Eileen OBrien Blog Post
Nash Grier and one of his 31M fans

If reality TV has redefined the concept of celebrity, social media has taken it to a whole new level. A recent survey found that 8 out of the 10 celebrities that matter most to teens are YouTube personalities – the other two were Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars. Many of these “celebrities” don’t even have a discernable talent, such as singing or dancing, and (like the Kardashians) they are famous for being themselves. But tweens and teens are responding to their genuineness and the ability to potentially connect with them via social media channels.

Many of these social sensations look like the kid bagging your groceries. In fact, if that kid bagging your groceries is Alex From Target then he is “famous” and you can talk to his agent about a product endorsement fee. Variety calls them Famechangers: “Teens’ emotional attachment to YouTube stars is as much as seven times greater than that toward a traditional celebrity; and YouTube stars are perceived as 17 times more engaging, and 11 times more extraordinary, than mainstream stars.”

I witnessed this firsthand at DigiFest in New York City where about 1,000 screaming fans paid to see these personalities in real life. I talked to 17-year-old Nash Grier who has more than 31M followers aggregated across different social channels. Grier explained the dynamic, “It feels like a family – every single one of my followers, we kind of have a relationship. I always try to find some time in the day to tweet some people back to see their support and love.” I guess the definition of the word relationship is different when you are talking about 31M followers, but both the fans and personalities appear to earnestly believe this.

Grier prefers to call himself a “content creator” and notes that only adults distinguish between media and social media. He was very polite, and smiled and posed for multiple photos with all the young girls that tentatively, and sometimes tearfully, approached him. My colleague, Angel Hakim, wrote also wrote about this topic, Influencers vs. Creators: How the Landscape is Changing.

What constitutes authenticity?

These social media celebs call themselves brands and, very astutely, understand the value of their audience to potential sponsors. However, they don’t perceive themselves as spokespeople or advertisers. “I’m really mad at commercials because they are so whack,” said Grier. “I feel like kids are just fed all this stuff and they are supposed to buy it. There should be some content behind it. There should be an incentive to make them want something.”

The idea of native advertising and using content – or celebrities – to sell products isn’t new or unique to this age strata. However, I find the constant reference to authenticity among this group ironic. “One old piece of slang that has not survived is ‘selling out.’ …Frontline asked a group of teenagers what the phrase meant to them. Nothing, they replied. Yesterday’s sellouts, mocked for their contracts, are today’s brand ambassadors, admired for their hustle,” wrote Amanda Hess in The New York Times.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves as today’s tweens/teens and YouTube personalities grow up. What do you think?




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When I was in journalism school in New York, in the 1990s, one of my classes took a field trip to Bloomberg News, then an upstart wire service. After our tour, we had a q-and-a session Bloomberg’s editor in chief, Matt Winkler. The first question to Winkler was a good one: what was Bloomberg’s best scoop in its young history. Winkler’s response was immediate: one of his reporters was the first to report that tobacco companies were in settlement talks with state attorneys general. As I remember Winkler’s tale, the reporter had literally tracked down top attorneys general in the woods, hurried back and filed the story on a Saturday night. It was hours before the competition matched the news, a major feather for Bloomberg.

“But wait,” my classmate interjected. Who, exactly, was reading the Bloomberg wire at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night? Or, to be cliched about it, if a story breaks in a forest and there is no one to read it, does it really matter?

The famously tempestuous Winkler’s face reddened. “You’d better believe Ted Turner is watching our wire on a Saturday night.” Pause. “Or he pays someone to watch us!”

Winkler’s point was simple: important people read what Bloomberg had to say. Readers paid tens of thousands of dollars to be in the know, and Bloomberg was 100 percent dedicated to serving that small group. They didn’t need a million eyeballs. All they needed was the attention of Ted Turner and a handful of other moguls, execs and investors. And for those folks, the tobacco scoop justified the cost of the content.

