— The kerfuffle over a UK fashion company’s tweeted photo of their interns.
— Whether Facebook should ban anti-vaccine messaging.
— If the ad-based business model was the Internet’s “original sin”.
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CHIP GRIFFIN: Hi, this is Chip Griffin from CustomScoop with another episode of the Media Bullseye Roundtable. I’m very pleased to be joined today by my good friend Doug Haslam from Stone Temple Consulting. Welcome, Doug.
DOUG HASLAM: Thanks for having me. I’m very pleased to be here again.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Do you have any shameless self-promotion today?
DOUG HASLAM: I think just my colleagues and bosses have been putting up some good stuff on StoneTemple.com, the blog, things to do with SEO search and content marketing. There’s been some really smart stuff there, including some periodic studies that get released there as well as other contents. I still continue to write on DougHaslam.com, not as often as I’d like, but if I keep saying it loud, maybe I’ll write more blog posts.
CHIP GRIFFIN: I’m the same way. ChipGriffin.com hasn’t been updated in a while at this point, so maybe I’ll make a note and try to do that at some point this week. Let’s go ahead and jump into our first topic today. That is vaccine related, but we’re not going to talk about the merits of vaccine, or maybe we will, but it’s not the purpose of this. There’s been all sorts of debate in recent years that really seems to have come to a head in just the past few months about vaccines. We’ve had presidential candidates talking about it, whether you should or should not and what kind of messaging there should be.
In any case, there was an article in Time Magazine online that suggested that Facebook should shut down the anti-vaccine people basically as a public health menace, and try to control what’s being said out there. The piece makes the point that Facebook can be a very powerful platform for spreading messages for good or for evil. It cites for example the ice bucket challenge and says it probably wouldn’t have been anything without Facebook. We’ve got a number of different issues here, but fundamentally, should Facebook be shutting down these anti-vaccine messengers?
DOUG HASLAM: No, basically. OK, next topic.
CHIP GRIFFIN: (laughs) I think you and I are going to agree on this, but let’s try to dive a little deeper, Doug, so that someone has something to listen to here.
DOUG HASLAM: (laughs) It’s become one of those third rails of Facebook, where if you post something about it, a bunch of people jump on both sides of the issue and it becomes a lot of uncivil discourse online. Now, I think the issue being debated here, for example in the Jeffrey Kluger article in Time that you sent to me, is more about, “Well, people posting anti-vaccer stuff, it’s a public safety issue, and they shouldn’t be posting this because then people won’t get vaccines and people will get measles and die.” I think there are a lot of steps between that. Now, personally, I think, yeah, you should get vaccines, and if I had especially a younger child in schools, I would be very upset to find that some kids didn’t have their vaccinations.
But whether or not I took the complete other side of the issue, I don’t think shutting down the conversation there in this case is a good thing. It sets a bad precedent, because then where do you draw the line as to what kind of conversations do you shut down and what kinds do you let go? To me, personally, I don’t think that really meets the criteria for having to shut it down. Maybe it’s partially because I think, why would anyone believe what and anti-vaccer says? I don’t know. I know there’s a lot of, again, uncivil discourse about it, but I just don’t see where this supersedes the right to free speech. People have the right to say really dumb things. But this isn’t inciting to violence, this is not hate speech, this is just more of a rather sensitive political and public social issue.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. I think we’re going to be in general agreement here. I would say that I don’t think it’s a free speech issue, and I do get energized about the distinctions of what free speech actually is, because free speech is merely that the government cannot restrict what you’re saying, with some safety exceptions and that kind of stuff. But private companies or even public companies like Facebook, if they want to just ban certain topics, they can certainly do so. To me, it’s not so much a free speech issue. To me, it’s really more about, A, what are you accomplishing? I don’t think you accomplish much. These viewpoints are still going to be out there, they’re still going to be spread. I think there’s value to having them out in the light of day so that you know who’s making these arguments and what they’re saying. Maybe it helps you counter them and share evidence.
