I think the findings are useful to anyone trying to create virality (content, messaging), or amplify virality (PR, advertising), or sell virality (sales and BD).
The emotion of “awe” is the most viral of all — if something invokes awe, it has a disproportionately high chance of going viral.
Awe. ô/. Noun a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. ”They gazed in awe at the small mountain of diamonds.”
Synonyms: wonder, wonderment
Other factors that drive virility:
Looking smarter to others, being in-the-know — social capital drives us. What makes us look good goes viral.
Read: We’re all really self-conscious. Even when we think we’re not.
We share what is close at hand. This is why we share our opinion of the weather — it’s immediate, cognitively close. He gives the example also of Apple changing its laptop logo to face outwards to the world, instead of inwards at the user.
Read: what is convenient or ubiquitous (or both) goes viral disproportionately. We share the best of what’s near.
Anger and humor are both actually very closely related emotions. More importantly, they’re both very intense. They make our brains especially active. That intensity spurs sharing behaviors.
Read: controversy and comedy are more inherently viral because of how our brain is wired.
Practical, useful information, no matter how mundane performs really well, even if it’s about something like getting silk off of corn cobs.
Read: immediate small value is more viral than non-immediate large value.
A much larger percentage of information is shared offline than online, even today. We just can’t track it unless you’re doing a large scale funded study.
Read: the majority of the conversations about a brand are (for now) still untraceable.
A lot of this is “no duh” stuff — but I think it once again confirms my insistence that the best marketing is great messaging. The best way to increase conversion is to improve the underlying content. You can optimize calls to action and see real gains. But most transformative effects can only be achieved through a shift in the message.
Not everything we marketers do can possibly pull on all or even many of the above levers. And for god’s sake, not everything has to go viral, or should.
In fairness, if you want to read a smart critique/counterpoint to the author’s claims:
Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not simply because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).
It’s hard for many people to conceive of thinking processes as intertwined with knowledge. Most people believe that thinking processes are akin to those of a calculator. A calculator has available a set of procedures (addition, multiplication, and so on) that can manipulate numbers, and those procedures can be applied to any set of numbers. The data (the numbers) and the operations that manipulate the data are separate. Thus, if you learn a new thinking operation (for example, how to critically analyze historical documents), it seems like that operation should be applicable to all historical documents, just as a fancier calculator that computes sines can do so for all numbers.
But the human mind does not work that way. When we learn to think critically about, say, the start of the Second World War, it does not mean that we can think critically about a chess game or about the current situation in the Middle East or even about the start of the American Revolutionary War. Critical thinking processes are tied to the background knowledge. The conclusion from this work in cognitive science is straightforward: we must ensure that students acquire background knowledge with practicing critical thinking skills.
Finally, big changes to how Google handles press releases
Google recently made a big change with regards to how it treats press releases. We’ve been watching it play out and are ready to share some conclusions. Their changes have some real meaning for modern PR. We’re sending a summary of our opinion to all of our clients, and you should take a few minutes to read the following.
Essentially, Google has degraded press releases algorithmically. Part one is that releases’ SEO value is now minimal (utility going forward is lower). Part two is that overly promotional press releases **might** also get blacklisted as spam, which can actually downgrade your site’s PageRank overall (punishment may be doled out retroactively for past sins).
Companies of substance should not be worried about this move because in general, innovators are able avoid overly-self-serving, SEO-driven press releases. Few of our clients’ past releases would be considered bad behavior in the way Sullivan and Foremski describe above. Releases should be written in AP style (journalism-grade writing), and they should aspire to be be **actually useful** to real journalists. That is their original purpose. Google has moved to restore that original purpose. The point of a press release is to cause original new articles written by journalists. They are primordial ooze. They should be copy and paste-able. They should always be accompanied by 1:1 media outreach. They should look and feel like the story we would write about ourselves if we were in fact the journalists we target.
That’s a high bar to live up to, yes. Over the years most companies have ceased to even try. This is why Google is intervening. The situation has gotten dire. You may have noticed that Google News and Google Alerts of late have surfaced fewer organic “pickups” of your releases. Such is one immediate ramification. Press release syndication across the web is being counted as one document only, if that. And Google no longer considers press releases to be “news” as such.
How did we get here?
