Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Feeding Readers Ads Without Getting Burned

While listening to For Immediate Release this morning I heard the team discussing ads on RSS feeds. Specifically they talked about how Castrol was buying ads to promote its new podcast.

I was struck by the somewhat lukewarm reaction to the idea, since I've been seeing these ads for a while and, in the case of Inhabitat, bloggers Jill Fehrenbacher and Sarah Rich asked readers to change to a Feedburner feed (as opposed to the RSS feed created by the blog itself) specifically so they could sell ads.

I had no problem doing it at the time. I felt that Jill and Sarah were creating great content, I wanted to read it, having an ad was a small price. Another 300 or so people who use bloglines apparently agreed with me.

I know with me it helped that at the time they requested the Feeburner change the editors noted that they wanted to hire more writers to provide better content. It all seemed like a fair tradeoff, and one that pays dividends to readers.

But they did get a bit of negative feedback from readers, most of which blew over pretty quickly. During an IM conversation today, Jill said the bigger problem came when she tried to use partial rather than full feeds to encourage people to link directly onto the site.

"Content takes time to produce and when people read your RSS instead of coming to the site, you are basically giving away free content with very little benefit to you or your blog," she said. "When I tried [to switch to a partial feed] all hell broke loose with my readers, so I switched it back... Personally, I'd rather [readers] come to my site, so i can keep track of my traffic and use that to get more advertising, but people like the convenience of RSS."

That struck me as interesting. People were fine with getting the ads, but they revolted when their full feeds were taken away. I believe the feed change came before the Feedburner move, since it was an attempt to drive traffic back to the site.

Keep in mind that Jill is a grad student and still devotes about 20 hours a week to her blog. Obviously she's doing something right. The site measures upwards of 350,000 hits a month and, according to Feedburner, has about 1200 subscribers. Still, Jill says "But who knows, really? hard to measure these things."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Watch for Webbed Feet

My wife and I will often see friends purchase big houses, nice cars and put their kids into fancy schools. These are people with similar jobs and similar life circumstances, and we're sometimes stumped as to how they can seem to do it when we can't.

I believe that we just don't see everything. We have no idea how much debt someone may have piled up, we have no idea whether they have a trust fund, we have no idea of they have anything saved for retirement or if they're saving at all. We only see what they let us see, so it's impossible to do a true analysis.

When the Boston Globe first wrote a glowing feature about a 17-year-old Harvard student with a large book contract, something smelled fishy to me. As fishy as when I was a young, struggling reporter and Stephen Glass was the darling of the journalism establishment. He seemed to defy gravity. He did... he lied.

Now it turns out that the truth behind Kaavya Viswanathan is much more murky than the perception. It turns out her novel was "conceptualized" by a book packager and she's accused of lifting parts completely from another writer. All very strange.

This is why people hate public relations. Because articles are just a few hundred words, readers only see what PR people and reporters have let them see. Like a duck moving quietly and smoothly above the water, readers never see the webbed feet moving frantically underneath.

What's great about social media is that everyone can see the webbed feet. It fundamentally changes how PR is handled, because everything is going to be out there at some point. If you're consciously selling vaporware people are going to figure it out and it's just going to hurt more later.

If you don't believe me, ask Viswanathan.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

A Picture is Worth....

A while back I talked about how the Pulitzers would recognize some online content as a tip of the hat to the New Orleans area papers that lost everything, but still reported. The blogging world was buzzing with how it's unfair that Pulitzers are only offered to print publications and not those that exist entirely online.

In any case, the list came out and, as expected, Hurricane Katrina coverage dominated the prizes. But the prize that has always fascinated me is photojournalism. I've done quite a bit of photography in my life, and a photo that can tell a story is something special. It's a method of storytelling that goes mostly unappreciated, as many people feel that a picture is a picture, they can take them on their cell phones. But a high-quality, well-done photograph can leave you awed.

Look through anyone's framed pictures and you'll see lots of smiling faces, some from different stages in life, but most are posed and taken to record a moment in time. I try to tell a story in my pictures, even if it's about my children playing, dancing or a moment of joy.

Yes, I have my fair share of stagnant, smiling photos, but I strive for that storytelling idea. It's incredibly difficult, and I have a lot of failed shots to prove it.

