How Facebook’s F8 Announcements Will Impact Your Social Video Strategy

Last week, Facebook hosted its annual F8 Conference. Mark Zuckerberg joked about testifying in congress, apologized to developers for the turbulent past few months, and announced that Facebook would launch a dating app.

But beyond the excitement—such as being able to attend virtual concerts with Oculus Room or using VR to reconstruct childhood memories—Zuckerberg and other executives revealed upcoming changes that will impact how marketers use Facebook’s platforms.

Here’s the list of the key algorithm shifts and video best practices suggested by Facebook during the two-day conference. If interested, you can view all the F8 sessions here.

Bonus: Download a free guide that teaches you how to turn Facebook traffic into sales in four simple steps using Hootsuite.

The return of the social network

“If you care about getting more distribution,” says Fidgi Simo, VP of Video at Facebook, “Then really thinking about how to get people back to your content is going to be a very important thing moving forward.”

Whether sharing the dizzying accuracy of VR or revealing new group video features in WhatsApp, other executives hammered a similar message again and again: Facebook is about connectivity. “We are here to build things that bring people together,” rallied Mark Zuckerberg at the end of his keynote. “The vast majority of things that happen on these services is helping people get closer together.”

Connectivity means a lot of things for Facebook. Getting emerging markets online for the first time. Helping more businesses use WhatsApp to replace the telephone for one-to-one conversations with customers. Or building dating features to help lonely Facebook users find their algorithmically-perfect soulmate.

But for both paid and organic content strategies, Facebook has made the evolution of their platform clear: they want to be seen less as a media and data platform—and more like a social network.

“Our goal is to reward [content] partners who invest in loyal, engaged communities,” says Director of Product Maria Angelidou-Smith. In other words, Facebook does not want to be seen as a content consumption platform. They want to help their users find meaningful content, stay close to friends and family, and help publishers build loyal audiences with more habitual watching from audiences.

Stop chasing traffic. Start building interactions.

As Head of News Feed Adam Mosseri outlined, the News Feed will look to improve experiences for users. The challenges—as we all know—are many: fake news, Russian bots, and shouting at strangers on the internet over a political news article that appeared in our feed.

Mosseri explained that Facebook’s News Feed algorithm currently works by applying a score based on inventory (the total new posts you could possibly see), signals (past things you’ve done, such as liking a friend’s post), and predictions (which looks at how likely you’re going to watch or read a piece of content).

F8 announcements

“What we’re doing is shifting value in our predictions away from how likely you are to read an article or how long you’re going to watch a video for and shifting some of that value into how likely we think a given story is to facilitate a conversation between you and your friends,” says Mosseri.

In other words, Facebook will shift value away from shares and clicks and promote content that sparks interactions with friends and family. This impacts the “prediction” part of the algorithm.

F8 announcements

Mosseri was explicit that marketers and publishers will be affected by this. The News Feed will promote more content from friends and family (or content that helps to facilitate that social experience) and place less value on shares and link clicks as a relevance metric. “This has real implications for all of you who work in the publishing industry or in news,” he warns, “And I want to make sure you understand those implications so that you can make informed decisions about how to leverage our platform.”

The context for these changes involves improving the relevance of discussions on Facebook. When a popular article goes viral (such as a story on Trump’s immigration policies), your News Feed becomes filled with opinions of strangers. These conversations, Facebook believes, are not the most relevant ones to feature in your feed.

“We know that comments in the News Feed are not the shining beacon of civil discourse,” says Mosseri. “People behave better when they interact with friends rather than strangers because there is accountability.”

Facebook will explore only showing comments from friends on articles (rather than shouting matches between random strangers on news articles), which would drastically reduce the hours I personally spend yelling at racists on the internet. Facebook is also experimenting with upvoting and downvoting like Reddit, helping people to push bad content down and self-regulate conversations.

“We’re optimizing now for quality,” says Campbell Brown, Head of News Partnerships, “And working very closely with many of you [publishers] to figure out what those signals are.”

News content is the most obvious target for these changes (due to the ability to use virality to weaponize information). To fight fake news, Facebook will roll out a News section in the Watch tab that will reward quality publishers and become a destination for exceptional examples of video journalism. There will also be a dedicated section for news in Watch, filled by publishers who are creating video news journalism created specifically for Facebook. Again, the focus is destination: creating loyal audiences rather than quick-bursts of attention in the News Feed.

Alex Hardiman, Head of News Products, echoed these shifts. “We’re giving priority to high-quality news publishers.” In particular, Facebook is measuring “broad trust of the news source,” which means the strength of specific news brands. Facebook is also pushing news that has more substance measuring how much it informs people.