Companies whose “news” is so uninteresting that no journalist actually would ever write a story off their press release? Those companies are the ones who over time moved the make the the press release a stand-alone object, an SEO-driven landing page, essentially. Because their press releases were not causing any earned media effect, they tried to make the release be the effect itself. Essentially, desperation led companies who struggled to get real press results to mutate the press release to approximate the impact of a traditional placement with a real publisher. Press releases are a means to an end, not the end itself. For awhile, that line was regrettably blurred.
We like this move by Google overall. It reduces noise in the system, makes journalists’ lives better, and increases the likelihood that **actually good news** will get noticed, and published.
However, it means that moving forward, your releases need to:
Be well-written, in AP-style
Use keyword repetition and links conservatively
Convey real news
Essentially, if you’re one of the “good guys” you’ll be fine. Spam is bad, always has been. Press release spam is just another species of the same. Finally, Google is pushing back on a practice that has ghettoized PR for too long. This is good for companies who deserve attention on merit.
It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Traveling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination, did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth. In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place.
The soul is no traveler; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance that he goes, the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign and not like an interloper or a valet.
Lost in all the hubaloo over the weekend is a more interesting point. We need to do a better job of our homework — MG is right.
It is of course very reasonable to expect that your address book data is on more than 50 servers right now (per Chris Dixon).
How did we get here?
In the walled garden that is iOS, aren’t basic privacy protections one of the conveniences we’re supposed to enjoy in exchange for agreeing to 45 pages of incomphrehensible new terms every few months? In Apple we trust.
From sections 17 of Apple’s App Store Review Guidelines for developers (it’s behind a developer signup wall and not linkable):
Apps cannot transmit data about a user without obtaining the user’s prior permission and providing the user with access to information about how and where the data will be used.
Apps that require users to share personal information, such as email address and date of birth, in order to function will be rejected.
Apps that target minors for data collection will be rejected.
So, why were Path and so many others ever accepted in the first place? Is my address book not deemed to be “about” me? Were Path and others not “requiring” me to share that info?
This all boils down to the lowest common denominator. Some of you reading this are very sophisticated about terms of service, availability of data, and advanced settings. Good for you. Most people don’t care, and don’t bother. And that should be totally okay.
Heck, even this post was boring as shit to write.
Path wasn’t doing anything nefarious, not by a long shot, but it’s the latest in a series of wakeup calls (which, incidentally, make pageview hay) whose collective message is — hey everyone, technology companies know a shitload of stuff about you, and some of them are bound to be evil motherfuckers.
Have you been watching the USPS commercials for…wait for it…mail? They’re the hilarious last gasp of a dying American tradition. Their main argument of course is that mail can’t get hacked (which it can, and does).
And it might be less funny if the commercials were airing during reruns of the Golden Girls, but they’re actually running in primetime. And as idiotic as the USPS has proven itself to be in recent years, we can safely assume that they didn’t drop $103 million on ads last year without a hunch that mainstream audiences might be receptive to the idea that electronic mail (and the Web generally) just isn’t safe.
Nick Bilton is not your guardian angel, not by a long shot. This starts and ends with Apple, not Path. We’re just slowly working our way upstream.
Millions of people put their faith in Apple (misguided or not) and in so doing trust Apple to do the job of vetting apps for basic usability and trustworthiness on their behalf. I don’t want to have to worry about privacy. I shouldn’t have to worry about privacy.
I have spent a shitload of money on a long series of iPhones, and the same goes for my annual expenditures in the App Store. I have always assumed a sort of implicit contract between me and Apple — I give them all of my money, and they give me great technology experiences. End of story.
Every once in awhile they take me out to the woodshed, but I like how notoriously choosy they are about what makes it into the App Store (fart apps notwithstanding), and I figure that they’ll always be more hardcore than I am, so it’s a halfway decent bet to outsource to them my own responsibility around personal privacy and data security.
Can you accuse me of being lazy, and wanting to abdicate responsibility for a key personal freedom at a critical juncture of the Web’s maturation? Sure, why not? Go for it.
But if I had actually read those damn 45 pages of Terms, it turns out that Apple actually does promise to hold up their end of the bargain.
