Monday, July 6, 2009

A PR and New Media Test Case - Where do you get your news

Techcrunch had an interesting post about PR. Michael Arrington fired out an interesting post about this article by Clair Cain Miller in the New York Times (now behind the NY Times registration engine - I would have used it as source material for more direct quotes but I'm a bit too busy to go through the reg process, so you and they now get the "to the best of my recollection" version of quotes).

The article centers around the launch of a company named Wordnik, and it highlights some aspects of how their PR team operates. According to the article, the launch of the company (and a great deal of modern PR) was being done strictly using word of mouth communications across social networks. One section has an exchange between the PR pro and the client. The strategy goomer says, "we should let someone at fill-in-the-blank know something." And the PR goomer says, "I'm linked to Big Named Tech Goomer there on Facebook or Twitter. I'll send him a note."

While they try to spin it differently, there's an aspect of this type of PR that is pretty much the same as PR used to be -- some people with a big Rolodex of people talking to some other people who are characterized as notable, influential or may otherwise possess some large 'potential' audience. The real difference is simply in the names and the communication platforms.

No More Gatekeepers
In Meatball Sundae, Seth Godin frames the concept as the end of the gatekeepers -- when everyone can publish, you are no longer limited by the traditional gatekeepers, the publishing media that got to choose what they published. The Internet enables this technology, and it gets rolled up into RSS, blogs, and a host of methods for pushing your 'news' out into the stream. As an example, the article cites Redfin, and notes that they didn't do any media outreach -- they simply published news on their site.

From that basic premise, you have an interesting problem. One theme of Michael Arrington's post surrounds a section of the article where, in preparing for the launch, the Wordnik team0 decides to avoid the tech blogs. Here's the quote from the original article:
Ms. Hammerling, while popping green apple Jolly Ranchers into her mouth, suggests a press tour that includes briefing bloggers at influential geek sites like TechCrunch, All Things Digital and GigaOM.

But Roger McNamee, a prominent tech investor who is backing Wordnik, is also in the room, and a look of exasperation passes across his face at the mere mention of the sites.

“Why shouldn’t we avoid them? They’re cynical,” he says, also noting his concern that Wordnik would probably appeal more to wordsmiths than followers of tech blogs. “That’s where I would be most uncomfortable. They don’t know the difference between ‘they’re’ and ‘there.’ ”

Without missing a beat, Ms. Hammerling changes course, instantly agreeing with Mr. McNamee’s take. “I love you for that,” she intones. “I’ll leave the tech blogs out. Let them come to me.”

Instead, she decides that she will “whisper in the ears” of Silicon Valley’s Who’s Who — the entrepreneurs behind tech’s hottest start-ups, including Jay Adelson, the chief executive of Digg; Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter; and Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo.
To which, Arrington counters with this:
The result? Not much. Wordnik is flatlining at an abysmal amount of traffic. Comscore and Quantcast don’t even register the site as a blip.

Compare Wordnik to Topsy, another recently launch service. Topsy launched on TechCrunch exclusively. The domain now has 577,000 results on Google, compared to 56,000 for Wordnik. And the traffic difference is stunning:
So much for the great power of content, social networks and end of the gatekeepers, right? Techcrunch is a gatekeeper. Well, that's where all of this gets kind of funny.

PR and Bloggers vs the Main Stream Media
A couple of weeks ago, On the Media had a clip on Michael Arrington and Techcrunch that was pretty amusing. OTM took aim at Arrington for posting stories that might originate from little more than rumors shared between VCs at a Silicon Valley lunch. The question was whether Arrington and Techcrunch handled these types of rumors (stories that could potentially be used to manipulate stocks) appropriately, along with how that decision was impacted by any financial connections, etc. You can make your own judgment about how impartial some of the mainstream publications are, but what I liked about Arrington's comment on OTM could be boiled down to loose quote, "When I hear it, I call one of my friends there at the company. If they say that it's true, or worth looking into, I publish. As news unfolds, we update."

Think about that for a moment -- millions of dollars in investment and stock, thousands of web site impressions, the success or failure of some emerging companies and technologies might potentially revolve around whether Michael Arrington has a good feeling about the news. Techcrunch and Michael Arrington have become gatekeepers. All because he started his blog. And people read it. And it didn't suck. And it had news that was interesting to some people. And so a bunch of the people who were at the old party, the one with the bland food and the boring entertainment, went to the new place with the spicy content and the happening atmosphere.

The Evolution of a Gatekeeper
The voices that people listen to are not always the voices are polite, on message, or even accurate. When I was in the PC components industry, one of the review sites that mattered was Tom's Hardware. While it was always great to see them review your product or compare it to others, they often got things wrong. Still, they had a strong audience following among PC power users.

As a reader and a content consumer, I benefit from the Gatekeeper function that Techcrunch provides. For me, the content and editorial brings me news and opinion that I might otherwise miss, and it's one of the few sites that I try to follow everyday. Admittedly, I've not tried to push some Yet Another Web Startup Company through the promotional gateway, but maybe that's the underlying question that's missing from the conversation between the article and the Techcrunch post. Is Wordnik a purple cow or another me-too solution to an unimportant problem? Ask my gatekeeper.

It's probably also worth noting that, if it weren't for Techcrunch, I wouldn't have had any exposure to the original article -- or if I did, it didn't rise above all the other noise to reach my attention.

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