As Facebook’s mission is to connect communities, you’ll also see more local video content in your feed. Facebook explicitly stated that it will prioritize local news, using a publisher’s “geographic click density” which simply means that a local news source is likely to have the majority of their clicks at a city or regional level. They then filter out local businesses and blogs, making sure the source is indeed a news source.

Stories: the ideal video format

Instagram and Facebook Stories, says Mosseri, are better aligned with the type of content they think is valuable for users. Stories offer engaging photos and videos that are personal and help to build connections with your friends and family—the exact type of video content Facebook feels is most valuable to their platform. Facebook predicts that Stories will be the primary way people share in the coming years.

F8 announcements

Create videos that create communities

In the past, brands were advised to think and act like publishers. With the explosion of mobile video content, we were told to behave like broadcasters. But now, brands will need to return to their role as connectors, uniting like-minded consumers and creating experiences worth sharing with friends and family.

Take Facebook Live, for instance. Facebook users have created 3.5 billion live broadcasts. Data from Facebook also shows that Live broadcasts typically have six times the number of interactions than regular video content. Facebook has studied the social nature of these video broadcasts. And in the recent redesign of Facebook Live, Facebook has put social context at the center of the viewing experience. For instance, comments and audience interactions are key for videos on Facebook.

Facebook wants people to enjoy content with their friends, talk about that content afterwards (preferably in Facebook Groups), and encourage brands to think beyond traditional broadcast content into new two-way formats that go beyond passive (and solitary) media consumption.

For Facebook, the key to a successful Facebook Live broadcast comes down to making your content a social experience. For example, Facebook found that broadcasts that have two or more people (rather than just one person talking directly to the camera) are more likely to be successful.

Having two hosts, Facebook found, also increases the length of tune-in. It’s clear that videos that help to create these community experiences are going to be rewarded by Facebook’s algorithms.

How Facebook Watch will change in 2018

In terms of the Facebook Watch tab, Facebook is building tools to help content creators with three areas: social discovery (before people watch content), social viewing (during the video), and active communities (building loyalty and community after the content has ended).

“Friend recommendations have already surpassed television ads in terms of influencing people to watch content,” says Fidgi Simo, VP of Video at Facebook. As a result, marketers can expect to see engagements and interactions count much more than views or shares.

Offering a social experience is key to Facebook’s media evolution (they don’t want to shoulder the weight of being the world’s sole source for news). It’s also how they differentiate their advertising potential from traditional broadcast networks.

As Simo pointed out, video has always been a social experience. For example, with live sports you’re not just consuming content. You’re interacting with other fans and sharing the experience with friends. Facebook’s goal is to create video formats that mirror regular life, where content is the impetus for meaningful conversations.

Facebook’s Watch Party is an example of this trend in action. Now, a host can create a Watch Party for a group and then the members of the group get a notification. This is currently rolling out to all Facebook Groups. Soon, they’ll announce live commentary, allowing the host to add live commentary to the video. Facebook will also roll out polls in Live Video. This will inform content—such as reality shows including more audience participation in shaping the story arc.

It’s clear that Facebook will reward video content that creates depth and loyalty to content.

“When you are a loyal viewer and you come back to a piece of content again and again,” says Fidgi Simo, VP of Video at Facebook, “it’s much more likely you’re going to feel like a part of a community. And, as you know, that’s very aligned with our mission.”

Increasing audience loyalty with Groups

For Facebook, Groups play a key role in building loyal video audiences.

A few months ago, Facebook launched Groups for Pages. Hulu, for example, uses Groups for Pages to engage people in their show The Handmaid’s Tale.

Facebook recommends that brands use Groups as a way to acquire and retain customers. SoFi, an online personal finance company, has 42,000 people in their groups, where SoFi shares tips about money and their career. According to Facebook, much of their early success has come from using the new Groups plugin. With this plugin, they can drive traffic to their group with email or from their website.

Similarly, YouVersion, a Bible app with 300 million downloads, publishes to Groups directly from their app. This helps their “verse of the day” increase reach and engagement.

Finally, Peloton, a cutting-edge fitness company, offers an example of using Groups to build brand advocacy. Peloton’s Facebook Group has grown to 85K members and they use the Group to communicate new updates and products. But customers also help each other, demonstrating the customer advocacy potential of Groups.

“Our community are our best sales people,” says Brad Olson, SVP of Member Experience at Peloton. “Because of that level of customer advocacy, we feel indebted to our members. . . We keep track of every single support call, social post, community post, and email we receive. We add it all up at the end of the month and report it out to the entire company . . . We make everyone read it and we make sure the product team, the hardware team, the content team are creating new features and content that address the needs of our members.”