Science is always evolving on everything. We just saw the news stories that came out overnight about peanut allergies, and how the conventional wisdom for the past 15, 20 years has been, if you think your kid might be allergic to peanuts, keep them away. Well, now there’s very compelling evidence that says exactly the opposite, that in most cases if a child might be susceptible to a peanut allergy, you’re better off exposing them to it early and often to build up immunity over time. There’s all sort of different things in the scientific community that can change, and so because of that I think it’s fine to have these conversations out in the open.
I agree with you, if I had a young child who was of vaccination age, I would be really encouraging everybody to get these vaccines. My kids did, and certainly they would in the future as well. To me, any time you have folks coming out and saying you should ban this or ban that from a speech perspective, it’s just silly, because it’s not really changing any opinions, it’s just driving it underground, and I really don’t see the value to that.
DOUG HASLAM: Yeah. It’s a very good reminder about Facebook, despite the ubiquity of it, that it is a private platform and they can pretty much do whatever they want. Another thing they could do if they wanted to get into that, and it’s not necessarily recommending it, but if they felt strongly about a certain issue, Facebook can editorially say that, “As a company, we support certain things.” Now, that opens up a whole other wormhole of things, but if they really dislike the anti-vaccers, and I’m not saying they do, they can just come out and say, “We don’t believe in this. We’re not shutting you down, but we support the pro-vaccination movement.” They can certainly do that, too.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. They could run free ads for them, or whatever they wanted in the feeds. There’s all sorts of things that they could do to counter it if they felt so inclined. I agree, that raises a whole nother set of issues, which I suppose we’ll save until they actually are seriously contemplating doing something like that or actually do it.
To me, the broader issue here that really troubles me is, as a society, we seem to be moving more and more towards wanting to ban any kind of discussion that we don’t like or are uncomfortable with, and it goes well beyond vaccines. We see any number of topics that are a minority viewpoint that someone says, “You can’t say that, because that makes you … ” something that usually ends with -ist or -ism, whether you’re a racist or a misogynist or whatever it is. I think we need to do a better job, particularly in the online sphere, of embracing a variety of viewpoints, even those with which we are not comfortable, even those that we may find reprehensible, as long as they are not directly and imminently instigating some sort of a safety threat, the crying fire in a crowded theater kind of thing.
If it’s not that, I think we really need to have these conversations, because at the end of the day, we may learn something, or we may ultimately be able to educate more people who would have held that view that were just hidden before.
DOUG HASLAM: Or, were just not going to change their minds anyway, so why antagonize either side?
CHIP GRIFFIN: Absolutely. Going to this same sort of an extension of the same topic, and that is a tweet that was put out by a fashion firm.
DOUG HASLAM: ASOS.
CHIP GRIFFIN: ASOS, it that how you pronounce it?
DOUG HASLAM: A-S-O-S, yes. I don’t know if it’s how you pronounce it, but that’s how you spell it.
CHIP GRIFFIN: OK. A-S-O-S. However you happen to pronounce that, they are described as a UK based online seller of fashion and beauty products. They put out a tweet on their careers Twitter account that by all accounts appeared on the surface instantly to be innocuous. It was just a picture of their interns, and said, “Hey, we love our interns. We don’t want to see them go.” Then, someone made the observation, “Well, look, these are all white people. There’s no diversity in this group at all.” That set off a firestorm, and ASOS decided that they were going to delete the tweet. This goes to that same category of things, that someone basically gets bullied into retracting their online speech. I’m opposed to it for two reasons. I know normally I let my guest speak first, but I just can’t help myself. I’m a little bit wound up about this one, Doug.
First of all, I don’t think that people should be bullying folks into changing their viewpoints just because it’s not popular. But secondly, deleting your tweets just makes you look more guilty. Don’t go deleting tweets. They’re out there, everybody knows they’re there. As soon as you delete it, people say, “Aha! We got you.” Have a discussion, have a conversation. Talk about maybe what you do from a recruiting standpoint to address this, if you’ve done stuff in the past and it just hasn’t worked, or if you’re going to implement new things in the future. Talk about the positive, don’t go trying to retract words that are already out there.
