Social Media Two Point Uh Oh

Having dug into the whole idea of Social Media News Releases in an earlier post, I want to take a closer look at the latest product in this genre to have hit the market. It's a long post (again). If you can't be bothered to read the entire thing, here's the précis:

  1. Marketwire's Social Media 2.0 product is well-intentioned and forward-looking, but;
  2. While the concept is OK (subject to caveats stated earlier), the execution is ...er... a bit off.

First, the obligatory (although probably tiresome) confessional: I've been wrestling with the idea of writing this piece for a couple of weeks now. I don't think I've ever been openly critical on the blog about one of my clients' competitors before. The thought of it gives me squirmy, uncomfortable feelings I can't quite articulate. But I've reached the conclusion that the points I want to make are all things I'd be saying regardless of my client affiliations. In other words, the opinions I'm about to express have nothing to do with the fact that my firm happens to represent a competitor of the company whose recent announcement I'm going to write about.

For the record, though, here's the important disclosure again:

  • My employer, Thornley Fallis, is agency of record for CNW Group – an account which I personally lead;
  • The topic of this blog post is a critique of a recent new product announcement from Marketwire, a competitor to CNW Group;
  • I'm naturally feeling a little conflicted about this whole thing, but I'm going to do my best to keep my biases and client affiliations out of it. I guess you'll have to be the judge of how well I manage that.

On that basis, then (and administered under the panacea apology-in-advance that it's easier to criticise than create) let me dive into the details of what Marketwire has announced.

The first thing in their product announcement that tripped me up is right there in the headline:

Marketwire Unveils Social Media 2.0: Industry's Most Authentic Social Media Product

Why "Most Authentic"? That I simply don't understand.

I get that successful marketing and communications in today's online world is all about authenticity, transparency, integrity, personal voice. This much we know. But I'm puzzled by the use of the word "authentic" in this sentence.

First, pardon my pedantry, but can one really have gradations of authenticity? Isn't it kind of binary – it's either authentic or it's fake? "Most Authentic" sounds a little like saying something is "very unique", and that's just wrong.

Beyond my pickiness about English usage, however, I did have another, more serious qualm about this positioning. To me, authenticity in communications has nothing to do with the format. A little later in their announcement, Marketwire says:

"Social Media 2.0 transforms a press release into an authentic social media tool by enabling two-way conversation via an in-release comment box that feeds directly into a client-monitored online newsroom."

... but I'd argue that authenticity is not an automatic by-product of enabling two-way conversation. Adding a comment box to the bottom of a news release so that people can tell you directly what they think does not mean that your communications are necessarily more "authentic". With apologies to McLuhan, the medium is not the message – at least in this sense.

If your news release is full of fake, bullish, vacuous posturing and claims of unsubstantiated leadership, no amount of fancy SMNR formatting is going to bestow magical insta-authenticity, I'm afraid.

And while we're on the subject of authenticity and two-way conversation, I find the way comments are being handled in this thing is distinctly odd. I really like the idea of allowing direct comments on online news releases. That's one of the most interesting things about the read-write Web, as implemented on blogs and now on many newspapers' sites too – you can read a story and then immediately see how other people have responded to it in the comments.

If you want to see an example of well-implemented commenting on news releases, check out GM Europe's Social Media Newsroom, where every news release runs like a blog post, with full inline comments. (Disclosure: GM is a client of TFC in Canada, but we had nothing to do with this European implementation).

Marketwire's Social Media 2.0 format includes a box inviting one to leave a comment, but it's not immediately clear where the comments go or how you can see other comments. Clicking on "View Our Newsroom", directly above the comment box, takes you to an external page with some extra info, including a couple of recent comments in a sidebar. It's not at all like the kind of comment box you might see on a blog post, though. There are no date or time stamps on the comments and no identifying information about the commenter.

When you leave a comment, you're asked for your name, email address, and a website URL – just like on a blog. But this information doesn't seem to be pulled through and published, so there's no way to follow links back to the commenter's own site and read other examples of their thinking.

In addition, it's perfectly understandable that comments would be moderated in some way, but I couldn't find any references to a commenting policy that would provide clarity about what kind of feedback might get blocked. For comparison, go back to that GM site for a second – at the foot of every news release, there's a simple statement that all comments are subject to moderation, with a simple link out to a page explaining their commenting policy.

Lacking any such clarity, Marketwire's closed, opaque commenting system is a lot less useful – and actually a lot less authentic – than it might be. It's rather less like a two-way conversation and more a closed "suggestion box" approach.