Video is the new telephone for businesses

As I mentioned, these shifts require a different view of what video is. For brands, social video has mainly been a broadcast tool for 15-second product videos, company announcements, and branded content amplification.

The evolution of video, though, will be building on video’s potential as a two-way communication—not broadcast—medium.

For example, Facebook found that people are using Live video on Instagram to just hang out. In response, Facebook launched video chat on Instagram, helping to connect people together with video.

Bonus: Download a free guide that teaches you how to turn Facebook traffic into sales in four simple steps using Hootsuite.

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Facebook is also building new ways for people to connect privately with friends and businesses on WhatsApp. With WhatsApp clocking 200 million minutes of video calling a day, Facebook will also bring group video calling on WhatsApp.

Currently, 3 million small businesses use WhatsApp to communicate privately with their customers. Facebook’s next step is to help large businesses to get on WhatsApp. Messaging is about private communication, it’s replacing the telephone. Video will play a key role in these shifts.

Commerce will also play a role in these shifts as it aligns with Facebook’s mission of connecting people together. For example, Facebook’s Marketplace has shown that social is a place where people discover, buy, and trade with their neighbors. At F8, Facebook revealed that 80 million people use Marketplace including one in three people in the US. Like video, commerce is an inherently social experience.

7 best practices to help you win with social video in 2018

So how should you act on these changes? Here are a few practical ways to rethink your social video strategy to better align with Facebook’s mission of connecting people together.

1. Go longer, not shorter with video content.

Facebook implied content partners will be rewarded for creating videos that people value, come back to, and engage with. This means you’ll want to de-prioritize the focus on short, snackable video content.

The age of Buzzfeed cat videos might have peaked. And at least for the short term, Facebook will be algorithmically rewarding more substantial content, especially if viewers seek it out, subscribe, and return to watch it.

2. How can you make this communal?

What does a true social video look like?

For Facebook, video should help to build your fan community. It should spark conversations. And it should be a two-way dialogue with your audience. The subtext here is that Facebook doesn’t want to be a platform where people passively consume media content. Their positioning is a social network, not a media platform.

As Zuckerberg stated in his keynote, “passively consuming information is not healthy.” Instead, content should help to start conversations and increase interactions with friends and family.

Facebook has rolled out a few features to help build this social experience into video. You can explore Facebook’s polling features in Facebook Live. And invest in using Groups—a feature Zuckerberg called the “most meaningful part of Facebook”—to increase tune-in to your video content. With the Groups plugin, for example, you add “join a group” button to your website and emails. Fans can discuss your content, invite their friends to your Group, and you’ll be able to notify fans when you publish new videos.

3. Create less, more better

How do you know if video content is valuable? For Facebook, two signals speak loudly: social searches and subscriptions.

Do people search for your video? Do they watch your entire video? Do they then search for it again a few weeks later to rewatch it? This is a powerful indicator of quality, for Facebook.

As Facebook revealed, pre-roll advertising is now enabled in videos that people seek out. For example, if you search for a Saturday Night Live segment on Facebook or look for it in the Watch tab, you’re showing Facebook that this video is valuable to you—and so, you’ll see a pre-roll ad.

Facebook will also be watching to see if people go directly to your video page to watch content. This signals that your video content is building loyal audiences, so they’ll offer higher payouts for these audiences for publishers.

4. Create content worthy of advertising

Going forward, Facebook will also bring some of these changes to paid advertising. For example, in order to better retain users, they’re looking for longer videos that merit ads. This means fewer interruptions during video viewing and ad formats that better match viewer intent.

An ad in a short video frustrates users. It’s here we can see the bigger business benefit (for Facebook) in encouraging video content with more depth, length, and substance. Facebook is also testing pre-roll, especially for videos that match the audience’s intent (for example, watching a high-quality segment from a popular TV show).

5. Make it unscripted

As I mentioned earlier, Facebook Live broadcasts with two hosts tend to perform better than solo videos.

Facebook is also trying to bring commerce and direct response to branded content.
This means when advertisers partner with content creators, they will be able to feature products in their content. According to Facebook, this will help to drive direct sales in addition to brand awareness. In terms of what works on the platform, Angelidou-Smith says they’ve found that branded content that is “less unpolished and more raw, it is more convincing.”

6. Explore new CTA options

For News Publishers, Instant Articles now have CTA units (for news publishers to increase email sign-ups or mobile app downloads). They also support subscriptions. So now users can pay directly for news, which Facebook sees as an important indicator of news quality. Tools like Groups can help drive depth and retention.

Facebook is also experimenting with “propensity modeling techniques,” which means based on your news consumption they can predict who is most likely to pay for a subscription, tailoring their experience on Facebook.

