it’s going to keep its mojo. But….it certainly hasn’t happened yet. So…sigh…Whiff.
    7. At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Just weeks into 2020, I was well on my way to a “Nailed It” here. The tide was turning on the entire category: Uber was in trouble and badly below its IPO price, GrubHub was a falling knife looking for a buyer, PostMates had shelved its IPO dreams. And then…COVID reordered the universe, making on demand everything an essential part of quarantine life.  The entire category was supercharged – I mean, DoorDash at 19 times sales?!?! – and yet another of my predictions bit the dust. F U, COVID. Whiff.
    8. Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. Well, if ever there was a year to be sick of influencer marketing, it’d be this one. But no, with sports and entertainment programming suspended for the majority of the year, all that marketing budget had to go somewhere, and lord knows it wasn’t going to support news (despite that being the most engaged and highest growth category of all). So…brands threw in even more with influencers.  In my explanation I predicted that influencer fraud would be a huge problem – and by most accounts it is (the last figure I could find was 1.3 billion in 2019 – which was roughly 20 percent of the overall market!). But…influencer marketing did not fall out of favor, Charlie D’Amelio is making $50K per post, and damnit, I whiffed again.
    9. Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. Finally, a slam dunk. Man, I was starting to question myself here. “Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020,” I wrote. Yep, and true to form, 2020 saved the scariest example for the end of the year. Nailed it.
    10. Purpose takes center stage in business. Here’s one prediction where COVID actually accelerated my take toward a passing grade. The year began with BlackRock’s stunning declaration that it would make investment decisions based on climate impact. Once COVID and the George Floyd murder came, nearly the entire Fortune 500 recalibrating their communication strategies around racial, gender, and climate equity issues. Last year I wrote “I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras.” Whether it was P&G on climate and race,  Nike saying “Don’t Do It,” or nearly every major sports league standing with the Black Lives Matter movement, companies have taken previously unimaginable stands this year. Nailed It.
    11. Apple and/or Amazon stumble. Sure, Apple did pay up to half a billion to bury its “batterygate” scandal but let’s be honest, you  forgot about that, right? Even the publication of a terrifying expose of worker conditions in iPhone manufacturing plants failed to dent the company in 2020. But what you likely will remember is the Epic Fortnite story – and to me, that’s the stumble that tips my prediction to a “Nailed it.” Apple’s response to Epic was ham fisted and short sighted. The company  misread regulators’ appetite for antitrust, deeply injured its reputation amongst developers, and exposed the iOS App Store – the source of its most important growth revenues – as a pristine monopoly just begging for a Federal compliant. Meanwhile, while Amazon profited handsomely from COVID, the company’s reputation has only worsened in 2020. A drumbeat of negative press about unsafe working conditions, union busting, and anticompetitive practices culminated in a broadside from one of its own – Tim Bray, a respected technologist (and early reader of Searchblog) who penned a damning Dear John letter to his former employer  in May. Despite the strength of both companies’ stock prices, I think it’s safe to say that both Apple and Amazon stumbled in 2020. Nailed It.

    So there you have it, my review of how my predictions fared in 2020. Five right, six wrong, for a batting average of .454. Far better than last year, where I hit just .300, but far below some of my best. Still, not bad if you factor in COVID’s impact on nearly everything. Next week I’ll be writing Predictions 2021 – let’s hope this is the start of a trend.


    Previous predictions:

    Predictions 2020

    Predictions 2019

    2019: How I did

    Predictions 2018

    2018: How I Did

    Predictions 2017

    2017: How I Did

    Predictions 2016

    2016: How I Did

    Predictions 2015

    2015: How I Did

    Predictions 2014

    2014: How I Did

    Predictions 2013

    2013: How I Did

    Predictions 2012

    2012: How I Did

    Predictions 2011

    2011: How I Did

    Predictions 2010

    2010: How I Did

    2009 Predictions

    2009 How I Did

    2008 Predictions

    2008 How I Did

    2007 Predictions

    2007 How I Did

    2006 Predictions

    2006 How I Did

    2005 Predictions

    2005 How I Did

    2004 Predictions

    2004 How I Did

     
  • feedwordpress 14:04:34 on 2020/10/29 Permalink
    Tags: , , founders, , , , startup, , therecount, Top Posts   

    The Recount Turns One 


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    The evolution of The Recount’s first product. The Daily Recount, from early prototypes to full expression this past July.

