Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Maher's "New Rule: Avatar America" Isn't Political As Much As It Points To How Most Of Us Hide Behind Avatars

We don't usually post anything political on this blog but we thought this "New Rule" by Bill Maher about avatars isn't really political and points out an essential truth about most of us on social media.

The segment about everyone is inauthentic because we hide behind avatars starts at 1:58 in the video but please note: Some of the language and part of the video is NSFW. But the essential point starts at 3:58:
Everyone's social media persona now is like a candidate running for office, holding babies, doing photo ops, making sure every statement is carefully sanded down so as not to upset anybody. Facebook should be called twoFacebook. 
His point: avatars are less interesting, less authentic than the real person. We thought it worth sharing because we've all done the photo op thing, the liking of something to show we're good people if what we actually do is limited to what we "like" or don't like (i.e., the anger emoji) on Facebook.

Not saying we should go out and seek to offend others. Trolling seems like a strange, ineffective waste of time (it never persuades people with opposing views). But we think it's worth looking at how some of us present ourselves over social media because most of us need to find a more effective way to be authentic on social media.

And that includes blog writers who hide behind the "editorial we" such as in this post.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Three Factors Affecting Retail That Should Concern Marketers -- Even Those Outside the Sector

(This article originally appeared in CommPro.biz.)

Amid news coverage about the latest U.S. economic growth and unemployment figures -- both, coincidentally, at 4.1% -- there's a story that hasn't been mentioned. It's not the potential impact of tariffs and trade wars. It's not about whether the coal sector should (or can) be revived.

It's about retail, which contributes $2.6 trillion annually to U.S. GDP, according to the National Retail Federation, approximately 15% of the total economy. That includes retailing companies along with other companies that support the retail industry, such as logistics, including trucking and shipping; warehousing; construction and maintenance; agriculture; manufacturing; technology; and health care. 

Unfortunately, the retail sector has an opposite story to tell: Traditional retailers are not only not growing or hiring, many -- including Macy's, Sears, Gymboree, Lord & Taylor, Foot Locker, Gap, Starbucks, Subways, GNC and at least another dozen -- have announced plans to close more than 2,500 stores over the next year. Worse, Toys R Us (735 stores), Teavana (365) and Bon-Ton (256), among others, are shutting down completely.

I've never been a big shopper but the death of traditional retail -- what some are calling "the retailpocalypse" is bad news for marketers for the following reasons:
  1. Laid-off workers may cut back purchases, ignore marketing messages: There are employees at 3,868 stores who will lose their jobs and benefits and will need new jobs. Even if no other store closes -- and after I originally wrote this, Brookstone announced it would close 100 mall store -- retailers have been cutting jobs even while maintaining the same number of stores. According to the Wall St. Journal, Macy's has shed 52,000 jobs since 2008; and according to the National Retail Federation, the sector employed 29 million people in 2012, but that number was down to 15,836,200 as of May 2017 -- almost a 50% decline in just five years. With reports that businesses are having trouble finding good employees, there may be good news for laid off retail staff. But those open positions may not be nearby and almost certainly will require convincing recruiters that non-traditional employees (since former retail employees may not have the necessary experience or skill sets) should not get screened out. Making a career transition is difficult, and we know that some may be unwilling or unable to secure full-time work in another sector. The implications for marketers: when people are out of work, they may not be receptive to marketing, promotions, etc. 
  2. Store closings affects malls, local communities: By April 2018, announced store closings projected the loss of 77 million square feet of real U.S. real estate, on pace to surpass last year's record of 105 million square feet, the previously highest loss reported since 2008. These closings have affected prime locations like New York's SoHo neighborhood, malls and small towns. The problem for marketers: is the potential impact on communities and social patterns. According to a Time article, "The Death and Life of the Shopping Mall," from 2017, "The shopping mall has been where a hug swath of middle-class America went for far more than shopping. It was the home of first jobs and blind dates, the place for family photos and ear piercing, where goths and grandmothers could somehow walk through the same doors and find something they all liked." So when malls lose retail tenants, people stop hanging out. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the shift to e-commerce "has devastated" Britain's main streets or central shopping districts. The result: marketers may lose another touchpoint with consumers such as branded in-store merchandising and displays.
  3. Loss of local retailers hits local media: Retailers, once an important source for local advertising, have cut back on advertising. Local newspapers have seen a decline in advertising that may be attributable to the drop in retailers' ads, and we continue to see local papers fire staffs and shrink the size of their papers. The problem for marketers: If newspapers -- both print and online -- shut down, marketers will lose important vehicles to reach consumers, whether with paid communications (such as circulars, coupons, and ads) or earned (such as mentions, articles, etc. via PR). 
(Burslem’s Queen Street, where a third of the shops are boarded up. Photographer: Lola Paprocka and Pani Paul for Bloomberg Businessweek)

Unfortunately, we're seeing a potential downward spiral. As more people get laid off from retail jobs, they may spend less so that more stores close. As more stores close, those businesses that support retail -- including, for example, toy makers who used to sell exclusively through Toys R Us -- may also close. Too many shuttered locations sends a negative message to other potential companies, disrupting the local economy as residents either order online or must drive further and further to buy the things they used to be able to find in town. And local media continues to fade away.