7. Add Messenger ads to your paid video strategy

The number of developers for Messenger doubled last year from 100,000 to 200,000 developers. There are now more than 300,000 active bots on the platform, up from 200,000 last year.

According to Facebook, successful examples of brands using Messenger include Fanta (they delivered 2.6 million coupons with Messenger ads), Air France (for creating exceptional customer experience), 1-800 Flowers (for driving direct conversions), and the Australian Open (using Messenger ads to move people through the buyer journey, earning a 24 times increase in ROI vs ads that led to their website).

Sponsored Messages allow you to retarget and re-engage in context. For example, Facebook gave the example of Quantas, an airline, used Sponsored Messages to re-engage prospects who had started conversations organically in Messenger and saw a 116 times higher click-through-rate compared to standard display ads. Sponsored messages, the airline says, are now their most effective digital channel.

Facebook is now recommending that brands add Messenger ads to their standard Facebook campaigns.

Early tests show that Facebook Messenger ads added to campaigns offer an eight percent increase in reach and seven percent decrease in cost. For example, Lyft added Messenger ads into a campaign and saw a six percent lower cost per lead, according to Facebook.

Additional resources:

In my 2018 Social Trends report, I analyze the opportunity of social video and offer best practices to take advantage of the new video formats. You can download the report for free here.

You can publish and manage social videos—including Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter—right from Hootsuite. Explore our video integrations here.

You can learn professional techniques for using social videos including Facebook Live in our Content Marketing Fundamentals, a free course offered online from Hootsuite Academy.

Manage your Facebook presence alongside your other social media channels using Hootsuite. From a single dashboard you can schedule posts, share video, engage your audience, and measure the impact of your efforts. Try it free today.

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The post How Facebook’s F8 Announcements Will Impact Your Social Video Strategy appeared first on Hootsuite Social Media Management.

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9 Ways Increase Facebook Engagement In an Algorithm-Crazed World

Have you noticed your Facebook engagement has been on a downward spiral lately?

There’s no need to panic.

Although the recent changes to the Facebook algorithm have many marketers sweating, the update isn’t as scary as it seems.

The short of it? Facebook is asking brands to rethink how they earn likes, comments and shares on their posts.

For example, Facebook is explicitly fighting against engagement bait and spammy tactics which they see as undercutting their algorithm.

Facebook now actively discourages posts which basically beg for engagement

The takeaway here is that what might have worked brilliantly for brands in the past might not fly today.

And that’s exactly why brands need an explicit Facebook engagement strategy if they still want that sweet, sweet organic reach.

You don’t need to abandon your current Facebook page or start over from scratch, either. Instead, you just need to consider ways to set your posts up for greater engagement. Below we’ve outlined nine strategies to do exactly that.

Let’s take a look at how to increase engagement on Facebook:

1. Tap into Perfect Timing

The more engagement a post receives, the more likely Facebook’s algorithm is to reward it with reach.

This might seem a bit backward but it speaks to the importance of timing your posts to perfection.

By posting when your followers are most active, you instantly increase the likelihood of getting likes and comments.

And yes, there are data-driven best times to post on social media which can clue you in on what your posting calendar should look like.

The key here is to not just post at random and expect engagement. With the help of the chart below and analyzing your past posts, you can zero in on a schedule that makes sense.

Maximizing Facebook engagement means timing your posts to perfection

We recommend using a Facebook scheduling tool to plan your social media calendar days or weeks in advance. It’ll keep you from forgetting to post and give you the flexibility to test different posting times.

sprout social monthly calendar view

2. Focus on Fan-Centric Content

Many brands make the mistake of putting themselves in a box when it comes to their content.

Let’s say you’re running a Facebook page for your sandwich shop. Should you exclusively post content related to sandwiches?

Of course not.

For starters, there’s only so much that can really be said on a day-to-day basis about your brand or product. As soon as your content starts to feel repetitive or stale, your audience will tune out.

Here’s some food for thought: your Facebook content isn’t all about you. It’s about your fans. They might like you, but that doesn’t mean they only want to hear about you all day long. Once you start to embed that idea into your strategy, increasing Facebook engagement becomes much more realistic.

And if you’re struggling to find ideas for fresh content, you can start by asking yourself a few questions.

Are There Any Relevant Real-World Events to Piggyback?

Pulling from pop culture and current events is a smart move if done tastefully. Check out how Hubspot put out an awesome video on Marvel’s marketing strategy to coincide with the release of The Avengers: Infinity War.

Found Any Fascinating Facts or Stats Related to Your Fans Lately?

Infographics and shocking statistics are prime for discussion and debate, both of which are huge pieces of Facebook engagement. Activity in the comment sections spells good news to the updated algorithm.