    One year ago this week, a small group of journalists launched a completely reimagined approach to covering the news. We called it The Recount. It’s mission: To be the leading outlet for video journalism in today’s age of mobile, non-linear, on-demand television.
 We started with a single product focused on politics. We called it The Daily Recount, and we envisioned it as a “remix” of the most important news sourced from scores of outlets, from national and international broadcast news to radio to podcasts to digital and social media and more. Our promise was simple: We’ll deliver the news quickly and free of the bullshit and bad faith that was drowning out our national discourse.

    Now one year old, The Daily Recount was and continues to be an extraordinary media artifact – each segment is constructed from elaborately sourced samples of sound, graphics, and video clips. It employs no narrator, no “suits on set” —  instead our journalists build an entirely new product from the 24/7 barrage of batshit crazy which leaps from our tangled media ecosystem. My friend and co-founder John Heilemann calls it “Hip-Hop journalism” – a radical re-interpretation of a standard form, built on the beats, samples, and melodies of what’s come before.

    We spent nine months perfecting what we’ve come to call the “manufacturing process” that informs The Recount’s journalism. That’s an eternity for a media start up, but we took an approach familiar to anyone who’s worked at a technology company: Hire extraordinary talent and agree on the problem you were trying to solve, then put your heads down and work the problem until you’ve got a product you’d be proud to release. By April of last year we had the core team assembled. From April through July we made a version of The Daily Recount each and every day – and then threw it away, only to make another the next day. In late July we began to show our work to a small group of advisors and colleagues. By October that group had grown to more than 10,000 beta testers, and we felt ready to release our work into the wild.

    When we launched one year ago, we knew we were onto something, but we weren’t sure how our new idea would play out. We knew asking news consumers to adopt a new habit would be difficult – and that news consumers in general had shifted their consumption habits to social platforms. And we also knew that asking marketing partners to support anything covering the country’s toxic political environment was, at best, a heavy lift. But we did have a number of firmly held principles about not only the editorial product we were making, but also the role of journalism and the media business in today’s fractured information ecosystem.

    In our work, we committed to not only eliminate the bullshit so common in political coverage, but to use the impact of video to hold the powerful accountable to the truth (that’s the job of journalism, after all). In our business, we committed to rethink the core assumptions of how a media outlet produces, distributes, and gets paid for the work it does. We also knew that we’d have to be agile, that we’d make mistakes, and that we’d have to quickly adapt to survive. Thankfully, we counted Fred Wilson – the most thoughtful, patient and contrarian-minded venture capitalist I’ve had the honor to work with – as our first financial partner.  And we secured Bank of America as our core launch sponsor – a partnership that has grown several fold over this past year. Were it not for the vision and commitment of both, The Recount would remain confined to a set of white board images stored in my bedroom closet, a dream imagined but unrealized.

    ***

    October’s launch was covered by Vanity Fair, and in the month or two following, hundreds of thousands came by our site and app to check out our work. Initial feedback was consistently strong, but we also learned that our product was demanding – it truly was a new way to consume news. We’d developed a grammar and vocabulary that attracted hardcore fans – but a more casual mass audience would likely require spending millions of dollars, and endless months, attempting to convince people to form a new habit on our owned and operated properties. As I’ve written (extensively) elsewhere, it’s now ground truth that when it comes to national news, Facebook, Google, Apple, and others are the new gatekeepers of audience – particularly in digital video. If you want to build out your own properties, you have to pay the gatekeepers a steep rent – constantly.

    This was not unexpected. I’ve spent decades studying the tectonic changes in media wrought by the rise of digital. Every five or so years, I’d jump in and start a new media or technology company that played into those changes. But when I moved to New York two years ago, my intention was to get away from company creation, and lean more into scholarship and writing. But the challenge of imagining and executing a new approach to news consumption in the two most potent media forms – video and the internet – was just too seductive. And to do it with John and Fred, two of the best in the business – who just so happened to be close friends? Irresistible.

