Tom Webster, writing and speaking

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The Future of Twitter

Added on by Tom Webster.

Arnold SchwarzeneggerThis week's episode of The Marketing Companion is LOADED with Twitter goodness, as Mark Schaefer and I discuss the coming Twitter IPO and what it means for the company and for its users. 

My take? I'm bullish on Twitter. I'd invest in them. But I wouldn't touch the IPO with a ten-foot pole. Until they actually ARE a public company, with appropriate SEC filings, we simply cannot get enough information about their revenue model and prospects as large institutional investors can. So, I'll sit out that game and wait for them to have to play by the rules that public companies have to abide by.

In practice, this means they will likely be overvalued at the time of the IPO, and then undervalued when they have to submit public financials. And then all will be right with the world.

Besides, you can't time the market.

Also in this week's episode, a special guest appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger! YOU CANNOT MISS THAT.

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The Pinterest API: Who Needs It?

Added on by Tom Webster.

Pinterest badge redOn this week's Beancast, I joined Bob Knorpp and a lively panel to discuss, among other things, the long-awaited API for Pinterest. Now, I'm not a developer, so at first blush a Pinterest API is not something for which I have great need. From that perspective, I don't really care whether or not Pinterest exposes its data to developers. An API doesn't solve a consumer need--it solves a business problem that Pinterest might not actually even have. Consider the following: When Twitter opened up its API, they were a blip on the radar, and it took them 3-4 years to really build actual, mainstream critical mass. They needed developers. Pinterest? Not so much. Pinterest vaulted in months to having the kind of numbers it took Twitter years to build. Pinterest addressed a mainstream consumer desire, and they built a significant mainstream consumer audience with a much steeper growth curve than that observed for either Twitter or Facebook.

According to the last Social Habit research study, Pinterest is the #3 social platform for women 18-44 (behind only Facebook and Twitter) and recent research from Netbase and Edison shows that Pinterest is also one of the most influential platforms for women who purchase fashion brands. In other words, whether a Pinterest API exists or not, people are using the service, and in numbers that cannot be ignored.

So who needs a Pinterest API? Brands, certainly, who have to rely on some cumbersome manual scraping processes to get the kind of data they want. And, the fact that they are engaging in those cumbersome processes is a pretty clear signal that Pinterest has something they strongly desire--consumer preference data. And that's some pretty incredible data. Think about the possibilities for market basket analysis research alone--people who pin this also pin that. That's the kind of data that skilled analysts and researchers can turn into segmentation gold. And maybe that is the treasure that Pinterest is wisely hoarding.

So, given that, yeah--I could use a Pinterest API after all. And if Pinterest is smart, they'll charge me up the wazoo excessively for it.

Scarcity creates value. And it might just be that Pinterest is enhancing their value by keeping their data close to the vest. As long as there is no Pinterest API, Pinterest retains a variety of monetization options (including advertising). But if they open up an API--and their data--to third parties, they might just cut off some of those options, and that might end up adversely affecting the platform.

What say you? Does Pinterest "need" an API? And for brands that desire the data it would provide--what would that data be worth to you?

When Content Marketing Stops Working

Added on by Tom Webster.
Urinal at the Industrial Saloon

Today, in a very crowded Hynes Convention Center bathroom, I got to witness a very valuable economics lesson. The HCC is heaving from the crowds for Hubspot's Inbound Conference, and there are lines everywhere. At one point, after using the restroom, I turned the corner to leave and saw a very long line of guys waiting to use the facilities. When I left, the first guy in line walked in, presumably to take the spot I had just vacated. What the men in line didn't know, however, was that when I left the bathroom there were six or seven stalls/urinals open, which means that there were five or six guys standing in line (squirming), who actually could have gone right in, had they had enough information. I, of course, could have given them that information, but decided not to so I could make a pithy point on my blog--information has value because information is inequitably distributed. Sorry, fellas--I have a blog to tend to.

This is why blogging and content marketing have economic value--because the transmission of knowledge from those who have it to those who don't is an intrinsically valuable transaction. The more inequitable the distribution of knowledge, the more the transmission of that knowledge is worth. This is how most of today's superstar bloggers realized their early success--they knew a thing, not many people were sharing that thing, so there was value in the exchange.