Have You Made Your Fans Laugh Lately?

Like it or not, Facebook has become a hotbed for memes and humorous content. Although humor not might be the perfect fit for every brand, funny content typically performs well and is a lighthearted way to diversify your posts.

It might be tempting to simply talk about yourself, but that’s not going to drive much engagement. Strive to stick to the golden rule of rule of content curation that says only 20% of what you post should be self-promotional.

Besides, filling your feed with a variety of content will always keep your followers looking forward to what’s next.

Oh, and if you want to have instant access to fresh pieces your audience will love, tools such as content suggestions from Sprout can do the digging so you don’t have to.

If you're struggling for content ideas, consider how Sprout can make suggestions for you

3. Analyze Your Most Popular Posts

Sometimes the key to increasing Facebook engagement is to look inward.

Let’s say you have a post that knocks it out of the park. Tons of likes and shares, and plenty of love in the comment section.

Rather than treat that post as an anomaly, you should instead take steps to recreate the same social magic again.

Maybe it was an unexpected meme. Perhaps it was an epic case study.

Either way, you should have a pulse on your top-performing content instead of playing guessing games. Again, your fans’ activity is key to understand what to post.

To better break down that activity, take a close look at your Facebook analytics to see firsthand what’s receiving the most reach. The answer might very well surprise you.

Facebook Sent Message Report

4. Step Up Your Photo Game

Visual content totally kills it on Facebook–plain and simple.

Photos make up the overwhelming majority of content on the platform, signaling that people would much rather engage with a visual than a link or wall of text. So if you want to improve Facebook engagement, get visual.

However, the type of images you post make a massive difference in terms of performance.

Many budding businesses make the mistake of relying on stock photos or images pulled from elsewhere rather than creating their own content.

Instead, brands should strive to show the personality behind their business. There’s a reason why photos “in the wild” are so popular from big brands, as are stories from employees.

After all, it’s the social network, not the stock photo network.

Also, keep in mind that images can be powerful tools to encourage serial scrollers to stop in their tracks and look at your posts. Images containing striking colors and stunning landscapes typically do well, as evidenced by brands like GoPro who kill it with their photo content.

5. Prioritize Comments & Replies

Improving your Facebook page engagement isn’t a “one and done” affair.

If someone takes the time to comment on your content, you should return the favor yourself.

People overwhelmingly want to interact with brands, which is the reason why so many businesses that reply to comments score more interactions.

And by the way: replies have become an expectation in today’s social space. Given that people respect a social response within four hours of commenting, timely responses are a game-changer.

Replying to comments on your post it not only a way to signal engagement to Facebook, but also keep your fans happy

If nothing else, taking the time to reply to fans shows that you’re listening to them. This is a good look from a branding perspective and also encourages more interaction among fans in the future.

6. Tailor Your On-Site Content for Facebook

Likes, shares and comments aren’t just vanity metrics. These pieces of engagement serve as valuable data points for the type of content that people actually want to see.

That’s why you should translate what’s performing well on Facebook to your own content on-site.

After all, your business’ blog is about so much more than SEO. Sure, you might be wary of the constant listicles and borderline clickbaity stuff you see on Facebook, but the metrics don’t lie.

Looking at the most popular social posts from 2017 as highlighted by Buzzsumo, here’s some insight into the sort of content that makes people click without fail:

  • Heartwarming stories
  • Quizzes
  • Shocking or surprising statistics
  • How-to guides and supportive content
  • Opinion pieces that take bold stances
Quizzes and debate-worthy content typically perform well on Facebook

Tailoring your blog content for Facebook doesn’t mean compromising quality or resorting to clickbait, though.

It’s all in the presentation.

Titles that pique people’s interest. Setting up your readers for a punchline. By crafting your posts this way, you automatically set them up for more Facebook engagement.

7. Couple Your Posts with a CTA

As noted, Facebook is trying to lead brands away from excessive “TAG YOUR FRIENDS!” or “SMASH THAT LIKE BUTTON IF YOU…” posts.

That said, including a call to action within your posts is totally fair game. Doing so provides your fans with a voice and reminds them that they want to hear from you.

A quick and easy way to do so is to simply tack a question onto your posts. You could also consider coming up with a series of content where you regularly pick your followers’ brains.

Encouraging comments, debate and discussion are a-okay, just don’t beg for them.

8. Upload Video Content Directly to Facebook

Facebook isn’t shy about how much they love video content on their platform.

As part of the recent algorithm update, Facebook explicitly notes how well native video performs. They encourage brands to post videos to drive discussion among their followers.

This means simply copy-and-pasting a link to your recent YouTube video as a post isn’t going to cut it.