    So by late last year, The Recount had an excellent core product (and a growing set of new short form series), but it was time to crack the most intractable problem in post-platform media: Distribution. We were determined to not play the audience-arbitrage game that has bedeviled the media business these past five or so years (for more on that, see this post from this past summer). But on the occasion of our soft launch in mid-October, it was Twitter that provided us with a hint of how we’d grow – and of the role we’d play not only in the national conversation, but in the shifting power dynamics between platforms, media creators, audiences, and marketers.

    The post above was a sophisticated, 32-second edit of a clip spotted by one of The Recount’s producers (oh hey Brennan!), all of whom were already in the habit of scouring feeds all day long, looking for just the right moments to include in the Daily Recount. I’ve come to call this process the “human algorithm” – talented, experienced journalists attuned to the news of the day, leveraging a system of machines and feeds we’ve hacked together using commercial tools like SnapStream, TVEyes, TweetDeck, and Slack.

    In any case, that Italian translator video went bananas on Twitter, with more than two million views overnight. We learned something about the role we could play in the national political dialog – identifying just the perfect moments to propel and contextualize the conversation millions were having on Twitter and beyond. Rethinking the nuanced and critical role of editing, we began to test and learn, using Twitter as our preferred medium. This made sense, given the unique role the service plays in the news ecosystem – it’s a sketchpad for the first draft of history, and has a huge audience of people interested in the news.

    As we leaned into creating video built for the platform, engagement soared – as did our followers. When we launched, @TheRecount had just 10,000 followers and our posts had little attention and engagement compared with larger news brands on the platform. But after a few months of experimentation with our editorial on the platform, we’d grown sevenfold, and found that our posts were being picked up by leading figures in business, entertainment, politics and media.

    In March, we published a game-changing piece of journalism that proved a harbinger for the future of our distribution strategy. Produced the week the pandemic shut down offices across the U.S. (and of course, our own office in New York), the short film offered a devastating, fact-based account of how President Trump had downplayed the threat from COVID-19. Just four days after our office shut down, on March 17th, “Trump’s Coronavirus Calendar” debuted. 

    This post not only “went viral,” it also introduced our unique brand of journalism to more than ten million new viewers –  Madonna posted the video to her Instagram account, countless DC journalists quote tweeted it, pirated versions even traveled to Chinese sites like Weibo.  As the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelmed the world and threw the US election into chaos The Recount had, in a few short months, become an important voice in the national dialog. Oh, and right before the pandemic shut down the world, we welcomed new investors and believers into The Recount’s family – USV, Burda Ventures and Viacom/CBS led a new financing – which closed four days before we closed our offices. 

    ***

    The folks at Twitter had also noticed The Recount’s growing presence and engagement on their platform, and before the Calendar was posted, we’d already begun a set of conversations that led to an innovative partnership around Twitter’s Amplify product (I’ve written extensively about that here).  Working once again with Bank of America – and I must shoutout BofA’s innovative head of media Lou Paskalis, who really drove this partnership – we tested a pilot early in the year, then launched a fully realized media experience on Twitter in early June. The thesis was elegant: We’d combine our quality editorial work, which had grown to explainers, ongoing series, and topical features, with Twitter’s targeted reach, providing Bank of America the best of both worlds. If it worked, it augured an innovative approach to distribution where our advertisers became true partners in our success. 

    While I can’t publish internal results, I can state definitively that the partnership has indeed worked. Not only has The Recount grown exponentially, performance for our marketing partners has soundly beaten industry benchmarks – sometimes by as much as 400 percent. Since launching formally in June, we’ve added four new marketing partners, and are now expanding our coverage from our base in Politics to the corridors of power in Tech, Business, and Culture. We’ve also added partnerships with Flipboard, Roku, and iHeart – including the launch of three fast-growing podcasts in the past month alone, all of which have charted in their first month. 

    We’ve also developed the Recount Wire, an always on clip service available on our app and site that highlights the most important moments as they happen. The Wire feeds our work across all our products and distribution outlets, including a number of new narrated series and a burgeoning Instagram effort. (You can check out more Recount products here). 