The Newsroom they've created is peculiar in other ways too. I like the fact that they provide direct email and phone contact details for a real person – that's so much better than the approach seen at too many online newsrooms ("fill in this form and maybe some unnamed person will get back to you some time. If you're lucky.")

They also deserve credit for posting copies of recent coverage, including a piece from Search Engine Watch that is not entirely positive. What I don't like is that the clips are posted in PDF format, rendering them essentially unsearchable and painful to open. Why not just post plain text or permalinks to the actual coverage?

Going back to the main announcement – right after I read the headline, the second statement that gave me pause for thought jumps out of the sub-head:

"SM 2.0 Advances Press Release Format, Content Options, and News Distribution Channels Beyond Traditional Means to Engage More Audiences With a Reach Surpassing 200 Million+ Web Users" (my emphasis)

I've been trying to figure out what that 200 Million+ number means. I have a dreadful feeling that what they're referring to is the entire North American online population. Out of a total Web population of some 1.3 billion users, it looks like around 200 million are based in North America. Could that really be what they mean here? And, if so, isn't that the equivalent of saying (with a certain breathless excitement): "if you put up a web page, anyone with an Internet connection can see it!"?

I hope I'm wrong. They're a lot smarter than that, I know. But where else could that audience reach figure come from? Hoping one of the MW guys will let me know in the comments here.

Moving deeper into the announcement, we learn that:

"Social Media 2.0 provides automatic news availability inside hard-to-reach social networks such as iTunes®, Photobucket®, YouTube™ and Twitter. In addition, Social Media 2.0 boasts the largest Second Life® news channel distribution of any newswire."

Sounds groovy, but also odd. As an aside, I'm not sure I would categorize any of the services listed as "social networks", but without dwelling on semantics, I was also generally confused about what this part of the announcement means. So I checked out some of their recent examples.

I've figured out how they're doing the Twitter part – there's a Marketwire user account at twitter.com/marketwire where they're listing news releases as they go out. That's a little spammy, but could be useful to some info-junkies I suppose. What they're doing with client-specific RSS feeds is a rather better way of achieving the same end.

The Photobucket and YouTube mentions are simple references to the fact that they can post your related videos and pictures to these sites. That's easy and sounds like a good idea, but again I'm not sure I get the point.

Most wire services offer their own photo and video hosting/archive services already, but one of the advantages of social media, of course, is widespread accessibility for the general online public. Posting client content to these high-traffic, popular social sites makes good theoretical sense, from that perspective. Alas, while the idea has value, Marketwire's execution requires a little more thought.

The embedded videos, for example, get posted to YouTube under the Marketwire account name. That's fine if you happen to be searching on YouTube for "Marketwire", but (with no offense to the MW guys) how likely is that?

Earlier this month, they issued another SMNR on behalf of PetSmart. There's a cute embedded video in the release, hosted on the same YouTube account. The problem is that you won't find this video by searching YouTube for "PetSmart". Pretty much the only way you'd know it's there is if you follow the link from the release, so I don't see that their use of YouTube here really adds any extra Googlejuice or other indefinable coolness.

The iTunes mention is puzzling too. It looks like what they're doing is offering a short audio summary of the release as an embedded MP3 file, which will then be rolled into a "category podcast" and submitted to iTunes. Perhaps the idea is that there will be news summary podcasts for a variety of industry sectors, with snippets of all the latest announcements from any given week. I can see how that would be useful.

Alas, I've searched through the iTunes podcast directory, but can't find any Marketwire podcasts. What should I be looking for? It's definitely a cool notion to channel the hip usefulness of podcasting and Apple's iTunes – but I'm afraid I'm missing something here.

As for the distribution offered within Second Life, my only (admittedly snarky) comment would be – how very 2006.

There are a lot of other features they're touting in this announcement, but rather than go through a relentless point-by-point fisking, I'll just highlight a couple of other things that could probably have been implemented better.

To the right of the main news release text is an interesting little box titled "WEBOSPHERE". Cute name. The theory behind this section is terrific. With a handful of links and some quick stats, the idea is to let you see exactly how many people are discussing or linking to the page (tracked through Digg and Technorati), as well as how and where the release has been picked up on some search engines. Clicking on the number embedded links runs the appropriate search to show you instant results. Fantastic idea. But with a few problems ...

Let's start with the Technorati button. One click here takes the viewer to a page of search results on Technorati for that particular release – the concept being that you'll get a quick read of how many people have written something about your news and linked back to it. Caution: this is not the same as media monitoring and is far from a perfect measurement approach, but it could still be very useful in its own right, if it worked properly.