Instead, brands should upload directly to Facebook’s platform if possible. Whether it’s animations, commercials or jumping on Facebook Live, regularly uploading video content on Facebook regularly is a smart move supported by the platform itself.

9. Shorten Your Posts

When in doubt, keep your posts as brief as possible.

Remember: there’s a good chance you’re dealing with scrollers and mobile users. Treating your posts like novels creates more opportunities for readers to lose interest and likewise miss your CTA.

Consider the following bite-sized post types we see all the time such as:

  • Quick questions to followers
  • Quotes or stats from an article that require a click for more context
  • Snappy or witty statements coupled with a picture

Seriously, though. A sentence is all you need to grab someone’s attention and guide them to click through.

And this all serves as a reminder that winning interactions on Facebook doesn’t have to be complicated.

Do You Have a Facebook Engagement Strategy?

At the end of the day, what matters most is simply having some sort of Facebook engagement strategy. Period.

If you look at the top brands on Facebook, you’ll notice that they’re consistently posting and interacting with followers. On the flip side, dead pages are the ones that simply parrot their own content and make no effort to, well, engage.

The good news? You can start implementing these tips into your Facebook strategy ASAP without lifting a finger.

We want to hear from you, though. What do you see the best brands on Facebook do to win comments and shares? Let us know in the comments below!

This post 9 Ways Increase Facebook Engagement In an Algorithm-Crazed World originally appeared on Sprout Social.

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Subscription hell

Another week, another paywall. This time, it’s Bloomberg, which announced that it would be adding a comprehensive paywall to its news service and television channel (except TicToc, its media partnership with Twitter). A paywall was hardly a surprise, but what was surprising was the price: the standard subscription is $35 a month (up from $0 a month), or $40 a month including access to online and print editions of Businessweek.

And people say avocado toast is expensive.

That’s not the only subscription coming up though. Now Facebook is considering adding an ad-free subscription option. These rumors have come and gone in the past, with no sign of change in the company’s resolute focus on advertising as its core business model. Post-Cambridge Analytica and post-GDPR though, it seems the company’s position is more malleable, and could be following the plan laid out by my colleague Josh Constine recently. He pegged the potential price at $11 a month, given the company’s revenue per user.

I’m an emphatic champion of subscription models, particularly in media. Subscriptions align incentives in a way that advertising can never do, while also avoiding the morass of privacy and ethics that plague ad targeting. Subscription revenues are also more reliable than ad dollars, making it easier to budget and improve operational efficiency for an organization.

Incentive alignment is one thing, and my wallet is another. All of these subscriptions are starting to add up. These days, my media subscriptions are hovering around $80 a month, and I don’t even have TV. Storage costs for Google, Apple, and Dropbox are another $13 a month. Cable and cell service are another $200 a month combined. Software subscriptions are probably about $20 a month (although so many are annualized its hard to keep track of them). Amazon Prime and a few others total in around $25 a month.

Worse, subscriptions aren’t getting any cheaper. Amazon Prime just increased its price to $120 a year, Netflix increased its popular middle-tier plan to $11 a month late last year, and YouTube increased its TV pricing to $40 a month last month. Add in new paywalls, and the burden of subscriptions is rising far faster than consumer incomes.

I’m frustrated with this hell. I’m frustrated that the web’s promise of instant and free access to the world’s information appears to be dying. I’m frustrated that subscription usually means just putting formerly free content behind a paywall. I’m frustrated that the price for subscriptions seems wildly high compared to the ad dollars that the fees substitute for. And I’m frustrated that subscription pricing rarely seems to account for other subscriptions I have, even when content libraries are similar.

Subscriptions can be a great tool, but everyone seems to be doing them wrong. We need to transform our thinking here if we are to move on from the manacles of the ad networks.

Before we dive in though, let’s be clear: the web needs a business model. We didn’t need paywalls on the early web because we focused on plain text from other users. Plain text is easier to produce, lowering the friction for people to contribute, and it’s also cheaper to store and transmit, lowering the cost of bandwidth.

Today’s consumers though have significantly higher standards than the original users of the web. Consumers want immersive experiences, well-designed pages with fonts, graphics, photos, and videos coming together into a compelling format. That “quality” costs enormous sums in engineering and design talent, not to mention massively increasing bandwidth and storage costs.

Take my colleague Connie Loizos’ article from yesterday reporting on a new venture fund. The text itself is about 3.5 kilobytes uncompressed, but the total payload of the page if nothing is cached is more than 10 MB, or more than 3000x the data usage of the actual text itself. This pattern has become so common that it has been called the website obesity crisis. Yet, all of our research shows people want high-definition images with their stories, instant loading of articles on the site, and interactivity. Those features have to be paid somehow, begetting us the advertising and subscription models we see today.