Today, however, it's demonstrably more difficult to get a new blog off the ground than it was back when these top bloggers got started. There is more information extant, so the transmission of that knowledge is not as economically valuable as it used to be. Yesterday, I asked my Facebook friends what they would do if they were starting a brand new blog today in this new environment, and I was gratified to see some of these successful, early bloggers respond to my thread.

I got lots of good advice on picking niches, selecting keywords, establishing quantity and building a distribution network. All good advice, all of which worked for the folks who left it--and will probably work for you, today.

But all of it, eventually, will stop working.

No, not in the sense that tactics always change, and the best bloggers adapt--I get that. But in the sense that blogging itself, eventually, will no longer "work," from an economic perspective.

The Economic Value Of Content

I had a quick conversation with Marcus Sheridan at Inbound yesterday, which reminded me of his great concept--the CSI, or "Content Saturation Index." Marcus wisely notes that the more your niche is saturated with content, the longer it will take you to succeed in that niche.

Now, time being money (and vice versa), the fact that it takes longer to succeed in a niche is not a trivial variable. Content marketing currently "works" because the economic value that you obtain from content marketing generally exceeds the economic value that you contribute to content creation. If that is not the case for you, by the way, the only economically sustainable choice is to cease the activity. Make sense?

When a lot of today's top bloggers got started, they generally operated in niches that, Marcus would say, had lower CSIs. Because they dominated those niches with a quantity of quality, they owned those niches, and became, as Chris Brogan advises, the "go-to" person in those niches.

A lot of the advice I got involved choosing these niches to find topic areas with little competition--a low CSI--to dominate those areas. In a sense, all of this advice is dependent upon this fact: blogging (and content marketing in general) works because information, while ubiquitous, is inequitably distributed and thus economically inefficient.

Information Efficiency

We do not live in a world of perfect information efficiency. As long as not everyone interested in a thing, knows everything about the thing, those that know more about the thing can profit from those who do not. Welcome to the world of equities analysis. But, as in the world of stocks and bonds, information can approach efficiency, which is why no one can truly "time" the market. You can look it up--the smartest way to bet the market over time is simply to bet with the market over time. Hell, the SEC exists to ensure that no entity can systematically profit by knowing information that other investors do not have access to.

When one entity profits from knowing a bit more than the other guy, we think of that as arbitrage. No value was created by the party that profits; instead, they profit from the transaction itself because they know a little (or a lot) more than the other party. This was how new car sales worked for decades--car dealers profited from arbitrage, because they had "perfect" information about how much a car costs, while prospective buyers had imperfect information.

The Internet (as it does) completely disintermediated that information--we all have access to nearly perfect information about what new cars cost. Effectively, dealers can no longer profit on arbitrage--they profit on what buyers think is a fair profit, and by selling extras like pinstriping and extended warranties. There have been so many information efficiency gains in this area that arbitrage is no longer possible.

Content Arbitrage

Now let's consider blogging (and for the sake of this discussion, let's refer to blogging-as-content-marketing, and not for other reasons.) Let's say I want to market my services as a self-help guru. Of course, I have zero qualification to be a self-help guru. I might, in fact, be a leader in the nascent self-destructivity field. But, setting that aside, I'm good at content. I know more about keywords, SEO and social than 90% of other people who might also want to sell self-help services.

Because I know more about the mechanics of content marketing than most of my competitors, I am able to profit from arbitrage--my blog content is more likely to be found and consumed by prospects because I'm good at making my content findable and consumable and maybe even vaguely useful, and not because I'm actually great in my field. Yes, I have to be good in my field to write content that fits these criteria, but I don't have to be the best in my field to be the best content marketer in my field.

Because prospects don't have perfect information about my comparative skills, I can profit--but more importantly, because my competitors don't have perfect (or even sufficient) information about content marketing, I can profit from content arbitrage. My content isn't "better," I'm just better at getting it in front of people.