In it, they tell me that Apple itself is actually allowed to collect more or less anything it damn well pleases, personal and non-personal information alike:
Personal information is data that can be used to uniquely identify or contact a single person.
Here are some examples of the types of personal information Apple may collect and how we may use it.
It goes on and on — read it all here (skip to Section D).
Third Parties get their own section, and here’s where it gets interesting.
At first Apple says all the right things:
Protection of Personal Information
Apple takes precautions — including administrative, technical, and physical measures — to safeguard your personal information against loss, theft, and misuse, as well as against unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, and destruction.
But elsewhere it’s a different story — “not my problem, buddy”:
Apple websites, products, applications, and services may contain links to third-party websites, products, and services. Our products and services may also use or offer products or services from third parties − for example, a third-party iPhone app. Information collected by third parties, which may include such things as location data or contact details, is governed by their privacy practices. We encourage you to learn about the privacy practices of those third parties.
In summary, Apple tells developers not to do it (“it” being extracting and storing personal information like my contacts) and then tells users that it’s got it under control and that Apple can be trusted, and then the Terms pass the buck on actual governance of said guidelines and promises — a lot like creating a law and never enforcing it.
Of course, the real takeaway here is that there is absolutely no way to manage and monitor all of the privacy policies that I’m a party to, especially if and as they change. Mr. Graham, perhaps a new RFS is in order?
If not, consider this my own:
I should be able to manage my data the way I manage my health, or my wealth.
The solution is likely some bit of automation, collective intelligence, and expert guidance (i.e. lawyers). I should be able to store those agreements and recall them at anytime. When new agreements are issued, key terms should be revealed and discussed. Opt-in and opt-out permissions should be centralized, and maybe even I’ll get to see how my choices compare to the broader population (a potential privacy breach in and of itself, hehe).
Sadly, I can’t see the business model. What’s likely is that government intervention will eventually mandate some sort of data and Terms compliance that spawns a cottage industry of tech solutions for individuals and big enterprises alike, much like Sarbanes-Oxley did almost exactly 10 years ago.
Of course, for Apple it’s always quite simple — just update your Terms as needed (theirs were last updated in October of 2011). There is absolutely zero audit trail of previous policies and no demarcation of changes made, nor any effort to help normal people understand what’s going on.
If I’m a law student, I’m doubling down on Privacy Policies and personal information law as an area of focus — this stuff is going to be how much of the Web’s future gets hashed out, and Congress has already shown a willingness to get involved. Soon tech companies might be as regulated, if not moreso than, say, Visa and Amex.
I have not yet looked into Google’s equivalent policies but I’ll be really curious to find out how they treat these same issues.
Of course, I already know that Google tracks everything I do, aggressively (to their credit they at least made a big to-do about their recent change in Terms, and what was new in them).
Transparency and posturing aside, that glass is already broken, isn’t it? Heck, Do Not Track Plus has 20K users already after launching their Chrome plugin last week. We just assume the worst now, don’t we? Guilty until proven innocent.
Overall, MG and Alexia are absolutely right that this is not about Path, and that the apologies are getting ridiculous.
This is really a story about shifting winds in a storied sandbox, and as many mixed messages as any normal human can manage to sift through — confusion on purpose, and obfuscation at the very most basic levels of how the technology business operates.
I get it that we’re still figuring things out — but this is a particularly inefficient and annoying cocktail to drink.
We are proud to be launching Totem tonight. Yes, we’re going to finally DO IT LIVE.
Totem is a separate company, but one that has been incubated at JDI. I’ve long believed that we can be a better firm by innovating alongside our clients, putting everything that we’ve learned along the way to good use. At the very worst, Totem will be a convenient value-add for the firm. At best, it can meaningfully supplement and diversify our services revenue — something I think is important for the long-term viability of JDI.
We need to always hire and retain the very best talent. Working on our own ventures is the best retention money can buy, and an education in and of itself. It keeps us sharp, and tests our patterns recognition skills.
This process has also, I should note, given us considerably more empathy for each of our clients, and the unique challenges they face every day. It has upended many of our preconceptions, and it has forced us to reexamine many of our own PR processes. It has been an opportunity to eat our own dog food for awhile, and see how it tastes.