The other cost is content production itself. Volunteers just haven’t produced the information we are seeking. Wikipedia is an extraordinary resource, but its depth falters when we start looking for information about our local communities, or news, or individuals who aren’t famous. The reality is that information gathering is hard work, and in a capitalist system, we need to compensate people to do it. My colleagues and I are passionate about startups and technology, but we need to eat to publish.

While an open, free, and democratized web is ideal, these two challenges demonstrate that a business model had to be attached to make it function. Advertising is one such model, with massive privacy violations required to optimize it. The other approach is charging for access.

Unfortunately, subscription seems to be an area filled with product engineers and marketers led by brain-dead executives. The default choice of Bloomberg this week and so many other publications is to simply put formerly free content behind a paywall. No consumer wants to pay for something they formerly got for free, and yet we repeatedly see examples of subscriptions designed this way.

I don’t know when media started hiring IRS accountants, but subscriptions should be seen as an upgrade, not a tax. A subscription should provide new features, content, and capabilities that didn’t exist before while maintaining the former product that consumers have enjoyed for years.

Take MoviePass for instance. Consumers can continue to watch movies as they always have in the past, but now they have a new subscription option to watch potentially more movies for a set price. Among my friends, MoviePass has completely changed the way they think of films. Instead of just seeing one blockbuster every month, they are heading to an art house film because “we’ve essentially already paid for it, so why not try it?” The pricing is clearly too cheap, but that shouldn’t distract from a product that offered a completely new experience from a subscription.

The hell is even worse though. We not only get paywalls where none existed before, but the prices of those subscriptions are always vastly more expensive than consumers ever wanted. It’s not just Bloomberg and media — it’s software too. I used to write everything in Ulysses, a syncing Markdown editor for OS X and iOS. I paid $70 to buy the apps, but then the company switched to a $40 a year annual subscription, and as the dozens of angry reviews and comments illustrate, that price is vastly out of proportion from the cost of providing the software (which I might add, is entirely hosted on iCloud infrastructure).

For product marketers, the default mentality is to extract a lot of value from the 1% of readers or users that are going to convert to paid. Subscriptions are always positioned as all-or-nothing, with limited metering or tiering, to try to force the conversion. To my mind though, the question is not how to get 1% of readers to pay an exorbitant price, but how to get say 20% of your readers to pay you a cheaper price. It’s not about exclusion, but about participation.

One way we could fix that situation would be to allow subscriptions to combine together more cheaply. We are starting to see this too: Spotify, Hulu, and Scribd appear to be investigating a deal in which consumers can get a joint subscription from these services for a lower rate. Setapp is a set of more than one hundred OS X apps that come bundled for about $10 a month.

I’d love to see more of these partnerships, because they are much more fair to the consumer and ultimately allow smaller subscription companies to compete with the likes of Google, Amazon, Apple, and others. Cross-marketing lowers subscriber acquisition costs, and those savings should ultimately stream down to the consumer.

Subscription hell is real, but that doesn’t mean the business model is flawed. Rather, we need to completely transform our thinking around these models, including the marketing behind them and the features that they offer. We also need to consider consumers and their wallets more holistically, since no one buys a subscription in a vacuum. For too long, paywall playbooks have just been copied rather than innovated upon. It’s time for product leaders to step up and build a better future.

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UK watchdog orders Cambridge Analytica to give up data in US voter test case

Another big development in the personal data misuse saga attached to the controversial Trump campaign-linked UK-based political consultancy, Cambridge Analytica — which could lead to fresh light being shed on how the company and its multiple affiliates acquired and processed US citizens’ personal data to build profiles on millions of voters for political targeting purposes.

The UK’s data watchdog, the ICO, has today announced that it’s served an enforcement notice on Cambridge Analytica affiliate SCL Elections, under the UK’s 1998 Data Protection Act.

The company has been ordered to give up all the data it holds on one US academic within 30 days — with the ICO warning that: “Failure to do so is a criminal offence, punishable in the courts by an unlimited fine.”

The notice follows a subject access request (SAR) filed in January last year by US-based academic, David Carroll after he became suspicious about how the company was able to build psychographic profiles of US voters. And while Carroll is not a UK citizen, he discovered his personal data had been processed in the UK — so decided to bring a test case by requesting his personal data under UK law.

Carroll’s complaint, and the ICO’s decision to issue an enforcement notice in support of it, looks to have paved the way for millions of US voters to also ask Cambridge Analytica for their data (the company claimed to have up to 7,000 data points on the entire US electorate, circa 240M people — so just imagine the class action that could be filed here… ).