    Since launch one year ago, our work has been viewed more than half a billion times – and one fifth of that traffic came in the past thirty days. Our posts on Twitter, now fueled by the Wire, continue to draw unparalleled engagement. This past October 8th, for example, President Trump released an unusual video, apparently shot from the South Lawn of the White House. Trump had just come back after his COVID diagnosis and trip to Walter Reed hospital, and in his unique style, he free-associated about the impact of the virus on senior citizens. The Recount’s editors found exactly the moment that mattered in that video, posting this:

    That same night, the president’s son was stepping in for his father, holding a packed indoor rally that sparked national concern. Again, our journalists found exactly the moment that mattered:

    More than ten million people watched those two clips, but more astonishing were the breadth and influence of folks who shared them. Tens of thousands commented on and/or shared the videos, including most of the White House press corps, Captain America (Chris Evans), late night host Jimmy Kimmel, the actors Don Cheadle and Kat Dennings, the wrestler Dave Bautista, and the television personality Farrah Moan, among countless others. 

    ***

    The Recount’s Twitter followers since late last year.

    What’s remarkable to me, as I think about where we started one year ago, is that October 8th no longer represents an unusual day for The Recount. We’re averaging roughly three to four million views a day on Twitter alone – and our editorial voice has moved to the center of the national discourse on the platform. 

    All of this progress in just one short year – more than seven months of which we’ve spent working remotely. That’s an incredible way to launch a brand. We’re now well on our way to delivering on our vision of reinventing how people consume their news, and I’m so proud of what this team has accomplished. In the coming months, we’ll have plenty of announcements about how we plan to take our brand and our voice to many more platforms, with exciting new partners and editorial products (I don’t want to spoil the fun, but think OTT/streaming, communications apps, and more). But we’d be nowhere without those that got us here so thanks to everyone our incredible staff, our partners, our investors, and especially the folks who engage with us every day. I hope we’ve made you proud – and here’s to what we’ll do together in the years to come.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:12:31 on 2020/06/29 Permalink
    Tags: , , , Top Posts   

    Marketers: Your Role In Social Discourse Is Critical 


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    How Brands Can Fix the Relationship Between Platforms, Audiences, and Media Companies (Hint: It’s Not a Boycott)

    (Second of a series. The first post reviews the media and platform ecosystem, and laments the role brand marketers have played in its demise.) 

    ***

    In my first post of this series, I laid out a fundamental problem with how digital media works today. Large digital platforms like Facebook and Google have cornered the market on audience attention, often with devastating impact on our national dialog. Along the way these platforms have developed sophisticated prediction and targeting engines which give marketers the ability to buy audiences with precision and scale. While this has been a boon for marketers’ businesses and the platforms’ profits, it’s also drained resources from independent, high-quality editorial outlets and stripped our national dialog of much-needed context.

    The loss of that context is at the core of an ever-growing #StopHateForProfit  social media boycott, which now includes huge brands like Unilever, Coca Cola, Verizon, and Honda. I’ll be writing about that next, but today I want to focus on how we got here, and what we can do about it.

    Over the past ten years, media companies have responded to their loss of audience by creating “viral” editorial that performs well inside the platform’s engagement-at-all-costs ecosystem.  Predictably, however, quality editorial – the context  journalists create for a living – rarely qualifies as viral. Besides flooding the platforms with videos of slippers which double as mops and two-second beer bongs, media companies have embraced Facebook and Google in other ways – selling them programming that never seems to gain audience or get renewed, building expensive and often unprofitable versions of themselves on each platform, or becoming platform advertisers themselves, a practice I call arbitrage in which media companies buy audience impressions wholesale and then mark them up to their marketer customers. In that first post, I spent a fair bit of time on arbitrage – mainly because I believe it’s a particularly despicable and self-defeating business practice.

    If we’re being honest with ourselves as media companies, none of our strategies of engagement with platforms have proven to be long-term business model winners. However, platforms own audience, and no amount of wishing it was otherwise will change that fact. If we want independent and quality editorial to maintain a vital place in our democracy, we have to imagine a new set of relationships between platforms, editorial, marketers and audiences. A promising innovation is already in place at one platform: Twitter.

    Twitter’s Unique Path

    Twitter has always been the underdog of the social networks – smaller, messier, less hell bent on conquering the world. But the service’s fast-twitch nature meant it quickly became an indispensable place for people to discover What’s Happening Right Now. Anything live and worth discussing – sports, news, gossip/culture – thrives there. News breaks on Twitter, but the rise of digital video ten years ago presented a significant barrier to growth. Given Twitter’s roots as a text-based service, the company needed to convince major media companies to view Twitter as a home for video content. Facebook and Google had YouTube and Instagram, and Twitter was playing from behind.