Of course, side projects like this would never get off the ground if we didn’t work them into our world in a way that computes — that’s straight out of the Jim Coudall playbook, and best embodied these days by the excellent folk at Zurb, of whom we are jealous. Totem is a client that has a team and a budget and weekly meetings and all the fixin’s — to me that was also one of the biggest lessons learned. An untethered skunkworks is always attractive at the outset, but intrapreneurship only happens from within, not without.
"Side project" is a bit of a misnomer, I should point out — we’ve taken Totem deadly seriously. It is full-featured. Although it is a beta, anyone can sign up at launch. It scales. It is ready to rumble from a service, support, marketing, and business development perspective. We would never do this if we weren’t going to do it right, and we intend for Totem to be around for a very long time. When we started, we weren’t sure if we’d go the distance with Totem. Early feedback and experimentation told us the pain point was real, and when it came time to check our gut, we were all-in.
I’m really proud of how scrappy we have been along the way, in hard, soft, and opportunity costs alike. We have enjoyed several distinct advantages, and just as many, if not more disadvantages. Luckily, we had time on our side — Totem has been almost 2 years in the making. Now that we’re to market, that luxury is no longer afforded us.
Each of you would have thoroughly enjoyed observing me on press pre-briefings this week, by the way — I was a nervous wreck. I’ve spoken to press, on and off the record, nearly every day for over a decade. And yet, when it came my turn to practice what I preach, it was as if I was starting from nothing, all over again. Encouragingly, the press were more enthusiastic than any of us expected. We seem to have hit a nerve. They’re really happy that someone is finally addressing a pain point that drives them bonkers on the daily.
So what is Totem, if you don’t already know?
Totem is an awesome press page builder. We wanted it to be simple, and elegant. It is targeted at startups, small and medium sized businesses, and the agencies that serve them.
It’s a classic scratch your own itch startup, truth be told — when on-boarding clients we uniformly found that they had no press page, or a poor one. For a long time we helped build those pages, or offered detailed guidance and examples so clients could roll their own. We were also ways frustrated, because press pages we so often the victims of procrastination. And yet, the press, analysts, and influencers are among your earliest and most powerful audiences, whether you’re a large company or a small one. Why have the press, who we court so emphatically, been catered to so poorly, for so long?
The reality is that press pages often involve too many middlemen — designers, developers, and webmasters. And the people who understand what makes a great press page are seldom the ones building them, much less keeping them updated in real-time. We surveyed over 100 press and asked them what they really wanted, how, and where. Totem is reverse-engineered to make press happy — that’s the only goal that matters. The last thing you want to do it make it harder for someone to write about your company or product. We should always be putting our best foot forward.
If you’re an agency, Totem gives you a strategic new item to add to your services menu, and it makes for better pitches (with no attachments) and appreciative press. Showcase your clients, showcase your results, and free yourself to focus on what you do best.
Totem, is, we hope, above all else simple. Of the many things we learned along the way is exactly who hard it is to make something so simple. It is so much harder to take away than it is to add in. I have always known this intuitively, and as much was always true in the editing room back in film school. But the effect is even further magnified when it comes to software development. I hope that totem feels lightweight, and intuitive.
So yeah, you can now sign up and make a press page in :5 or less. For $99 — a one-time fee, not a monthly or yearly charge — you can upgrade to Pro, which means customizability, custom domain, and the removal or the totem logo/branding. Longer-term, we think there’s a clear roadmap of value leading to Totem 2.0 and 3.0. But right now we feel lucky to have come this far, and it’d be incredible to see traction enough to justify further investment.
For those of you who have been willing guinea pigs, you rock, and we are in your debt. You’ll be upgraded to the new version of Totem tonight, and invited to your project as collaborators, so that you can add coverage with the bookmarklet, upload new assets and make structural changes, too.
Please do help us spread the word — our goal is the make sure that everyone who should have a press page has an awesome one. We’re the press page company. Whenever you see that “Press” or “Media” tab on a website — we want to power it.
We have a lot of people to thank — starting with our friends Justin Britten of Prefinery and Flip Kromer of Infochimps, for volunteering to build the prototype in under 48 hours, under Justin’s mantra that if it a minimum viable product can’t be built in a weekend, you’re in over your head. Thanks to BJ Heinley for our brand and identity and endless encouragement. Thanks to Ben Friesen and Swingset Imagination for our beautiful new website. Thanks to Ellis Neder and Sway Design for the press page template itself, which everyone loves. Thanks to Corey Ward and Justin for everything between then and now — the other 90% of development that we never saw coming, and all the little bits of magic that make Totem feel special.