Traditional retailers need to know how to compete to offer what customers want, which includes selection, low cost, ease of returns. It takes more than Wal-Mart dropping "Stores" from its official name to show it's an e-commerce player. In the U.K., which has the highest rate of online purchasing according to Bloomberg Businessweek, there have been calls from people like the Chancellor of the Exchequer to "find a better way of taxing the digital economy."

It's important to note that Amazonification -- the dominance by Amazon, which is an often-cited reason for traditional retail's woes -- may not be inevitable. According to the Wall St. Journal's Christopher Mims "Even Amazon, a Colossus, Has Its Limits," part of where Amazon is most successful is in driving down prices of commodity items, not in developing premium devices like an iPhone (its success with Alexa notwithstanding). 

The bottom line: whether or not marketers operate in the retail sector, they need to be aware of the challenges facing retail. Marketers must look to make suggestions how their clients (whether they work in house or for an outside agency) can function during this period of disruption because some of the issues may also impact other sectors.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Five Challenges Affecting Local TV News

A couple of years ago, the demand for hyperlocal information as well as the recognition of marketers that were willing to pay to reach a hyperlocal audience  was seen to be a boon for local media. The trend indicated hyperlocal media would generated more eyeballs and receive more marketing dollars.

Unfortunately, while there's still strong demand for hyperlocal news, local print and broadcast news outlets are facing challenges. 

For local papers, one previously unanticipated problem was the dependence on advertising from local retailers. The retailpocalypse, which describes the sector's meltdown resulting in the shuttering of hundreds of stores (likes Sears, K-Mart) or the bankruptcies of entire chains (Toys R Us, Bon-Tons), has also resulted in a significant drop in local newspaper  advertising. So we've seen local newspapers shrink in size or close. 

It's gotten to the point that Dr. Michelle Ferrier at Scripps College of Communication at Ohio University has developed an interactive map called The Media Deserts Project to "identify areas that lack access to fresh, local news and information. We map layers of daily newspaper circulation, hyperlocal online news sites and other emerging media to identify underserved and underrepresented communities." The vast majority of the country, according to the research, has 0-2 daily newspapers -- and this incudes large cities. New Jersey (is) poised to invest $5 million into local journalism to shore up local reporting.

So local newspapers have to find new ways to get the money necessary to sustain their local journalism. That may mean experimenting with new business models.

Meanwhile, while local TV news may not have been as vulnerable to the loss of retail advertising. they face a different set of challenges. Unlike local news, one of the fundamental challenges to local TV news is the product itself.
  1. Local TV news programs compete not only with other local TV news but also with social media. Competition for local broadcast used to be between ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. Now it's from Twitter and Facebook. So news departments are very well aware their competition has expanded significantly. It also means that local TV news is more inclined to broadcast clickbait stories that are quick and easy to tell, rather than more meaningful news that may have more impact on the community.

  2. They typically have more hours to fill but not more resources. A generation ago, the local news had two broadcasts at 6pm and 10pm or 11pm. These days, local news may air at 4pm, 5pm, and 6pm plus 10pm or 11pm. Unfortunately, news departments haven't gotten larger to help cover more news. So reporters have to repeat the news on different programs, producing a segment at 5pm and another segment offering a different take on the same story at 6pm. Or they have to find two stories, one to tell at 4pm and another at 6pm -- which means they don't have much time to develop either story.

  3. Reporters are pushed to post their stories on social media, too. Sometimes the people who are scooping the 6pm News are the reporters themselves who are incentivized to push content out via social media. (Station bosses look at the number of followers for each reporter, the amount of engagement, etc.) So you can see behind-the-scenes aspects of the day's story on their Twitter or Facebook feeds. (These posts often include links back to the station's website.) So while they're putting together a package to be broadcast, reporters also have to keep in mind how to tell the story effectively via social. 