I’ve been thinking back to that early interaction with Winkler lately as the evidence has piled up that the future of the newspaper industry will be funded on the back of digital subscribers: those who have anted up (or will ane up) to be let through a paywall. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellent in Journalism says that 450 daily newspapers in the United States have a paywall in place. And Newspaper Association of America said that digital-only subscription revenue jumped 275 percent last year. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a business model.**

This has major implications for how we can examine influence online. There’s still an assumption that the valuable content is the content that’s shared (for an in-depth look at the future of viral news, check out the New York profile of BuzzFeed), but creating viral isn’t the only way to success. The other path, the Bloomberg-esque path, is to create content that’s so valuable that people will pay for it. The knee-jerk reaction used to be that, in a world of nearly infinite information sources, no content was worth actual cash money when there were free alternatives. But that thinking is out the window, disproved by the 640,000 New York Times digital subscribers, the 1.3 million Wall Street Journal digital subscribers, and the thousands of readers at smaller papers who are also voting with their pocketbooks. (Heck, the Rutland (VT) Herald has 5,200 digital subscribers. Not bad for town with a population of 4,954.)

This is good news. It frees newspapers, somewhat, from the tendency to serve up stories that are “viral” or “shareable,” which is altogether different from what is influential, in the traditional sense of the word. As I write this, the most-shared Buzzfeed post is a series of photos of a baby surrounded by bulldog puppies. The New York Times’ most-blogged content over the past week, in contrast, was a preview of President Obama’s budget. People who follow the Buzzfeed trends are likely to be popular with their friends on Facebook, but are going to have a limited impact on society. Those who are reading paid content, on the other hand, those are the people who will be busy moving the world.

(Of course, paywalls are porous and, of course, nearly all web content remains free. But in an era where quick decisions and in-depth information are increasingly prized, those who find workarounds to search for information will be at a disadvantage to those who have it delivered, fresh and unrestricted, to the device of their choice.)

The rise of paid online content and, more important, the rise of an influencer class that is consuming this information, has the potential to re-shape online authority, putting power back in the hands of those with the credit cards. In 1997, when the Bloomberg settlement story broke, the most influential people in the tobacco world were the ones who paid thousands of dollars to have a Bloomberg Terminal on their desks. Today, as in 1997, if you want to be an influencer, you’re going to have to pay for it.

** I’m ignoring the fact that the growth in subscription revenue doesn’t come close to offsetting the still-plummeting advertising revenue. There will clearly be more pain in the years to come. But it’s also clear that subscription dollars are likely to be a stable source of revenue for the foreseeable future. 

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Pew Research Center on Getting News Online

If you are in communications, you need to stop immediately and read Pew’s new, extensive annual report about how Americans get their news, which has almost every fact about current news consumption habits you can imagine. Want to know which outlets are preferred by those who say they want fair and balanced news? Pew has the answer (Colbert). How about the most knowledgeable? Ditto (Maddow). Same with how many people are getting news from radio (33 percent) or from a online source (39 percent).

The key takeaway from the report, as many were quick to point out, is that there has been a huge spike in the consumption of news in a digital format, and an even more enormous spike in the consumption of news on mobile devices.

As extensive as the Pew data is, it has an enormous blind spot when it comes to online: it talks in depth about where we go for content and how we consume that content but spends very little time explaining where that online content actually comes from. With traditional media, knowing how you get your news says a lot about the actual information you consume: newspaper readers get newspaper stories; radio listeners get local news, talk radio or NPR; TV viewers choose from a finite set of news programming types.

But Pew doesn’t know what people who get their news online are receiving. Is it New York Times stories? Tweets from CNN? Web video of last night’s Daily Show? It’s a black box. Yes: we’re all consuming more news on our smartphones. But what does that mean? What kind of news are we consuming? There are ways of knowing with more precision, but you don’t get that from the Pew report.

(In Pew’s defense, it does ask people where they go for news online. But the top two answers are “Yahoo” and “Google,” neither of which actually creates much of the news consumed on their sites. And the details on what news we’re gobbling down on social networks is even more opaque.)