Thanks to John Robert for PM’ing this thing like a pro, and to Zach for services, support, and a million and one fires put out along the way. And of course, thanks to all of our colleagues at JDI, whose support, feedback, and elbow grease got us this far. I ultimately had very little to do with executing Totem myself — I think that’s a testament to the team we’ve built.
If you get a chance, please read and share our launch coverage, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook? Pretty please?
For starters, a quick shout-out to client Parse.ly, whose upcoming launch was outted in Techcrunch 2 weeks ago.
I really do think that predictive capabilities will not just be in vogue in 2012, but will also be real — meaning, really actionable, and really accurate. This is something Kovas Boguta and I have been talking about for 3+ years and I’m excited that we’re finally arriving,
It’s also an area in and around which Jones-Dilworth has been making a lot of bets, too. I wrote about this trend on my recent Mashable predictions post. Viralheat has been preaching the future-tense word since June of last year.
AreYouWatchingThis?!, Bottlenose, Forecast and The Daily Dot have also made big technological and capital investments in the future tense.
Klout is even rumored to be working on new predictive capabilities.
I recently did an email interview with Anthony Ha of AdWeek on the explosion of infographics, and whether they still have value. Here is the resulting story — it’s good and worth a read.
Below I’ve pasted the full text of what I sent Anthony if you’re interested in this topic more than most.
On the explosion and backlash:
"We’re as guilty as anyone for our role in the infographic explosion. For awhile there, it was a real gold rush as the genre matured, and became more accepted as an editorial trope. Of course, data-driven design is as old as dirt. But its renaissance came about because of the confluence of the Big Data movement, the development of downstream visualization tools that make sense at the seat level, and the withering of art departments at major and minor publishers alike. Well, and there’s the overarching, more straightforward reason, which is that good infographics drive page views. Audiences like them — a lot. They’re useful. They make the non-obvious…obvious. They make me look smarter at the water cooler. And they make boring but important topics and trends palatable again. I’d argue that infographics serve, actually, an important societal function. In a world that is defined more and more by the data we produce and the data upon which we all make decisions, the ability to communicate insights and lessons from that data will continue to be of real importance."
Why the backlash? First symptom:
"So why has there been a backlash, and a justifiable one at that? Look, great data design will always be great data design. To take an analogue — blogging’s rise didn’t necessarily make for better writing on the whole — rather, it unearthed hidden talent, and exposed anyone resting on their laurels. It changed journalism, certainly, but it didn’t change what it means to be a great writer, and it didn’t change inherent demand for great writing. The same is true for infographics. There will always be a place for great design. There’s just a lot more chaff now. The bar is set much higher for anyone who wants to play. I think this is a good thing. Look at BJ Heinley’s stuff, look at Bryan Connor, look at Jess3 and Stamen — theirs is quality work that will endure. There has been a backlash first and foremost because a lot of the infographics out there right now are lazy mimicry, and they talk down to their audience. They’re pedantic. They don’t bother drawing the viewer in and making our neurons fire. They’re candy. Great infographics are more like a brain teaser, or a that first chapter in a find your own adventure booklet."
"Also symptomatic are, no offense, bloggers and journalists themselves. A great infographic doesn’t mean that you don’t have to write a post, or a story. An infographic and the data it represents is not the news in and of itself —it’s a lens. An infographic can even be the headline, or the lede, but these visualizations still need an editorial function on top to frame and contextualize. I’d be curious to really know how Visually is doing — theirs is sort of a marketplace/gallery play. But my gut says that the editorial function in and around data and any associated visualizations becomes more important – not less so, given the current explosion in production. Too many publishers just throw up an infographic and call it a day. Infographics fare very well over social media, and they have SEO value, too. I get the allure, and I don’t envy the economics of media businesses that find themselves under the gun. But the people selecting and publishing infographics certainly bear some of the blame for what has become a very watered-down genre."