DOUG HASLAM: Yeah. Here we’re going to be in violent agreement again in a lot of things here. One thing is, speaking from having worked in the PR and marketing industry, particularly in much of it tech heavy over the last 20 years, diversity is definitely a problem in that industry.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Absolutely.
DOUG HASLAM: Any firm that I may have worked for over the last couple of decades, the pictures of the interns would probably look like that. Also, there are 14 interns in that picture, so either they’re a small company and the chances that they have a big enough representative sample of interns that they’re always going to be diverse is pretty low, or it’s just some of their interns that happened to be around for the picture that day. Again, they didn’t need to apologize for it. People picked up on that a little bit too quickly. I can understand, if I’m a person of color and I see this company that I might want to work for and they’re showing all pictures of white people, yeah, maybe I’m a little bit nervous about their hiring practices. But that’s a long leap to make from one picture.
People just like to overreact, especially on Twitter, because it’s easy to type. We see this again and again, and we see a lot of brand bullying, not just from hyper-reactive individuals and trolls out there, but even from people in the marketing industry. I’ve probably gone on about this before. My particular bugaboo is people who are in the marketing industry who like to jump on companies making mistakes or, in this case, probably not even making a mistake, and just saying, “Oh, you don’t do it right. You’re doing this wrong. You’re social wrong,” or, “You’re doing hiring wrong.” Well, there’s more about that. Then, deleting the tweet? Right. They could have just stood for. They could have done a couple things.
If they said, “Well, we actually are diverse, this I just a picture of some of our folks,” well, post some more pictures, get the other folks in there and say, “Hey, so-and-so wasn’t around for the picture, but here’s the rest of our interns. Here’s a picture of our whole office, for those of you who are keeping score.” You don’t have to be combative about it, but just make sure that you do show that you have a commitment to it. Chances are, this company does have some sort of more positive examples of their diversity. If they don’t, then it doesn’t hold water. But if they do, it’s not hard to find.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Sure. Again, the bullying that’s taking place here is based on a single tweet with a single picture, no more evidence than that. To me, that just shows social media at its worst, because you really need to look at the company and figure out, “Well, why is this?” Maybe it’s because of, wherever they are geographically located, there isn’t a lot of community diversity. It says UK based. It could be London, in which case there’s lots of diversity, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s somewhere rural. Where I am in New Hampshire, achieving a truly diverse picture would be really challenging. It doesn’t mean we don’t try up here, but there is a certain reality that the population here in New Hampshire is 98% white. What can you do? Probably, if you’re going to be representative of your community, 98% of the people in the picture would probably be white as well.
That doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently racist about the way that this company or any other company is doing things. If we had a memo from them that said, “We will not hire people of color,” that’s a whole different story. Then, there is something to jump on them about. But to make an inference about this and assume that they’ve either done nothing or done something explicit to try to have this kind of workforce, it really bothers me to see this kind of thing. To me, it goes to something I’ve talked about for years now. When these things happen, it discourages brands from participating in social media. It discourages them from being open. Because if I sit there and say, “Well, jeez, I’m not sure I want to post a picture of my employees, because someone might make an assumption about it and then it turns into a firestorm that hurts my brand,” it’s troubling.
DOUG HASLAM: Yeah. There has to be a thick skin, because you’re going to have trolls from all sides no matter what you do, and if you want to try something a little off beat, people are going to say, “Oh, you’re tone deaf for trying to be a funny brand.” But sometimes people will pick up on individual things and not really see the whole picture. Part of it is understanding the platform and that people will judge you on a singular tweet, because that’s the only one they see. Facebook might be a little different, but then some people are just looking for a fight anyway.
