The unfortunate mainstreaming of internet douchebaggery

Today someone spammed MetaFilter on behalf of Conde Nast publications, and it pissed me off way more than the average occasional spammy self-promoter on MeFi. We have a strict rule at MeFi (since there's no editorial vetting upfront) that you can't post about your own stuff, you have to make posts to interesting random stuff you found on your own. Unfortunately, that doesn't matter to the douchebags intent on ruining the web for everyone else with search engine gaming, as long as they benefit their clients, so we end up having to delete these keyword-laden posts that feature over the top fake testimonials about sites they "found" when they really worked for them.

What pissed me off today was seeing a normally reputable outfit like Conde Nast stooping to hiring a dodgy firm that employs such lame spammy activities. I know the response from Conde Nast or the spammy SEO company will be the same I've heard a thousand times: "It was one rogue employee" or "We didn't know the firm would employ such tactics." I heard the same thing when the Times (UK) was found spamming social sites earlier this year.

The point that seemed to be lost in the Times story was that a cornerstone of journalism that had been publishing for hundreds of years would stoop to such lame-brained antics. You'd think that someone higher up at a place like that would think maybe getting a couple percent more advertising revenue by ethically shady means wasn't worth jeopardizing the reputation or position of a 223 year old newspaper — that institutions with a long-term vision shouldn't be interested in a quick buck by any means possible.

It's a bummer to see Conde Nast hiring someone to "optimize" search engines for them (where "optimize" means spam the web and generally make social sites and tools less useful for everyone in the hopes they do better for certain key search phrases) but given the way the economy is going and where it is headed, I suspect we'll see a lot more big name outfits and longstanding institutions making these same mistakes and resorting to problematic methods of increasing their bottom line, and frankly it sucks for everyone involved. It sucks for anyone using the web and wanting decent honest search results based on real quality of information (not just the information promoted by self-interested parties). It sucks to see industry leaders with dozens or even hundreds of years of successful business think this is a sensible approach to the web. Finally, it sucks to see some chucklehead get paid to spam websites in ways that are becoming so normal that people think this is something every business should do.

Dear PR people: How to Pitch Bloggers

In the wake of my previous post and Gina’s PR blacklist that sprang from it, it seems like a good chunk of the PR industry is blogging about the things they should and shouldn’t be doing, but I’m not seeing a lot of practical real-world solutions that would work for bloggers getting pitched. All the advice has come from the PR side of things so it’s all about how they train employees, how they do their work, and why their work is vital to bloggers (newsflash: it often isn’t).

So in the spirit of extending an olive branch to the PR industry, here are some very basic tips I haven’t seen anyone mention elsewhere:

1. Don’t ever send a press release to a blogger based on a purchased list
I keep hearing about this thing called the Bacon/Cision list and how all the bloggers complaining about getting spammed are on it (the idea of someone selling a list with my email on it is another matter). As many PR people have stated, connecting PR and bloggers should be a connection made via reading their blog and contacting them with a personal note at the very least. Adding 200 names to a bcc: list on an emailed press release because you got 200 blogger emails from some list is the absolutely wrong way to go about it. Don’t ever do this.

2. Go beyond the press release
The rare, few times I’ve felt like enduring all this PR hassle was worth it was when someone from a company contacted me with an invite to preview a product, try out a site, and/or obtain a review item. A press release is the thing I line the bird cage with, a review unit is something I can actually use for a week or two and get a full review story written ready to publish on the day your client launches the product. I can’t stress it enough that a press release sent to me is just plain noise and totally and completely useless. Or if you must, at least just send me a link to one in case I want to learn more about the news you are sharing instead of pasting 2,000 words in ALL CAPS into an email.

3. Introduce a feedback loop!
I’ve never been contacted by anyone in PR that bothered to follow-up with me at any point in our “relationship”. I just get a bunch of press releases emailed to me again and again, often by the same people. If you’ve hand-picked out some bloggers covering topics you have clients releasing news about, at least check with the bloggers after a month, or your second message, or some other regular interval. Ask them if the PR they’ve been receiving is helpful and if it should be tweaked, or even ended if it’s not useful.

4. Provide an unsubscribe link
This is totally bottom-of-the-barrel, least-you-can-do-to-appease-bloggers stuff here, but at the very least provide an instant, no-humans-required way for a blogger to remove themselves from contact they aren’t getting anything but frustration from. About 1/4 of the PR email I get is managed with some sort of list interface and provides this option, and I use the option when off-topic, all-caps press releases get blasted my way. I prefer a no-humans-required option because I’ve asked people at an agency to remove me and they said they had and sorry for the inconvenience, only to be emailed by the same person two weeks later.