"One of the other symptoms that really deserves talking about is the quality of the data that goes into infographics, which is generally poor, secondhand, or clumsily derived, often by hand. Shit in, shit out. The greatest visualization cannot mask shortcomings in the underlying data. That’s a fallacy too many have come to believe in. High-end viz isn’t a band-aid. Invest in high-fidelity data, and then worry about telling great stories. So many companies that we’ve worked with — and decided not to work with — want to skip directly to visualization, enamored by its many benefits. But very, very few companies have invested in the ability to programmatically self-describe, to harvest data from their own stores effectively. Know thyself — that’s step one. Too many people are skipping step one. The data is only news if it is newsworthy. The data is only convincing if it is real. Empirical beats anecdotal. Recycled, manufactured, or found data won’t suffice."
What’s next? On what’s after:
"So what needs to happen? If you grant me that good data design is never going to go away, here’s how it plays out. Visualizations that articulate as news (public relations usage) or art (advertising usage) will need to get better and more ambitious. The data needs to be of note and the design needs to be of note. And we’ve already seen a few glimpses of what’s next — personalized infographics constructed on the fly for each individual, live infographics that change in real-time as the data feeding them likewise evolves, visualizations popping up inside of video and live action footage as part of the environment, and infographic installations in the real world, in airports, hotels, museums, parks and government buildings."
On ramifications for journalism:
"As for journalism itself, I think that publishers have to reinvest in original data creation and extraction — investigative journalism, so to speak — just as much as they also develop, in parallel, the necessary skill of data analysis in each member of their editorial staff — that is, the ability to interview the data, as you would any external source, or subject, replete with its own biases and agenda. This is exactly what the Daily Dot has done, and why its CEO Nick White has invested so heavily in data. Groundbreaking publisher-side tools like Parse.ly will help too. As for the art piece, the design — I think that will remain a decision that is made on a case-by-case basis. The richest publishers are able to afford in-house artists who can produce beautiful renderings. Smaller, less fortunate operations will have to be more scrappy — using contributed art from trusted brands or agencies, or integrating consumer-grade tools that can automate big chunks of design work. The best data, coupled with the cleverest design, will float to the top — the market, so to speak, for infographics, will recalibrate on its own. It already has."
On ramifications for public relations, and branding:
"As for companies who make data available only when it benefits them, and only when they have something to sell, I would issue a challenge of sorts — transparency of data, within reason, is good public relations, and good corporate practice. Make open data a mandate. Start small, but be ambitious, The press page of the future should, for example, house query-able data sets that describe the organization in question as well as any boilerplate or demo tutorial or executive bio. In 5 years it will be reasonable for a journalist or influencer to expect public access to key data about your organization — I’ll want to read your data just as much as I’ll want to read your about page. And that notion will become normative across all industries, even if the tech sector leads the way. For startups who have a unique view unto the world, why have almost none of you made it obscenely easy for the press to use your third-party data to tell new stories about the world at large? There are a few that have gone to such lengths and they have enjoyed an enormous benefit. Make it self-serve, and make it easy, and they will come. And for brands? Right now, data for the most part isn’t thought of as being branded. But look at Nielsen, look at FICO, heck, look at our favorite topic of debate these days, Klout. Data is one of the biggest brand opportunities out there right now, and yet so few brands are thinking this way. Don’t overlook the very real fact of data as branding. It’s of the widest-open opportunities there is, period."
Anthony Ha over at Adweek was kind enough to ask me for for comment on yesterday’s news, and here is the resultant story.
I figured I’d paste the fuller thoughts I sent here, for your reading pleasure.
This might sound a bit callous, but a Techcrunch article is not a Techcrunch article is not a Techcrunch article. These days we don’t think so much about an AdWeek piece as we do about an Anthony Ha piece, or an MG Siegler piece. Yes, writers are typically contained by a brand, and an editorial mission, and usually, a set of policies, ethical ones included. But increasingly, those goals and policies are interpreted and manifested at the individual level, and PR is accordingly best executed more intimately, based on 1:1 relationships, at the human rather than the institutional level. Which is all to say that whether people approve or disapprove of Mike’s new fund, I highly doubt that it will impact Rip or Sarah or Jason or John. And it is unlikely to impact our PR approach at the firm, or others’. Whether Mike’s new fund will impact Techcrunch, or other AOL properties, even, isn’t the right question to be asking. The real question is, will it impact Mike himself?