CHIP GRIFFIN: There’s that, yes. You can go to almost any news site, at least the ones that still have comments, because there is a trend towards disabling comments on news sites because they’ve become so vile and irrelevant, but if you go to any of them you can see people saying the strangest things and will just get wound up over nothing or make things up. I don’t know. I don’t understand people who choose to live their lives that way, but I suppose everybody has that choice.
DOUG HASLAM: Some news sites are vile and irrelevant …
CHIP GRIFFIN: There’s that, too.
DOUG HASLAM: … and the comments are the best part. Don’t shut those down. (laughs) Sometimes just vile and relevant, depending on how your tastes run.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Right, but most of those sites actually encourage the comments, because that’s in part sometimes why they take the vile viewpoints that they do, it’s to encourage the kind of commenting that will then lead to more page views, which leads to more ad revenue, which of course is a segue into our next topic.
DOUG HASLAM: Enough about Gawker.
CHIP GRIFFIN: (laughs) I’m not naming names today. I’m in a positive mood, Doug. In any case, speaking of advertising, this is a very current article, one from August of 2014. However, it came back to relevance because the esteemed Scott Monty shared it in his weekly roundup of articles that we should all be reading. It’s from The Atlantic, and the headline is, “The Internet’s Original Sin,” subhead, “It’s not too late to ditch the ad-based business model and build a better web.” It’s by Ethan Zuckerman. He talks about basically the fact that the internet was driven by advertising helped spin off the business models in a very bad direction that are not sustainable and not good long-term, and so we should start to try to find other ways to generate revenue. It’s a very long piece, very worthwhile reading. It touches on a number of different things, so I’m going to let you, Doug, decide where you want to start.
DOUG HASLAM: It reads like the apologetics creed of a man who feels intense guilt for having helped create the ad-based internet in his days with Tripod, and trying to go back on that. Now, that’s oversimplifying it, of course.
CHIP GRIFFIN: But there is truth to what you’ve just said. When you read it, you do get that feel.
DOUG HASLAM: Yeah. “I helped start Tripod.” It’s like, OK, here’s where we’re going. Tripod, GeoCities, some of the the …
CHIP GRIFFIN: But he’s not returning the checks as far as I could tell.
DOUG HASLAM: … personal websites before people decided that design was OK to include in your online presence. Then they started packing them with ads because that’s what made money. Speaking of vile and irrelevant, that was part of the problem with early ads. Ads have gotten better. That doesn’t mean I click on them. But in terms of what’s going to work in terms of how to bring content to online platforms, the bigger you get, the more you really need to have some of those bigger ad revenue things, I think. I don’t think you can tear up the ad model and go away. Now, it tends to be part of an overall marketing mix. But the other thing is, OK, if you’re talking about different types of apps, platforms and sites, you might have a smaller niche thing that people would rather pay for.
Maybe it’s an app. I have a cribbage app on my tablet. Occasionally, I’ll play a couple games of cribbage, one of my favorite card games ever. What made me fork over three bucks for the pro version is that they finally redesigned the background of the cribbage game so that the ads were a real pain in the butt to the experience. It was like, “That’s the best thing you can do to get me to pay for something, is make the ads really just abhorrent, and the price point for getting away from the ads small enough that I’ll pay.” Now, is three bucks a pop going to make the makers of this cribbage game money? Maybe it’ll make them as much or more than they expected from that particular venture, but that’s going to work for some people. OK, ditch the ads, or do that premium thing where, yeah, you get a free ad-supported thing, and the ads …
I guess a better example of the getting rid of ads in a way that forced me to do it and made me like it was probably Pandora. They used to have these 10 or 15 second ads that by the time you said, “Hey, this is an ad, I hate this,” the ad was over. Then, they started putting longer ads in there, and it was a bit more disruptive. I use Pandora a lot to keep peace in the house so that I’m not picking music, so I said, “You know what? I’m forking over, what is it, five bucks a month for the Pandora Pro experience.” But it was worth it to me. I’m kind of getting off the main point of the article here, but the idea is that, yeah, there are different models that you can do, but if you tear apart the ad revenue model, you’re going to find a lot of people either dropping out completely or just using the web as a loss leader and not the main platform for how these companies make money, and I think we’re finding that print is not it.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. You’ve driven home one of my key points, which is that there already are plenty of different business models that can be used using the internet. If you look at for example services like Dropbox, they charge, that’s not ad-driven, and they’re very successful. They’ve got a lot of market presence and generating a lot of revenue as far as I can tell. If you look at Microsoft and Adobe, they sell their key software products through an online subscription model, not ad-supported. To me, using ad as the bogey man here really doesn’t make much sense. I think the article does make a good point that ads were and to some extent still are the easy way to tell an investor we’re going to be able to generate revenue. It’s easier to get big numbers of people to come in if they don’t have to write checks or credit cards, whatever, at the start, and so you can grow that critical mass of users much more quickly. That was true then, it’s true today. That’s why you see a lot of it.