5. Use metrics to help you do your PR job
If personally emailing a bunch of bloggers with personal messages sounds like a lot of work that doesn’t scale, try using metrics to help you figure out what works and doesn’t. Right now we have the annual “did my PR firm show up on a blacklist?” metric, but if you implement the suggestions above, keep tabs on what percentage of receivers clicked on a link to read a press release (are your press releases effectively written?), figure out what % click on an unsubscribe link (how effective are you targeting bloggers), figure out how often the bloggers you contact ever write about your clients (how effective your PR/blogger strategy is) and when they do was it because of a press release or did you give them something more (to figure out if newer non-traditional approaches are working better).

update: Just to be clear here, I’m not asking for bloggers to be treated differently than journalists in other media because we bloggers are a cranky lot that can harm your company with a snide blog post if you do things wrong — my point in treating bloggers differently is that bloggers can often publish perfectly informative, up-to-date blogs without PR, instead relying on RSS, other blogs, Google News, and link aggregators to find news about topics they are interested in.

I published multiple blogs for five years before I got my first unsolicited press release, and if PR people want to stay relevant, they need to acknowledge that bloggers work in an information-rich environment filled with millions of choices and as a PR person you really need to be adding some value to their approach instead of taking time away with off-topic press releases emailed to them.

Stop asking, start filtering

PR filters I know it’s a cliché as a blogger to complain about public relations flacks sending you giant PDFs and weekly emails on topics you don’t care about, but recently I noticed my tried and true polite email saying:

Please remove my email address from your PR lists.


totally stopped working. Turns out that a lot of these PR companies have a single database of random blogger emails they’ve snarfed up, but each employee seems to maintain their own personal list. When I ask Alice at PR to remove me, I noticed a week later I got another PR blast from Bob at PR. Then Steve at PR hits me again a day later.

So for now, I’m moving to filters in Gmail. The entire PR agency domain goes into the From: and you set it to delete immediately. Instantly, no more PR spam from Alice, Bob, or Steve, forever, and I don’t have to ask to opt-out of something I never opted into.

And to people working in PR, some bloggers do seem to post the things you send, but in four years of daily PR email blasts that now number in the thousands, I recall one or two being something I was actually interested in. That’s about the same success ratio of general email spam over the past 10 years for me.

update: I was thinking of posting my own blacklist of annoying firms, but it looks like Gina from Lifehacker beat me to the punch.

And to PR folks reading this post, I left a comment describing my dream scenario for how PR people should interact with bloggers:

the perfect PR person would match me up with topics I write about and when they figure out a perfect product pitch I might be interested in, email me personally once to share it, and ask me for confirmation if I’d like to get future email from them. Unless I reply back with a “yes” don’t add me to a list or pitch me again — it’s a not a good match and is only going to build frustration on my end if you keep sending unsolicited pitches.

Another update: I’ve written some tips on How To Pitch PR to Bloggers

Boing Boing redo

I gotta say that I’m enjoying the Boing Boing redesign so much that I’m actually breaking down and making a real blog entry about it (as opposed to a witty twitter quip, or simple delicious link, or a lowly screenshot posted on flickr).

I thought the old design was showing its age and the ad layouts were very distracting (the jokes about it looking like NASCAR weren’t too far off). I even sent a mockup of a cleaner layout to Xeni and Cory a couple years ago, but I never thought it would change and assumed it would putter on for several more years in its previous state. I don’t know what prompted the change, but the new look is a great improvement. It’s way cleaner, easier to read, and the ads are no longer distracting. I disagree with Nelson on the change (though I agreed with his previous assessment). At this point in the lifespan of Boing Boing (one million dollars!), I no longer compare them to other blogs and instead to major media outlets, so I’m cutting them slack on three ad zones. Look at any page at even nicely designed media sites like the New York Times and you’ll see 3-5x more advertisements. So among top-shelf media sites, their advertising is barely noticeable.

I’m also happy to see a new gadget blog that’s unlike all the other million gadget blogs out there. It helps that it’s authored by my all time favorite gadget blogger, a man that deserves a medal for getting hired to write a regular column on Gizmodo, only to get fired after Gawker editors and readers took his first essay way too personally and seriously. It’s clear from day one of this new Boing Boing blog that this won’t be another shopping or wishlist gadget blog. Free from all the pointless gadget lust that powers other sites, this looks like it’ll be more along the lines of “interesting crap someone built that looks cool/works in a cool way.”

Bottom line, it was a great surprise to see Boing Boing’s new layout and direction today and I think it’s a huge positive change (and adding comments was nice too).

Ads good! No ads better!

If you’ve followed this site for a few years, you probably saw my old essays introducing Google’s Adsense to the blogging public and that time I said ads in RSS were a no-no. Today I wrote an extensive update on the same subject over on my new blog: How ads really work (superfans and noobs). I basically lay out everything I’ve learned from hosting ads for the past five years including some data from my own sites and those of several friends.