It doesn’t have to be that way. There are powerful tools and experienced analysts who can sift through staggering amounts of data and give increasingly precise answers about where people get their news, and WCG has doubled down on both those tools and those analysts. So over the course of this month, I’ll be working with Andy Boothe, a software developer, social media analyst and incredible thinker here to look at thousands of pieces of social media to determine exactly what’s driving news (and what we, as communicators, can do to maximize our opportunities in that world).

I’ll share what we learned when that analysis is complete. Stay tuned.

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Last month, the New York Times used the most valuable real estate in American journalism — Page One — to declare the emergence of a new digital divide. In a world of ubiquitous digital technology (nearly everyone — even kids — has at least a cell phone), two groups are emerging: those that use technology primarily as entertainment, as those that use limit their use of technology to their work or their creative endeavors. The NYT piece suggested this issue is particularly relevant to teens and those with lower socio-economic status.

The Times critique isn’t new. Here is how the one of the most successful technology entrepreneurs of the last quarter-century put it:

In terms of work habits/social skills, we’re creating a disaster. Not only can’t Johnny read, he can’t speak grammatically, either. Are we using technology as an excuse not to teach how to think and how to work with others?

The author? Michael Bloomberg, in his autobiography. The year he sounded the warning? 1997.

One of the undercurrents of both Bloomberg’s warning and the Times’ hand-wringing is that more technology is not automatically better. More hours in front of a computer screen doesn’t mean that we’re absorbing more information or interacting more with our peers. For many, technology is a means only for isolated entertainment. For all of the talk about multi-player online games, those “social” environments don’t do much to support or advance neighborhood associations or charitable groups.

But the second, and more intriguing, implication is that the innovators of the next generation will be those who are willing and able to spend the most time unplugged. Those of us in communication are unlikely to stop chasing those with big digital footprints, but it appears that those who are really changing the world may have taken out their earbuds and stepped away from the monitor. Understanding those individuals, then, will be an additional — and increasingly important — component of any future effort to create dialogue.

Fortunately, there are some excellent  roadmaps for how to find those people making waves in the real world, and how to start conversations with them. At the risk of gushing over the work of a colleague (Spike Jones) Brains on Fire is an excellent starting place.

This is not to say that online communication and advocacy is not the dominant mode of communication now, or that its influence will not grow. But for years, we have trumpeted the growing number of those with access to digital tools as a rising tide. It’s almost standard practice for business presentations on the future of our industry to include a slide on cell phone penetration or broadband use, with the implication being that these new users would be welcome and active participants in the virtual marketplace of ideas. The NYT suggests that’s not the case, and understanding where, why and how users turn on, tune in and drop out (millennium style) will be one of the central challenges for communicators over the next decade.

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It’s pretty easy to keep track of the highly visible trends.  If we look at the rise in importance of the mobile phone, we’re swimming in data and perspective. It’s almost too easy to keep up.

However, often times, the most important trends — the actual game changers — are less obvious, rarely discussed and, as a result, they end up being more disruptive.  Said another way, they present leaders with a chance to innovate and separate themselves from their peers.

So I like silent trends and look continually for the game changers.

One that recently caught my attention relates to content consumption.  There is actually a silent revolution occuring right in our homes and in the workplace.

The trend relates to how we learn.  Here are three pieces of this trend to consider.

First, we know that kids under 18 generally consume content from three channels, simultaneously.  If you have a teenager, we see it everyday as they play a videogame, respond to text messages and go online to find tips on the game.  They are the leaders of “simultaneous learning”.   If we think of adults, we’re also changing.  The second key point is that 92% of Americans get their daily news from multiple platforms (Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the Project for Excellence in Journalism 2010 survey).  The third point, also from Pew research, is that almost 60 percent of people get their daily news from a combination of online and offline sources.

Here are a few related observations I have that I’m going to study much more closely in 2011.