On Mike and PR specifically:
For one, Mike has written only about 2 of the last 20 pieces that Techcrunch has published. And although Mike certainly sets strategy and does a lot of quality control, Techcrunch’s writers are pretty autonomous in practice. So even if his sources dried up, the blog would suffer very little in my estimation. They’ve hired and trained really good people, and they do a darn good job day in and day out. Mike has succeeded in building an organization that is bigger than himself. I think that’s why he feels more comfortable, now, moving onto new projects.
Second, Mike usually works off of sources and scoops — proprietary information flow. He doesn’t wait around for pitches and tips — he’s too busy hitting the phones. So the real question becomes — will the new fund make his sources more or less reluctant to talk? I have to think that it will indeed. Om Malik of GigaOm and True Ventures is probably the closest analogue, and to his credit he’s be very above board, very transparent. But I know for a fact that entrepreneurs and VC’s both are much more careful around Om than they used to be. On the record is still on the record — but off the record and on background? So much more gets talked about than ever gets written. That’s where Mike might suffer. It’s just prudence on the part of sources, and young companies — drawn not off of concerns of journalistic impropriety, but rather the business side of things — recruitment, intellectual property, valuation, product differentiation, roadmap and runway — those are a company’s moat, and it’s edge.
I’ll actually go ahead an predict that Mike will announce a reduction in his role at Techcrunch — I think he’ll still reserve the right to swoop in and post stories here and there — doing the kind of superhero work he’s known for. But you can’t run a $20mm+ superangel fund in your spare time. It’s a serious endeavor, and his LP’s no doubt expect to have his — and Patrick’s — full attention. Mike has always worn many hats but this is an second act, and a new challenge for him. The access and pattern recognition that have come with and because of his editorial work are certainly why people are willing to bet on him. But the two disciplines have very different core competencies and day-to-day demands. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Mike will have to hunker down, and moreover, that he’s looking forward to the same.
The ridiculous headlines out there right now like “Arrington, AOL Launch $20M CrunchFund to Fund Firms TechCrunch Covers” are just that. It’s hyperbole — I guarantee you their investment thesis isn’t “firms Techcrunch covers”. The navelgazing media community is quick to highlight Tim Armstrong’s admittedly ill-advised quote about Arrington being somehow different, above the law. He’s not, and they’re not, and I fully expect Mike and Heather and Techcrunch to handle this in the right ways when a formal announcement is made. They’re maybe guilty of not being good at doing their own PR, and getting defensive when they should known darn well that ethics would be a lightening rod. But they’re playing a higher stakes game now — and with that comes greater responsibility. Mike knows this, as does AOL.
I don’t expect the new fund to take Board seats — that would surprise me, and raise bigger ethical concerns. I’d also expect that the new fund announce investment soon after making them. These days plenty of deals are hidden via 4(2) filings for example. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but this is a special case — I’d want to know who the fund has invested in before I agree to an interview with Mike, and I’d want to know that the publicly available information was reliable.
But overall, look — IDG has a venture arm. Hearst has a venture arm. Om is a Venture Partner at True. Think about Leher Ventures, think about Yahoo even, which has a massive editorial operation. Google now puts out Think Quarterly. Forbes invested in True/Slant well before it bought it, and wrote about the company along the way. There’s a way to make it kosher, and there’s a way to stay classy. The proof is in the pudding of course, but my point is this — it’s not like some big act of treason has occurred. If nothing fishy happens, then nothing fishy happens. I think Mike should be held innocent until proven guilty, just like everyone else.
If the new fund invests in one of our clients, or one of our existing clients takes money from the new fund, I will say this — we’ll have to be extra careful about behaving correctly, maybe even overcompensating early on, even if just to signal to everyone else that we intend to continue to execute fairly, and that no one is getting any special treatment. This is the flip side of how Techcrunch has had to be extra clear about disclosures since Mike started investing again. If we represent one of the fund’s portfolio companies, we’ll want and need to preserve industry-wide credibility, and a level playing field. As advantageous as it is to have Techcrunch on your side, you’d never want to be seen to be in their pocket, either — nor would I imagine Mike would want or allow as much, regardless.