When I asked my Facebook friends about what they would do to start a new blog today, the tips I got mostly boiled down to content arbitrage--choose a field with low saturation, contribute consistently, guest post to increase distribution, etc. etc. When you know this and practice this in an area where this knowledge is not widely known, their advice will work. Guaranteed. And this advice did work for all of these people back when they started their own blogs, so their advice is true and valuable from that perspective. That is what makes them experts.

But information, over time, approaches efficiency. The experts' tips worked in a time when content arbitrage was possible. And it still is, of course--until it isn't. In any niche that has value, the skills and knowledge of content marketers will increase over time, increasing the "Sheridan CSI," and making the niche more and more crowded with people doing the same things you are. When that happens, following those expert tips will no longer be so effective--in fact, they might even encourage you to continue with a potentially economically unsustainable activity. Some of you are in niches that aren't niches any more, and maybe you intuitively know this to be true.

The Long Road to Zero

As the skills of content marketers in a field increase, and the amount of information in a field proliferates, your ability to stand out through any of the current received wisdom of content marketers will asymptotically approach zero. Will the value of your efforts ever be, theoretically, "zero?" No, but it can get pretty close. When answering customer questions stops being effective, you move to broadening your distribution. When that stops working, you start using video and long form content. When that becomes less effective you move to the next area of disparity between what could be done and what is done, until all of those potholes are satisfactorily filled, at least from the perspective of prospective searchers.

This, by the way, is not at the point of "perfect information efficiency." Maybe it's at the 80% mark. At some point, though, most everybody is behaving in the same way, and the only way to profit from arbitrage is to make smaller and smaller incremental gains with ever-dimishing returns (which is a valid strategy, btw--someone has to be the best, even when the costs become prohibitive).

When a given area reaches this level of saturation, tips that involve how you manipulate your content become less and less effective. And as your ability to win through content manipulation diminishes, so too does the value of arbitrage in that area. And, sadly, at some point, this means that you would be expending more of your time and treasure on content marketing and blogging than those activities are worth.

You might even be at that point now, and don't know it.

When Content Stops Being Worth It

By this point, you might think I'm being a little shrill. I admit, depending on your field, that there may be a significant time horizon ahead of you in which to profit from content marketing and blogging--and I am an almost unemployably long-term thinker. But this also isn't "theory." It's inevitable. You also might disagree with me that the time you spend on content marketing extracts an economic toll, and that you might actually destroy value if you spend more time on it than it's worth, to be reductive.

This, of course, is to argue that time isn't money. I would be happy to disabuse you of this notion over lunch, any day of the week. I will charge you $250 for that lunch. Thus endeth the lesson.

But here is a more salient question to ask yourself, when the content-going gets tough: is my field really saturated? Or do you need to move from trying to profit from arbitrage, which is fleeting, to finding another strategy entirely?

Three Things To Do

When you reach that sticking point where content marketing and blogging cease to be "worth it," or at least seem like they aren't working, I think you have three basic strategies:

1. Exit the activity. This is a viable option. You have finite resources, and if content marketing returns less economic value than other things you could spend your time on (yes, even outbound marketing), then ceasing unprofitable activities and reallocating your resources has to be an option, right? That's basic opportunity cost, and a failure to understand opportunity cost has been the downfall of many a company.

2. Increase your expertise. Again, I don't want to denigrate any of the tips I got from pros about establishing a new blog, and most of them will work for most people, most of the time. I was surprised, however, that no one suggested what I thought was fairly obvious--to set aside content arbitrage and actually become the best in your field (and not the best content marketer in your field.)

When a niche approaches the point at which keywords and cross posts and social sharing etc. etc. aren't working for you, then arbitrage isn't the answer. Maybe the answer is to actually be the best in your field, and unproductive time spent on content marketing might best be put to use building your skills to advance the field into new areas. Besides winning business, you'll open up new keywords. Cue Kool and the Gang and CELEBRATE.

3. Finally, there's this thought--what feels like saturation might not actually be saturation, but the level of competency in your field might be such that you have all hit the ceiling of what people are currently willing to do to win at content marketing. In those cases, as I mentioned before, the way to win is to do what others won't, to make marginal gains where more significant gains are not possible.