But the other thing to me is ads, we talk about it in terms of the web and ads ruin the experience and they’re just terrible, blah, blah, blah. But ads have been around for much longer than that, and they have supported all sorts of media and all sorts of other things as well. If you look at the traditional magazine model when it was at its peak and successful, you were able to buy a magazine subscription for ten bucks for a year. That didn’t even pay for the printing of your copies and postage, let alone the actual content, and that was because it was just enough in order to show that you were serious so that the advertisers would spend money against it. For all of us who complain about ads in whatever medium they’re in, we’ve all spent money because of them. I cannot think of anybody who could honestly say that they have never been influenced by and ad either directly or indirectly to make a purchase. I think these rants against advertising are just misguided.
Now, there’s plenty of bad advertising out there.
DOUG HASLAM: Oh, yeah. Sloppy, inefficient advertising, certainly.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Yeah. Focus on finding better ways to personalize it, better ways to target things. Encourage publishers not to put 40 ad spaces on a page. My personal pet peeve these days are sites that have the auto-run video ads, particularly on some sites that somehow manage to have multiple auto-run video ads running simultaneously, which is extraordinarily annoying, and pointless. Since I can’t understand what either ad is saying since they’re cross-talking, all you’re doing is scamming your advertisers.
DOUG HASLAM: What kind of websites are you visiting there, Chip?
CHIP GRIFFIN: These would be news sites, Doug. (laughs)
DOUG HASLAM: News?
CHIP GRIFFIN: N-E-W-S, for the transcriber, just so we’re absolutely crystal clear and I don’t have to delete this post and look guilty.
It’s not even just me. Baseball stadiums have advertising all over the place, and have. If you look back to the early 1900s, Fenway Park was littered with ads on the walls, as they are again today. Let’s not just focus on advertising, let’s be thinking about smart revenue models. Think about how to improve advertising, but we don’t need to throw the baby out with that bathwater, as it were.
DOUG HASLAM: What works for your business. If it’s a small, focused business, you can make your revenue model focused and make it work for you and be able to tweak it. If you’re a huge business, you’re probably taking wider cuts. A big medium business, you’re going to have broader advertising that might not be relevant to every reader, but it’s part of what subsidizes things. We’re in violent agreement again. We’re going to have to find some things that we disagree about at some point.
CHIP GRIFFIN: Either that, or we’ll have to put a third man in here like talk radio does these days in order to foster those disagreements. Sit someone there at the microphone and say, “OK, we know you just disagree with everything, so have at it.” Either that, or maybe I’ll just change my personality. I’ve always enjoyed debating, so maybe in future episodes of the Roundtable, my alter ego will show up and just argue things for the hell of it.
We’ve ended this show in violent agreement on three different things. It appears to me that we may actually sneak in under the magic 30 minutes, so you failed, Doug.
DOUG HASLAM: I disagree with this format. There you go.
CHIP GRIFFIN: (laughs) We’ll have a two minute disagreement here to get over time. No. Doug, I really appreciate you joining me again. My guest co-host today has been Doug Haslam of Stone Temple Consulting. Thanks for joining us.
DOUG HASLAM: Thank you.