But when photographers get it right, the results are amazing.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Online into Real Life

A while ago I heard Shel Holtz talk about the way he used to know the doings in a former employer. He was a smoker and regularly clustered outside with other smokers where random people from all over the company came together to talk.

When he stopped smoking he lost one of his key lines of communication.

Today that same casual environment can, in part, be replaced by a Wiki, but should it? There is nothing like a face-to-face meeting. Sure, you can talk with someone on IM, phone, email and even video conferece. You can read their blog, post comments and discuss things on a wiki, but those activities are all done between face-to-face meetings.

As I move through offices of clients, friends and even publications, I'm struck by how the environments never seem to take meeting places into account. People meet for different reasons, so private offices, conference rooms, lounges and even informal standing areas are all necessary.

But too often offices go one way or the other. I've seen massive rooms of flat desks with people quietly typing, every conversation is heard by everyone. I've seen row after row of private offices, each with a closed door. I've seen row after row of cube, making it impossible to decipher one from the other.

Companies spend plenty of money fretting about their online presence and determining what it says about the company, but how much do they spend thinking about the work area itself?

I'm curious to hear from people about what their offices are like, what works and what doesn't, and how their work concepts move from real life to online and back again.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Strange Doings

The other day, when I looked on bloglines, I had 14 or so subscribers. I looked today and there were none. I'm sure they didn't all go away, but I can't figure out why they're not showing up.

Is it a problem with Bloglines, Blogger or me?

Is Podcasting a Bust?

The social media world is buzzing about Charlene Li's Forrester report in which it's discovered that only about 1 percent of people are actually listening to podcasts, and many turn to traditional radio as a prime source of content.

So, should we just dismiss podcasting as a stepping stone and move on? Even Charlene says, "no."

What we're seeing now is a situation in which people have options as to how they want to receive information. A colleague of mine suggests, for example, that we put out podcast versions of press releases. Of course, these would be modified a bit, but it offers an inexpensive way to present information in a different format. Will it work? Maybe. For the cost involved in both time and effort, does it matter? Probably not.

Most of the work in a press release is already done. You just need to modify it slightly and read it, the messaging, quotes and content are long-since worked out. Conducting a quick, news-based Q&A with a VP of Marketing, CEO or whoever else is quoted not only acts as a podcast, but also a bit of media training for interviews. Not a bad use of time. And if one or two journalists quote from the podcast rather than asking for an interview (or if it gains a bit more coverage thanks to the information) than it's an even better use of time.

Keep in mind that television was first shown at the World's Fair in 1939. By 1950, 11 years and a World War later, it had entered just 9 percent of US households [reference]. Fifteen years later it reached close to critical mass at 92 percent, growing just 6 more percentage points through today.

Yet, you still hear people call the 1950s the "Golden Age of Television." Why? Because that initial 9 percent represented people with lots of disposable income, those who were influential as well.

Are podcasts reaching these people? I don't know, but I know that my uncle listens to a few, he owns a small business in New Jersey. My mother and father listen to a few as well, as do many people I know who own MP3 devices. Oh... and who has the disposable income to purchase MP3 players (such as iPods) that have good sized hard drives on which to store podcasts?

Take a wild guess.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Why I Blog

Long before I ever started blogging I started writing. I'm not going to run through my resume here, but I started in radio journalism at 17 and ever since have been getting paid, in some way, to watch my fingers move across a keyboard.

That said, I still have trouble selling freelance work. I spent some time making a living as a freelancer in the late 90s and found it to be a frustrating profession. I'd spend hours working on an article only to receive barely enough to cover a quarter of the work. So I landed a full-time job in PR and have not looked back.

But every once in a while a story pops out and lands in my Word file. I this past winter I took a blog post from my personal blog, expanded it and submitted it to the Boston Globe West section. They have a column called Suburban Diary in which anyone can submit a story. I received some good feedback from the editor, did some edits to get it down to the word limit, submitted again and waited.

I saw many good pieces get published, and a few not so good. But mine never came up. This week I finally received a note saying that it was officially rejected.

Frankly, I can't figure out why, but that's the Globe's decision.

So why do I blog? Because I want my writing to have an audience.