In some cases, when you do this, you discover that you actually had more growth opportunities than you ever thought possible, and have actually broken through a "false" barrier simply because you are willing to go to the extra pains that your competitors are not. And it is those extra pains--those extraordinary measures that might just actually make you the best in your field, that I'm going to be talking about in this space over the next few months.

The simple truth is this--Content Marketing isn't going to stop working, not for a good while. But what you are doing--and even what the experts are doing--will in fact become less and less effective over time. But if you are in Content Marketing for the long haul, you are in luck--the field is in its infancy. The possibilities for differentiation and leadership, even when it feels like everyone is writing the same stuff, are legion, and lessons can easily be drawn from other, more mature media and marketing efforts. All you have to do is be willing to make the leap, and take the risk to invest what others won't (in time AND money) and treat your content marketing like it competes with other media, not other content, and the answers easily reveal themselves for the bold.

I'm going to start unraveling all of this next month at Content Marketing World, in a session I'm proud to debut called "What's Wrong With Your Content Creation Strategy (and How to Fix it.)" If you are going to CMW, you have already made a commitment to do a little better than the other guy or gal. I hope you'll come to this session--and watch this space--as we explore what it's really going to take in the coming years to win with content.

They Just Don't Get It--Or Do They?

Added on by Tom Webster.

Number of High Net Worth Individuals, 2011 v4I just saw some reporting on a recent study that decried the 'low' percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs who use Twitter and other social platforms. In response, I offer the following questions: A. Why would they use Twitter?

B. Why do you use Twitter?

Compare the answers to A and B.

Are they the same answer? Are they different?

Is Twitter the best tool--or even a good tool--to achieve that "why" if you are a CEO?

Or for you?

The rise in Twitter usage is not inexorable. And it isn't the CEO's job to "get" Twitter, or any other ephemeral tool.

By the way, the headline on this article says that "68% of CEOs have ‘no presence’ on any social media." Yes, this is well below the percentage of Americans who have 'no presence' on social, which is about 40%.

The average American doesn't have their tweets and status updates scrutinized by the SEC, isn't responsible for hundreds of thousands of jobs, and doesn't spend more in legal fees than they do on cheeseburgers.

My takeaway from this study? Fortune 500 CEO's aren't average people.

But you knew that.

The Content Marketing Treadmill

Added on by Tom Webster.

Several months ago, I wrote this on my personal blog, because it didn't (at the time) seem like it was "BrandSavant" material. In the months that passed, two things happened: one, Posterous--the host of my personal blog--was bought by Twitter, and Twitter made the company-but-not-user-friendly decision to shutter Posterous, so I need to preserve this content by the end of the month or lose it. Lesson learned (and for you, I hope.) The other thing that happened was that this post--on an unpromoted, bare-bones, personal blog--ended up getting more page views than the average post I write here. So, it resonated. While I figure out what I want to do with my personal musings now that the landlord has kicked me out of the building (and lets face it, that's what the Twitter/Posterous acquisition has done), I thought I'd repost this here for you.

Finally, I'll just add that I don't write to a schedule here at BrandSavant. I respect *the hell* out of the people who can, and do, write frequent content that is worth reading to a schedule. That's a pretty short list--a non-zero number, but I can count them on two hands. What I am beginning to understand is this: reading "how to excel at frequent content marketing" articles from these talented and gifted individuals might be akin to reading "how to dunk" articles from LeBron James.

Find your own path. And I hope you get something from this.

The Dark Side of Content Marketing

I don't consider myself a very good content marketer. The number of people I know of that can consistently and frequently produce amazing content on a calendar is pretty small, and I'm not going to risk offense by naming anyone here, so I'll leave it at this--if you don't think this applies to you, then it doesn't. Fair enough?

Content marketing is an enormously powerful tool, and it can be used for good and for evil. The recent fall from grace of noted author Jonah Lehrer is a useful cautionary tale for the latter. Lehrer, author of How We Decide and the pulled-from-the-shelves Imagine: How Creativity Works, has become something of a pariah, but a recent, superb piece in New York Magazine makes the point that all Lehrer did by plagiarizing himself and others, and by making up "evidence" out of whole cloth was, essentially, what was asked of him by "the system."