    In response, Twitter adopted a media-company friendly solution they called Twitter Amplify. Amplify has a unique model that fundamentally changes the power relationships between players in the media ecosystem. Most who use it give those fundamental changes little thought – they just see Amplify as a partnership tool, pure and simple. But once you grok Amplify’s unique approach, you realize its potential is wildly overlooked.

    In traditional media business models – which I call Packaged Goods Media – media companies create editorial, which attracts audience, which then attracts marketers, who pay media companies for access to the audience’s attention. Simplified, the ecosystem looked like this:

    In this simple model, marketers place their advertising messages inside the media companies owned and operated product, which the media company distributed itself. The advertising message was delivered in the context of quality editorial – editorial that the marketer had chosen proactively (within limits of church and state, of course) as part of a media planning process.  A critical assumption of this early model was this: Pairing relevant advertising messaging with quality editorial was vastly more successful for marketers – particular brand marketers – than advertising messaging delivered devoid of context. Before platforms, in fact, there were really only two channels for context-less advertising: Billboards and direct mail. Neither were particularly effective for building brands, though both had their place in the media ecosystem.

    But the rise of platforms created a new gatekeeper in this once-stable environment. Platforms quickly gained enviable audiences, but advertising models were slower to adapt.  Early in their development, Facebook and YouTube realized that to win even larger audiences, they needed to accommodate media companies’ editorial product on their platforms. To do so, they adopted a Packaged Goods Media model that looked an awful lot like the picture above.

    The bargain was simple: If you were a media company, you set up shop on the platform, acquired your own organic audience there, and once you got to a certain scale, you sold ads there – either on your own or in partnership with the platforms. Media companies early to these platforms – major TV networks, large newspapers, digital pioneers like Buzzfeed and Vox  – quickly built large audiences. But after a while, media companies realized that maintaining those audiences would prove difficult and expensive. Facebook and YouTube now controlled distribution. The media companies had built on the platform’s land, and if there’s one truth in capitalism, it’s this: landlords will always demand their rent.

    Media companies found themselves increasingly subject to the whims of the platforms’ algorithms and business models. They replicated a Packaged Goods Media model on top of the platforms, and discovered – shocker! – that they no longer owned the audiences they were trying to sell to marketers. Instead, they had to buy audience from the platforms, and resell it to marketers – again, on the platform. That deal wasn’t very good for anyone (save the platforms), and as marketers realized they could go direct to platforms to get their audiences more efficiently, the decline of traditional media was accelerated.

    How Amplify Works, And Why It (Really, Really) Matters

    Twitter’s Amplify points to a powerful new narrative. It works like this:

    1. Media company partners with Twitter to become an editorial partner, stands up editorial on platform (Twitter).
    2. Media company partners with marketer to support editorial on platform.
    3. Marketer and editorial use platform tools to identify both editorial and audience the marketer wishes to reach.
    4. Marketer uses its dollars to distribute both editorial and marketing messaging to audience.
    5. The platform and the editorial company split the revenue. All parties are aware of and read into the terms of the deal, no arbitrage is possible.

    In some ways, this feels similar to Packaged Goods Models of old. The marketer is wrapping its advertising message around editorial, just like in the pages of a magazine or a website before platforms dis-intermediated editorial from audience. And the results speak volumes: Campaigns that are contextually paired with good editorial tend to perform far better than campaigns without an editorial pairing.*

    But what gets missed is the revolution inside step #4 above. Amplify allows the marketer to use Twitter’s massive investment in advertising technology and audience development to define what audience it wants to reach, and then use a media company’s editorial as a lure to draw that audience through its marketing messaging. Let that sink in: The marketer – not the media company, not the platform, but the marketer – is responsible for putting the audience together with editorial. 

    The result is that on Twitter, a marketing partnership like the one The Recount has with Bank of America is a four-way win for every participant in the media ecosystem. The marketer gets scale, precision targeting, its choice of editorial (which allows for brand safety), and the resultant lift on the performance of its campaign. The editorial gets a direct revenue and business relationship with the marketer, and is exposed to audience members it otherwise would have to pay the platform to reach. The audience gets contextual advertising wrapped in content the audience finds interesting. And the platform, in this case Twitter, has a happy marketing partner, quality content distributed across its platform, and a revenue split with editorial.  Win, win, win, win.