#1 — Unstructured & Structured Data are Aligning For Us — we often resign ourselves to think that unstructured data is unobtainable. This is actually wrong, since simultaneous consumers of content (Generation Z) will often provide structured data (online conversations) about the same topics they care about when they text.  We may be able to consume multiple sources, but our brains still stay focused on a single topic, so our habits are easy to track.

#2 – Media is Plural — the days of saying the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times has the most influence are no longer relevant.  Today, the question is which basket of media is most important to reach our customers.  In that basket, WSJ and NYT will still be there, along with Huffington Post, personal blogs and other content sources from video, images, data and more.  The question is how big is the basket and do you know what is in it for your customers?

#3 — Stories are Absorbed Over Longer Periods of Time — since we now read stories offline and online, we often do this over longer periods of time. We may start in the morning reading a newspaper, check on the same story online during the day and then search later in the evening or days later on the same topic to refine what we have learned, if we care.   Gone are the days where we read one story and stopped.  So newscycles are actually changing in length, breadth and in ways that are not as obvious as simply tracking how many news articles appeared…’s much more than that.

As you go forward, ask yourself these questions about how customers are consuming content you care about.

What are the “multiple content sources” that reach your customers most often?

Is their a hierarchy of importance and how do you know?

How wide and deep is your newscycle, if you look at all forms of consumption?

Are you analyzing via structured data what folks may be discussing in unstructured data and how do you know?

This is a massively important and silent trend.  Companies who figure this out will build advantage and their customers are likely to appreciate it.  More in 2011.

All the best, Bob

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The bit that made the late, great George Carlin famous was his notorious “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine, which was a wonderful romp through, well, some of the best profanity out there. But what fascinated Carlin was not only the shock value of saying dirty words, but the fact that the authorities had segregated such a small percentage of our language. “They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large,” Carlin would joke. In a language with 400,000 words, how do you pick just seven to focus on?

George Carlin popped into my head as I was re-reading the coverage from the just-wrapped American Society for Clinical Oncology meeting, which has become — for doctors, for the media and for investors — the single most important medical meeting of the year. More than 4,000 abstracts were presented this year. The word count of the the abstracts comes to about twice the length of War and Peace (and deal with subjects far more complex than Russian dynastic politics). in short, there was a lot of information presented at the meeting. Even trying to understand 1 percent of what went on at Chicago would be a crowning intellectual achievement.

But during the meeting, the national media — the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the broadcast networks and the Associated Press — wrote on only seven studies, a tiny snippet of what was presented. These seven stories, in turn, were pulled from the small number of studies promoted by the ASCO communications department with press briefings. To paraphrase Carlin: those studies must have been really outrageous to be separated from a group that large.

I don’t hold the decision to focus on such a small set of stories against any of the reporters on the ground in Chicago. I’ve been in their position, and I have a great deal of sympathy for their dilemma. It’s hard to dispute that the stories they covered were indeed important, and there are huge barriers created by competitive pressures and the finite number of hours in a day. That combination guarantees that there will be plenty of unexplored corners at a meeting the size of ASCO.

At the same time, a small army of trade reporters also fanned out across the meeting, and — if the articles that I’ve seen so far are any indication — were able to capture much more of what was interesting, what was practice-changing and what was disappointing than their more constrained (if better-known) press room colleagues. This has huge implications for how oncologists view the results of ASCO 2010, too: time-crunched docs are likely to pull open their favorite trade pub, not the New York Times, in the days and weeks to come to figure out what they missed.

The communication implication is clear: while a huge amount of time goes into making sure that every national reporter is aware of every last story, their ability to track down most of those leads is understandably but fatally compromised. But at the same time, the trade press has never been more vibrant or more important to the readers they serve. Because — just as there are more than seven dirty words every American should be able to use, there are, far, far more than seven stories that oncologists need to know about at ASCO. And the folks best at telling those stories, now, are in the trade press.

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