I do not excuse this, and "I was just doing what I was expected/told to do" has often been offered as a thin excuse for far greater crimes than Lehrer has committed or is even capable of committing. It is, in fact, a terrible excuse, and the first refuge of those that need to justify reprehensible or questionable behavior. And, let's be clear--Jonah Lehrer himself has never proffered this excuse, though the writer of this (superb) piece has dangled it as a tantalizing possibility. But this article, too, is content marketing.

So is this blog post.

I've given a number of talks over the past year or so disparaging a brand of "research" that we often see in social media--data provided for the purposes of content marketing. Some infographics fall into this category, as do studies that aggregate social media data to give you the "right" way to tweet. They aren't designed to help you--not really. These things have nearly no applicability to your specific situation or your business. They are designed to get you to click on them. To sign up for a white paper. To register for a webinar. To make you, in other words, a lead.

You know this, surely. But even knowing this, we often fail to close the circle here--that data produced for the purposes of content marketing is inherently incurious. As I've often written here and elsewhere, "incurious" is as vulgar a word in my business as I can possibly muster. It's the professional researcher's equivalent of the F-Bomb.

But we thirst for content. The social web is, in fact, a vast, insatiable mill for content. Providing content has become a viable career, and I do not disparage this. But the dark side of this is that the content marketer is often mistaken for an expert in the field in which he or she is creating content. In the case of Jonah Lehrer, he was riding on the coattails of absolutely the most influential thinker in my professional life and career, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman. My entire post-MBA career has been spent studying Kahneman's work and his insights into consumer behavior and behavioral economics.

Kanheman's work has been translated, popularized, and extended by a wide variety of writers, ranging from Dubner and Levitt (Freakonomics), to Barry Schwartz (The Paradox of Choice) to Daniel Ariely (Predictability Irrational.) Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide also built upon Kahneman's work, but there is a crucial distinction here. Lehrer was a smart guy--I'm not belittling his intellect--but he was at heart a content marketer, not a scientist. Otherwise, he would have been a scientist, no? He popularized the insights of researchers like Kahneman, translating them for laypeople and finding the anecdotes and case studies that would entrance and captivate readers, but he did not extend those findings--he moved on to the next topic, the next book, the inevitable Ted talk and speaking circuit to which that grants one access.

I don't judge him. I cannot judge him (hell, I'd love to have a Ted talk.) But whether you see Lehrer as a James Frey-esque congenital liar or as a victim caught up in the trope of the writer-as-expert (as opposed to the expert writer), the fact remains that Lehrer became popular. He delivered what we, the buying public, wanted. He was hardly a scientist. But thousands believed he was a scientist, because he wrote like a scientist. He fed the content mill, and he did it very effectively.

The tale of Jonah Lehrer, whose career as a content marketer appears to be effectively over, is a cautionary tale, and it applies to pretty much all of us who do exactly what it is I am trying to do here--market myself as a thought leader/thinker/consultant by dint of a few blog posts. And I take that cautionary tale to heart, both as a creator and as a consumer of information. With that in mind, here are three things I take away from the story of Jonah Lehrer:

1. The content beast, though oft-fed, is insatiable. You are only as good as your next book, your next blog post, or your last talk. I don't write very often here or at Brandsavant, as this has long been a trap that I have resisted. For every blog post I publish, there are five or six others that never see the light of day, because they just aren't good enough. I only publish what I am proud of, and for that reason this space sometimes can lie fallow for weeks at a time. I'm ok with that. You, of course, need to find your own way, and you may be eminently capable of producing quality content more frequently than I.

But, if you cannot, the surest way to fall into the Lehrer trap is to write to a schedule, and not in the service of ideas. The tyranny of the content calendar is responsible for a lot of weak content on the web. Keeping up that pace out of deference to some kind of received wisdom about publishing frequency may not by default lead you to the kind of intellectual dishonesty of which Lehrer was guilty, but it does place stress on the system, as it were. My Brandsavant blog became much more important to me when it became a showcase for my best thought, and when it became important to me it became a better blog. At least, that's my hallucination.