    Amplify’s model puts the power of connecting audience and editorial in the hands of marketers – highlighting the crucial role marketers have always played in determining which editorial thrives in the media ecosystem. As I argued in my last post, far too many marketers have abdicated their responsibility as arbiters of which editorial deserves their financial support, opting instead to let Facebook and Google’s algorithms choose their audiences and their business results. Those algorithms will always favor a platform’s bottom line over the context and healthy dialog that quality editorial can provide. Programs like Amplify finally combine the power of a platform’s scale, data, and precision with the marketers’ responsibility to support editorial’s crucial role in social discourse.

    Finally, and importantly, the best Amplify partnerships deepen what have become attenuated relationships between large brands and the media companies that depend on them. If companies really are serious about  “multi-stakeholder capitalism” and becoming a “force for good,” they have to start engaging with – and supporting – the story at a deeper level. It’s time for marketers to lead again.

    As I write this, the media world is embroiled in a multi-layered narrative involving hate speech, platform boycotts, health crises, and economic catastrophes. But the way forward is not to pull back spending indiscriminately and walk away. Instead, marketers must do the work of understanding the problems at hand, then actively lean into solutions that can address them. Memo to all you marketers out there: Don’t sleep on Twitter Amplify.

    The third post in this series will explore the current “social media boycott” in light of the first two posts. 

    * Far, far better. If you are marketer, please be in touch and we’d be happy to share just how much better – jbat at therecount dot com. 

     
  • feedwordpress 15:31:31 on 2020/06/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , Recount Media, , The Recount, , Top Posts,   

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering 


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    It’s getting complicated out there.

    Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.

    So let’s talk about it. Grab your favorite beverage and read along. I’m heading into a bit of media theory for the next couple thousand words – I hope this will start an interesting conversation.

    For those of you who want a TL:DR summary, here it is: It’s time to get back to the work marketers used to be really good at: Deciding on the appropriate context in which to engage your audience. And it’s time to pull back from a habit most of you have fallen into: Letting the machines choose your audience for you. Thanks to new approaches which fuse at-scale ad targeting with high-quality editorial product, you can step into this renewed role without sacrificing the reach, precision, and targeting afforded by the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their kin. To understand how, let’s review some history.

    The Old Media Model

    If you read this site back when I wrote regularly on media (roughly 2003-2015), you’ll recall I laid out several basic tenets about how the media business works. It’s comprised of three core components: Editorial (the media company’s content), Audience (people who give their attention to the content), and Marketer (commercial actors who desire the Audience’s attention in the context of the Editorial). Of course, in the past ten years, a fourth component has eclipsed all three: The Internet Platform.

    Before the major Internet platforms deconstructed the media business, the three original components came together in what we’ll call a media product (I’m still partial to “publication,” but many think only of print when they hear that word). Print, television shows, and early web sites all served as vessels for a commercial relationship between  Editorial, Audience, and Marketer. The media company took the financial risk of creating and distributing the media product, and if successful, the marketer paid to run advertising inside the media product. In some cases, the audience also paid a subscription fee for the editorial. But for most media companies, advertising support was crucial to chin the bar of profitability and make a go of it as a business.

    A critical element of the media-product-as-vessel model for commercial transactions was that context matters. The media product created context for audience engagement, and if the marketer offered messaging that aligned with that context, it stood to reason that the audience would be more receptive to the advertiser’s message. Suffice to say that with the rise of audience buying on massive platforms, context has been lost, with nearly incalculable downsides across the media ecosystem (and society at large). More on that later on.

    Meanwhile, back in those pre-platform days, distribution was important, but it was also a constant. Most media companies consolidated distribution by acquiring broadcast licenses or cable networks (for television) or print distribution networks (if you were a magazine or newspaper company). And if you were a media startup, you could leverage those distribution networks for a relatively predictable rent – often without spending any capital up front. When we started Wired, for example, we secured newsstand distribution by agreeing to split the revenue earned by our nascent magazine with our distribution agent.