The big problem is that Marketwire's Technorati buttons always take the user to a page of search results for the TITLE of the release. In practice, journalists, bloggers, and other commentators will rarely use the headline you've chosen for your release. Instead, people are rather more likely to write about the news and, possibly, point to the original announcement using the actual URL.

This may seem like a fine distinction, but it's an important one, and here's why:

Starting from their own Social Media 2.0 announcement, clicking on Marketwire's "Technorati's on this release" button (and don't get me started on that bizarre apostrophe placement) brings up this list, which currently stands at four results. So one would naturally assume, if one didn't know better, that four people have blogged about their announcement.

If, instead, we pass the URL as our search term to Technorati, we get this list, which currently stands at 23 – a much better number, although still only the tip of the iceberg.

(It's very easy to track discussions linking back to a specific URL, by the way, through a simple Technorati "bookmarklet" that plugs into the toolbar of your browser and lets you instantly see who's linking to the page you're currently viewing. I use this all the time in my research, it's a very useful little tool).

The point is, Marketwire's attempt to give us a quick snapshot of the amount of traction a news release is getting is flawed here through a simple misunderstanding of the way Technorati (and the blogosphere at large) works.

The same is true of their other search buttons, by the way. Each of the embedded search options offered in their "PRStats" box (Google, Microsoft Live, and Yahoo!) works by passing the complete news release title as an exact string (enclosed in quotation marks) to the relevant search engine.

This is error prone and misleading – it will bring back a list of results where the precise headline of the release appears in a reference elsewhere on the Web, but it won't give you a complete picture of how many people are writing about the news as announced. How often would any self-respecting journalist or blogger use the supplied news release headline verbatim in their story?

This is easily fixed, of course, they just have to tweak their code a tiny bit. While they're at it, they should probably look at the way the search results are being reported too. I don't know enough about coding to determine what the problem is here, but the results as reported in this "WEBOSPHERE" box don't necessarily match the actual number of results. A random sampling of a few of the releases they've put up using this product in the last few weeks indicates that the Yahoo! and Live results number shown is almost always inaccurate.

In one case I found, the total number of search hits reported was off by 1,000. This release, from Diabetes America, currently shows a count for one solitary search result on Yahoo. Click the link, though, and the actual count is north of 1,700. Looking at the source code for the page, it appears they have a simple truncation problem in their code. Again, easy to fix.

My main concern with this section, though, is the fact that it could be perceived by some as a valid way to measure coverage. It's not. The links provided are absolutely a useful and convenient snapshot, but that's all they are.

This PRStats idea is something Marketwire inherited when they acquired PRNN in August 2007. PRNN's founder, Kevin Dill, accurately described PRStats as "a quick birds-eye view of search engine cataloging" – it will show you that your news release has been indexed by three of the top search engines, both on the Marketwire site and wherever it has been picked up by other downstream news aggregation, syndication and regurgitation services. It will NOT give you any clue about actual coverage (i.e. who out there has picked up on the news and chosen to write a story about it). I hope most decent PR folk would instinctively understand that, but you never know.

There are many more things I could dig into with this Social Media 2.0 thingy. Take a look at the way they've implemented their keyword cloud, for example, and see if you can spot the flaw (clue: what's with the Boolean AND?). Another point that doesn't seem to be getting much airtime is that these things are, by their very nature, expensive. That is no reason to dismiss them outright, of course – if the value is there (and I believe it absolutely can be, when social media approaches are combined with traditional media outreach), then the extra cost can be justified. But the costs are not insignificant.

These are topics for a possible future post though. Others have already written more eloquently about the Marketwire announcement, and even I'm growing tired of my blethering, so I'm going to wrap.

So. While Marketwire haven't exactly reinvented the wheel here (the notion of the Social Media News Release has been around in various forms for at least a couple of years), they have taken a decent stab at making the idea their own and updating it. As a major newswire, they deserve credit for being willing to experiment with something that, so far, only the most forward-looking PR practitioners have been doing.

I just wish they'd spent rather more time consulting with some of those practitioners and figuring out what is really of value, before rushing to be first to market with an imperfectly implemented product. Once again, even though these guys are a direct competitor to one of my clients, I hope this lengthy screed will be taken as constructive criticism. If they fix their product, and I hope they do, that can only be good for the entire community.

Meanwhile, if you want a journalist's take on what "Media Release 2.0" really ought to be like, Tod Maffin had a great post way back in October that deserves a second visit. Although, as Donna Papacosta pointed out in the comments on that post: "Gosh, Tod, this will NEVER work. It's clear, direct and intelligent!"