The Guardian reports that Cambridge Analytica had tried to dismiss Carroll’s argument by claiming he had no more rights “than a member of the Taliban sitting in a cave in the remotest corner of Afghanistan”. The ICO clearly disagrees.

Cambridge Analytica/SCL Group responded to Carroll’s original SAR in March 2017 but he was unimpressed by the partial data they sent him — which ranked his interests on a selection of topics (including gun rights, immigration, healthcare, education and the environment) yet did not explain how the scores had been calculated.

It also listed his likely partisanship and propensity to vote in the 2016 US election — again without explaining how those predictions had been generated.

So Carroll complained to the UK’s data watchdog in September 2017 — which began sending its own letters to CA/SCL, leading to further unsatisfactory responses.

“The company’s reply refused to address the ICO’s questions and incorrectly stated Prof Caroll had no legal entitlement to it because he wasn’t a UK citizen or based in this country. The ICO reiterated this was not legally correct in a letter to SCL the following month,” the ICO writes today. “In November 2017, the company replied, denying that the ICO had any jurisdiction or that Prof Carroll was legally entitled to his data, adding that SCL did “.. not expect to be further harassed with this sort of correspondence”.”

In a strongly worded statement, information commissioner Elizabeth Denham further adds:

The company has consistently refused to co-operate with our investigation into this case and has refused to answer our specific enquiries in relation to the complainant’s personal data — what they had, where they got it from and on what legal basis they held it.

The right to request personal data that an organisation holds about you is a cornerstone right in data protection law and it is important that Professor Carroll, and other members of the public, understand what personal data Cambridge Analytica held and how they analysed it.

We are aware of recent media reports concerning Cambridge Analytica’s future but whether or not the people behind the company decide to fold their operation, a continued refusal to engage with the ICO will potentially breach an Enforcement Notice and that then becomes a criminal matter.

Since mid-March this year, Cambridge Analytica’s name (along with the names of various affiliates) has been all over headlines relating to a major Facebook data misuse scandal, after press reports revealed in granular detail how an app developer had used the social media’s platform’s 2014 API structure to extract and process large amounts of users’ personal data, passing psychometrically modeled scores on US voters to Cambridge Analytica for political targeting.

But Carroll’s curiosity about what data Cambridge Analytica might hold about him predates the scandal blowing up last month. Although journalists had actually raised questions about the company as far back as December 2015 — when the Guardian reported that the company was working for the Ted Cruz campaign, using detailed psychological profiles of voters derived from tens of millions of Facebook users’ data.

Though it was not until last month that Facebook confirmed as many as 87 million users could have had personal data misappropriated.

Carroll, who has studied the Internet ad tech industry as part of his academic work, reckons Facebook is not the sole source of the data in this case, telling the Guardian he expects to find a whole host of other companies are also implicated in this murky data economy where people’s personal information is quietly traded and passed around for highly charged political purposes — bankrolled by billionaires.

“I think we’re going to find that this goes way beyond Facebook and that all sorts of things are being inferred about us and then used for political purposes,” he told the newspaper.

Under mounting political, legal and public pressure, Cambridge Analytica claimed to be shutting down this week — but the move appears more like a rebranding exercise, as parent entity, SCL Group, maintains a sprawling network of companies and linked entities. (Such as one called Emerdata, which was founded in mid-2017 and is listed at the same address as SCL Elections, and has many of the same investors and management as Cambridge Analytica… But presumably hasn’t yet been barred from social media giants’ ad platforms, as its predecessor has.)

Closing one of the entities embroiled in the scandal could also be a tactic to impede ongoing investigations, such as the one by the ICO — as Denham’s statement alludes, by warning that any breach of the enforcement notice could lead to criminal proceedings being brought against the owners and operators of Cambridge Analytica’s parent entity.

In March ICO officials obtained a warrant to enter and search Cambridge Analytica’s London offices, removing documents and computers for examination as part of a wider, year-long investigation into the use of personal data and analytics by political campaigns, parties, social media companies and other commercial actors. And last month the watchdog said 30 organizations — including Facebook — were now part of that investigation.

The Guardian also reports that the ICO has suggested to Cambridge Analytica that if it has difficulties complying with the enforcement notice it should hand over passwords for the servers seized during the March raid on its London office – raising questions about how much data the watchdog has been able to retrieve from the seized servers.

SCL Group’s website contains no obvious contact details beyond a company LinkedIn profile — a link which appears to be defunct. But we reached out to SCL Group’s CEO Nigel Oakes, who has maintained a public LinkedIn presence, to ask if he has any response to the ICO enforcement notice.

Meanwhile Cambridge Analytica continues to use its public Twitter account to distribute a stream of rebuttals and alternative ‘facts’.

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