2. There are experts about things, and there are people who can write about things. Those that can do both exceptionally well are exceedingly rare. I have enormous respect for writers like Brian Greene, who can not only translate science for laymen, but also do the science. That's a gift. A rare gift, as it turns out. We should celebrate those that have it, but also acknowledge that rarity.

Today, we see a lot of very gifted writers blogging about trends in social media and business, and we cannot help but be influenced by that writing and those thinkers. But we also have to acknowledge the fact that the folks doing the work and the folks writing well about the work are rarely the same people. Jonah Lehrer is a gifted writer. But, as a behavioral economist, he's a gifted writer. Our ability to share our content on the web, especially on social media, is wonderful and has presented me with opportunities that I never dreamed of 5 years ago. But the ability to disseminate content should never be mistaken for skills as a scientist, sociologist, human resources professional, operations manager or any number of disciplines that require actually doing the thing.

To that end, allow me to suggest that the best way to mitigate this phenomenon is to be sure and augment your reading/follow list/Google+ circles with the voices of the not-so-popular, the contrarians and the practitioners of the disciplines we follow. We are bombarded with content marketing that invokes psychology, organizational behavior, leadership principles, change management and corporate culture. Yet, very few of the popular voices who talk about how social media has transformed business have much actual expertise in areas outside of marketing and PR.

I do not denigrate those voices--far from it. I often range far afield of my own educational background and experience in my writing--but do be sure to balance those voices by seeking out HR specialists, psychologists, management consultants and CEO's who, though they may not have the platforms held by some popular bloggers, have just as much if not more to say about how social has transformed business as anyone.

I do not fault those who produce content in those areas--again, the system almosts demands it--but that very same system requires that we start holding content marketing to a higher standard.

3. Finally, the great crime of writers such as Lehrer (and one of my least favorite popular writers, Malcolm Gladwell) is this: they confuse information and evidence. I still believe that this post, on the difference between the two, is one of the best things I've written, and it is certainly the one that best sums up my personal approach to my job.

What writers like Lehrer, Gladwell and any number of currently popular business writers do is this: they start with the insight, and then seek out data to prove it. Lehrer certainly did this: he began with an idea, and then (as the writer of the excellent New York piece linked above noted) sought out the data required to serve as the scaffolding of that idea. There is a saying in my business: the plural of anecdote is not data. And while some popular "data-driven" writers and bloggers often have compelling anecdotes to illustrate their beliefs, those insights were not data-driven.

Anyone can cherry pick anecdotes in the service of an idea--Gladwell's "10,000 hours to mastery" myth is a prime example--but that doesn't mean that those insights actually came from data. And when we start with the idea, and then look for the data, then we no longer treat facts as information. We treat them as evidence; discarding that which does not support our idea, and elevating that which does. And this is one of the greatest crimes committed by some of the worst content marketing that I see on the social web.

And if you are using any of this content marketing to support business decisions, then it isn't a victimless crime.

Still, content marketing runs the gamut from helpful to innocuous to potentially harmful. How can we seek the light, and eschew the dark side? Well, as my lovely wife Tamsen reminds me, there is a simple trick to dealing with the geyser of information being spewed daily by Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and other content outlets: always seek to disconfirm, or, as I mentioned to Jay Baer in his excellent post here, don't seek to prove yourself right, prove yourself wrong.

That doesn't mean being a critic, or even a cynic. And it doesn't necessarily mean taking what we read in content marketing with a grain of salt, as it were. Instead, it means that what we read might be true--in fact, we can even hope that it is true--but our first obligation is not to believe it. Our first obligation is to wonder. When we are confronted with a new piece of data, or some new prescriptive article about the best way to use social media, the enlightened reader wonders if it is actually true and applicable to their situation, and then seeks to disprove it.

This has nothing to do with doubt and everything to do with confirmation bias. If you cannot disprove a thing after putting it to the test for your specific situation, then you have a genuine insight. But if you can readily disprove it, then you know to keep looking. And I don't know about you, but I keep looking, each and every day.

So, I have a love-hate relationship with content marketing. I acknowledge it. I use it. I embrace it. But I also recognize that that there is a truly dark side indeed to content marketing. What say you?