    I call this old-school model “Packaged Goods Media.” Fifteen years ago I noted that “PGM” was giving way to a new model, which I termed “Conversational Media,” or CM. CM, of course, was the precursor to “social media” – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – and as I thought out loud about this new phenomenon, I noted several crucial distinctions between it and Packaged Goods Media. I predicted that the economics of Editorial, Audience, and Marketing were all going to change dramatically. In many ways I was spot on. But in several others, I was dead wrong. Here’s a summary of a few key points:

    • Editorial models would evolve from “dictation” to “conversational,” where the audience – and knowledge of the audience through data – became a central driver of editorial creation.
    • Distribution would become nearly free, obviating the rent-seeking monopolies held by major media companies. In fact, I wrote: “economic differentiation based on the control of distribution – the very heart of PGM-based business models – is irrelevant in CM-based services.”
    • Online, publications become more like a service, rather than a product. I noted that software, which was still largely a packaged product, was also heading in this direction. That means media will have different economics and different advertising models over time (I called them “native advertising” at the time).

    I’d argue that over the next ten years I got the first and third predictions relatively right, but I entirely whiffed on how distribution would play out. I simply failed to imagine how Facebook, Google, and others would leverage their newfound control of audience attention. In one piece from 2006, I wrote:

    “…finding massively scaled Conversational Media companies [besides Google] is a rather difficult search … it’s unclear whether CM companies will mature into massive conglomerates like Time Warner.”

    Well, it’s certainly clear now. Facebook, Google, and their peers are among the most powerful and well-capitalized companies in the world, and they got that way by doing one thing very well: Capturing the attention of billions of us. That gives them a near monopoly on digital distribution, which they’ve leveraged into a near monopoly on digital advertising. In the process, these tech platforms have eliminated the traditional role of publishers as a proxy for audience interest and engagement. I used to believe this trend spelled the end of high-quality independent media brands – indeed, it’s why I didn’t start a media brand after selling Federated back in 2013. But media models are always evolving, and I now see a new way forward. To understand that, we must first review where we stand today. And to do that, we must examine arbitrage.

    The Arbitrage 

    If I were writing a sequel to “The Search” focused solely on how digital media models have shifted in the past 15 years,  I’d probably title it “The Arb.”

    It would not be a pretty story. In the past ten years, audience arbitrage has become a dominant model of the digital media business. It’s an awful business practice that erodes trust, devalues media brands, and dilutes the importance of marketing. What follows is a bit of a rant, but hell, you’re still reading at this point, so refill your glass, and let’s get to it.

    The dictionary definition of arbitrage is “the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset.”

    In media, the asset being arbitraged is audience attention. The arbitrageurs are publishers. Their enablers are the major tech platforms, fueled by dollars from advertisers.

    Here’s how it works. A big publisher like Buzzfeed or Cheddar sells a million-dollar advertising deal to a marketing brand. The media company guarantees the marketer’s message will collect a certain number of audience impressions or views, charging the marketer a “cost per thousand” for those impressions. (Known as “CPM,” cost per thousand pricing ranges widely, from a few pennies to $25-40 for “premium” placements). Utilizing a Packaged Goods media model, the publisher might fulfill those impressions on its “owned and operated” properties, but over the past ten years, doing so  has accrued significant drawbacks. The top three:

    • It’s expensive. Acquiring and retaining audiences on a media company’s own property is often far more costly than finding those same audiences on an at-scale platform like Facebook or Google.
    • It lacks sophisticated targeting. In the past decade, marketers have grown accustomed to the data-rich precision of large platforms. They don’t want to pay for just any old Buzzfeed or Cheddar audience member. They want their messaging to reach exactly the target they specify, and most publishers don’t have either the technology or the audience scale to fulfill the data-driven demands of modern marketers.
    • It forces extra work on the marketer. I am not the first, nor will I be the last to note that marketers and agencies don’t like to do extra work. While plenty of larger publishers have built high-quality advertising solutions on their owned and operated channels, marketers view these point solutions as  just one more channel they have to manage, analyze, and report on. It’s just So Much Easier to buy Facebook, after all.

    Because of all this and more, publishers have become audience buyers on Facebook, Google, and other networks. Enterprising publishers began packaging their own content with marketing messages from their sponsors, then they got busy promoting that bundle to audiences on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, among others.