  4. Broadcast reporters must be multimedia-friendly. They produce their package, then Tweet about it, then write up a text article for the website,  and then also produce a video that has photos and captions but perhaps no actual footage of the reporter. That last format is ideal for commuters who want to watch video but don't necessarily want audio to accompany it because it's noisy on the subway or commuter rail.

  5. The tail wagging the dog is views, likes and clicks, not policy stories. The slogan for local news used to be "If it bleeds, it leads" the broadcast. While that's still the case, story selection is often based on what will get the most viewership, not necessarily what news will affect the community. This result: the further clickbait-as-news that is shorter, cuter, fluffier -- which many reporters don't like but must follow. The more significant kind of news takes more time to research, develop and tell -- and reporters don't have much time; they've got overwhelming and competing demands placed on them. 
There are structural issues facing local print and TV news, and local outlets have to evolve with the times -- and this has been going on, in one form or another since the early 1980s, setting up 1987's "Broadcast News." But this post is in no way trying to blame reporters, producers or assignment staffs. Their jobs have gotten tougher -- no question. 
The intent is provide consumers of local TV news with a sense of what's driving the type of coverage being produced, and to keep that in mind when they watch, read or "like" a segment. It's also to help businesses think about how they approach local TV news if they want to get coverage. 

Let us know if you think we got this wrong or if you have insights into how local media can address the challenges they're facing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

More Problems for Retail

The retail sector is vital to the health of the U.S. economy, and we felt the myriad of problems plaguing the sector would generate more attention in 2018, and unfortunately, we've been see more of those problems in the media.

One of the key issues not getting attention in prior years, we felt, was the impact that store closing would have on the real estate sector. Back in April, Bloomberg Business validated our prediction with an article titled, "The Retail Real Estate Glut Is Getting Worse:  Stores have announced the closing of 77 million square feet of shopping space so far this year."

The article included a chart of the combined square footage lost from store closings going back to 2008, and the trend is bad. In just four months (when the article was published), 2018 has eclipsed full-year results for every year except 2017 and 2008. Keep in mind: 2008 saw a financial collapse of Lehman Brothers and other big finance -- so a significant year. 

And yet. the difference between a full year in 2008 and four months in 2018 us less than 11 million square feet. We're certainly on track to surpass 2008's total and could eclipse 2017, which is only 2.8 million higher than April's losses.

The idea that all stores are going to go away, due to Amazonification, is not likely to happen in the near term. After all, even Amazon, Warby Parker and others have been opening brick-and-mortar store locations. 

That said, the premise that the underlying value of real estate holdings may be more valuable than the retail chain itself may no longer be true -- or no longer true to the same extent, in an era of so-called zombie malls.

The reason: lease values, which are dropping to keep current clients or to entice new ones, are having a downward pressure on the valuation of retail's real estate portfolios. That serves as a disincentive for investors to put less pressure on retail stores to shut shutter more stores.

Another problem, according to the Wall St. Journal: "Retail’s Other Problem: Too Few Clerks in the StoreMacy’s, J.C. Penney and others have cut jobs even more than they have closed stores" Even while operating the same number of stores, Macy's has, according to the Journal, "shed 52,000 workers since 2008."

What that means is if you thought service at retail locations has dropped over the past 10 years, you're actually right! While some of that may reflect new ways consumers shop as well as new store concepts, which are typically smaller or operate with more layers of tech, lower headcount will make it difficult for customers to find a level of service they expect.

“If brick-and-mortar retailers can’t compete on price in an online environment, the only thing that allows them to survive is to provide a positive in-store experience,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of a retail union.

And that may cause more people to abandon other bricks-and-mortar locations, furthering the downward spiral of one of the largest U.S. industries. 

We certainly hope that this doesn't come to pass.  Let us know what you think.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

More Validation of Our Prediction of a TechLash

Back in 2017, we predicted that there would be much closer scrutiny of big tech companies in 2018, and we continue to see that every month. Zuckerberg continues to testify every few weeks, whether here in the U.S. or in the E.U.

Here's a Wall St. Journal article,  "In ‘Founder Friendly’ Era, Star Tech Entrepreneurs Grab Power, Huge Pay: Silicon Valley financiers are losing leverage to star entrepreneurs."

While this article doesn't address Congressional oversight, it does put startups under a different spotlight, one that might not have occurred two years ago.

The question for us, as always, is how does this affect how the media covers big tech. Again, we think the media will continue to keep a closer eye on big tech than it used to just two or three years ago.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Practical Jokes on April Fools Have Impractical Results: 5 Tips on When Not to Use Humor to Humanize Your Brand

We're not big fans of April Fools jokes. Especially now when credibility and corporate culture are currently battle ground issues for news, media and marketing.

We get that April Fools pranks can be seen as a way to humanize a person or company not otherwise associated with a sense of humor. But that can be a strong reason not to engage in a prank.

Three years ago, we wrote a blog about an April Fools prank on Good Morning America that we thought undermined the credibility of ABC News and of George Stephanopoulos

This year's candidate for worst practical joke: Elon Musk. 

This was followed by two other related tweets.

None of them funny given last week's news about a significant recall of 123,000 Model S cars that generated headlines like:

The recall is necessary to fix a power steering bolt, which seems like a fairly important issue to address. And also follows, as the Wall St. Journal noted, "as the electric-vehicle maker grapples with the aftermath of a fatal car crash." The Journal also pointed out that Tesla has about $10 billion in debt.

So the question we'd ask is, "Is this the right time for a CEO of a publicly held company to post a fake Tweet that Tesla is filing for bankruptcy protection?
Our answer is pretty simple: No. This is not a good time. Even, or perhaps, especially, on April Fools -- if only because it sends a message that the bad news doesn't matter.

There is never a good time, really, for a CEO to post as a joke that the company is declaring bankruptcy, followed by a photo of that CEO allegedly drunk.

The result: a 5 percent drop of its share price on Monday, the first day of trading since the faux-bankruptcy Tweets (one of which mentioned a last-ditch Easter egg sale to bring in cash to stave of bankruptcy). Worse, it continues a streak from Sept. 2017 that has seen Tesla lose 36 percent of its share price.

The lessons here include:
  1. Respect your corporate brand.
  2. Humor can humanize a brand but make sure it's the right kind of humor.
  3. It may be a good idea to humanize your brand but make sure the humor works with your brand and your corporate culture.
  4. Don't joke around when you've had bad news because that makes it seem like you're not taking the bad news seriously.
  5. If you've had to issue a substantial recall and $10 billion in debt, don't joke about bankruptcy -- especially if you're the CEO of a publicly held company.
We assume Tesla's PR had nothing to do with the Tweet prank prior to Musk publishing it. But they have a lot to clean up now. That's an unforced error the company didn't need.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Conservatives Validate Our Prediction about a Big Tech Backlash, According to the New York Times

We know, a lot of our blog articles this year have been touting that our predictions have come true. While we are planning a number of articles that go beyond acknowledging our predictions have been validated, we do think it provides context when we see how the trends actually hit.

At the end of 2017, we said: 
There will be a debate about whether or not and how to regulate Facebook, Google and Twitter. The concern is about the power of their algorithms to determine what we see, especially regarding political ads and the veracity of the news delivered to each of us. The three major platforms have not disclosed specifics but have committed to working to increase transparency and prevent completely false and irresponsible content from being perceived as real news. The underlying questions are: "Has big tech gotten too powerful?" and "Can the major players truly clamp down on the false narratives spread on their platform?" and "How can Congress find a way to regulate them to prevent it from happening in the future?" Expect Congress to continue to hold hearings on the subject – just don’t expect any agreement on the answers before 2018’s midterm elections. (Net neutrality, another issue that also involves big tech, will be an additional source of debate and contention.)
We've already seen a lot of media coverage and Congressional hearings about the unchecked power of algorithms, and the havoc they can wreak. (I feel like I'm writing about a supervillain in a Marvel movie.)

We've seen a big tech backlash from the usual sources but now we're seeing it from otherwise free-market conservatives. Check out this New York Times article: "New Foils for the Right: Google and Facebook" (print headline: "Conservatives Find New Foil in Culture Wars: Silicon Valley" -- still not sure why The Times and other outlets don't let you search using the print headline but that's a topic for another blog post).

The article uses a soon-to-released documentary, "The Creepy Line" that looks at possible censorship of right-wing views as part of the ongoing culture wars.

Right now, with the left saying Google, Facebook and Twitter aren't doing to enough to prevent cyberbullying and misinformation and now the right saying those big tech companies are being too aggressive in sidelining views from the right -- big tech is between a rock and a hard place. 

It's hard to fend off attacks from both sides. Do too much, and one side complains. Back off a bit, and the other side now complains.

From our perspective, the real problem is there's never going to be a solution that fully satisfies critics on both sides. It will be a challenge for big tech to head things off with internal tweaks to their algorithms if only because the outside world (us) won't really see the impact of those tweaks. And Congress has shown itself unable to figure out a solution it can impose.


We expect this to be a big issue that doesn't really go away. It certainly won't go away during the build-up to the 2018 midterm elections. And it won't go away Nov. 7, 2018, the day after the midterm elections when cable reporters start talking about the 2020 elections.