    This is where “the arb” comes in: The publisher will charge the marketer, say, a $15 CPM, but acquire their audiences on Facebook for $7, clearing an $8 profit on every thousand impressions.

    You might ask why the platforms or the marketers don’t put a stop to this practice, and you’d be right to ask. But consider the economic incentives, and things get a bit more clear. The platforms are getting paid for what they do all day long: the delivery of precise audience impressions at scale. As far as platforms are concerned, the media brands are just advertisers in different dress.  Over the years, Facebook and Google have even accommodated the arbitrage by connecting all parties directly through their advertising technology systems.

    OK, so the platforms get paid to deliver audiences to marketers on behalf of media companies, but why on earth do the marketers put up with being arb’d? Couldn’t they just pay the same $7 CPM directly to Facebook, eliminate the middle man, and save the $8 spread?

    Well, indeed they can, and in most cases when it comes to buying audience on Facebook or Google, that’s exactly what they do. But remember my comments about context way up toward the top of this article? Some marketers still believe that the context of a media brand can help their messaging perform better, and they’re not wrong in that belief.  So they’ll pay a bit more to have their messaging associated with what they believe is quality editorial. And if that media brand does the work of acquiring that audience for them, so much the better – that’s less work for the marketer to do.

    But let me be clear: arbitrage sucks. Arbitrage is only lucrative in markets with imperfect information. It’s usually a great strategy in the early stages of a new ecosystem, when media buyers are less familiar with how advertising technology works. As those buyers get smarter, they start to squeeze the media company’s margins, devaluing content and context, and pressing ever closer to the price they could get directly from the platform. A good example is Demand Media – a company that, a decade ago, managed to insert itself between Google’s search algorithms and an advertiser’s desire to be associated with content around a particular topic. Demand pulled off a billion-dollar IPO based on creating advertiser-friendly “content farms” around popular Google searches. But advertisers figured out the arb, and Demand’s once billion-dollar valuation fell more than twenty fold in the past five years.  A similar fate has befallen the once high-flying arbitrageurs  of social media. Cheddar, Vice, BuzzFeed, and many others all played the game, but over time, markets will root out an arb. (Cheddar was smart enough to sell before its arb was uncovered – but it sold at a fraction of the sky-high valuations its peers once held).

    But wait, one might ask – aren’t the media companies adding true value? What about that context, which makes a marketer’s message more relevant and engaging? Isn’t that worth something?

    It certainly is, but this is where the lack of transparency around ad buying on platforms comes into play. Audience buying is cloaked in opacity – the major platforms are deeply invested in making sure no one truly understands how attention is priced. That means a media company buying audience on Facebook or Google will always be at an informational disadvantage – exposing them to a new kind of arbitrage, one executed by the platform’s own algorithms and benefiting the platform’s bottom line. Again, arbitrage works best in markets with asymmetric information features – and informational asymmetry is built into how Platforms operate. Over the past five or so years, most major media companies have come to realize they’re the ones being gamed.

    Audience arbitrage on platforms has even more destructive attributes. Because media buyers have outsourced their audience acquisition to either the media company or the platform itself, the marketer becomes disconnected from the context of its audience. Millions of impressions are scattered across millions of tiny content bundles, all of which are lost in a sea of endless posts on nearly every imaginable topic. The context and meaning that holds all brands together is lost.  Media companies, pressed by ever-thinning margins, will cut corners, buying “junk traffic” or worse, creating junk content that titillates or tricks audiences into false engagement. On the surface, boxes get checked, audiences get served, impressions get logged. But over time, editorial content deteriorates, deep relationships between brands and audiences attenuate, and the media ecosystem begins to fail.

    So what can be done about it?

    Well, at The Recount we’re exploring a way forward, through a brand new partnership we’re launching on Twitter this month. We’re calling it “Real-Time Recount,” and in the next installment of this post (I’m pushing 2500 words here, after all), I’ll explain more about the theory of the case behind it. For now, you can read more about what we’re doing in this Ad Age piece (paywalled, alas), or over on Fred’s blog. Thanks for coming along, and I look forward to the conversation I hope this will spark.

    Image: http://shop.drywellart.com/product/bourbon-empty-glass-print
     
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