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February 1, 2009

TIME magazine to readers: “Interact with us” means nothing more than “promote us for free”
Posted by Patrick at 10:50 AM *

At the end of every story on their web site, here’s Time magazine’s idea of how you should “interact with” it:

Let’s see, you can promote Time by recommending their story on Yahoo Buzz. You can promote Time by recommending their story on Facebook. You can promote Time by recommending their story on Digg. And you can email a link to the story to your friends.

What’s notably missing from the list of ways to “interact” is, you know, interaction. I wanted to let someone at Time know that their story mistakenly spells my conglomerate’s name “MacMillan” throughout (it’s Macmillan). I suppose that somewhere on their vast site there must be a link for feedback of this sort. But it says volumes that it’s not one of the options under “interact with this story.” In Time’s world, “interaction” evidently means you do them favors, little person, not that you talk back.

I don’t remember who it was that originally said it—Merlin Mann? Someone like that—but I keep coming back to the observation that when a marketing person asks “How can I better use social media?”, what they’re actually asking is “How can I spam more effectively?” It’s not categorically true—the marketing people I work with are generally smarter and more clued-in than that—but it’s true in all too many organizations, including big, powerful media operations that should have started learning better a long time ago.

Comments on TIME magazine to readers: "Interact with us" means nothing more than "promote us for free":
#1 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 10:58 AM:

I wonder what Harold Macmillan would have said.

#2 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 11:08 AM:

And these are people who claim some facility with the English language, otherwise they would never have the job they do.

Maybe they should select Making Light contributors if they wish for literate staff. I shudder to think what they're really looking for.

Oh, right, spammers.

Two rounds, centre of mass. There's no reason to be extravagant.

#3 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 12:35 PM:

I would not have had the faintest idea what "Buzz up!" means -- Buzz Aldrin opening his communicator and saying "Beam me up, Neil"? -- and I would seriously have thought that "Email" alone like that would mean "Send an email to us in response to this story." I'd have been highly irritated to find otherwise.

#4 ::: DBratman ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 12:36 PM:

(Actually, what Buzz would have said was "Beam me up, Mike." I gotta keep this guys straight in my mind.)

#5 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 12:45 PM:

DBratman... This reminds me od a documentary I saw not long ago where Mike and other Apollo astronauts were interviewed. If I remember correctly, he revealed that, before he allowed them back into the command module, Neil and Buzz had to strip down because their clothes were a bit on the dusty side. Mike eems to be quite the clown.

#6 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 01:15 PM:

Patrick, why don't you use publishing industry backchannels to get the Time online article corrected? You have the influence to make that happen, certainly.

#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 01:44 PM:

Earl, I think you may have an exaggerated idea of the social position of genre-fiction book editors in the o overall mediasphere.

That said, TIME does have a contact-us link on their page; I was just struck by the fact that it's not part of "Interact With This Article."

#8 ::: Nicholas Waller ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 02:00 PM:

Serge @5 - Michael Collins's autobiographical account of his time in Apollo, Carrying the Fire, is well worth reading. Apparently written by him unghosted (though presumably with some editor's involvement). He comes across as having a dry sense of humour; also, I remember the LIFE issue for Apollo II at the time, with a pic of him at home with his wife reading a big fat history of something.

The command module pilots of 8 (Lovell), 9 (Scott) and 10 (Young) all led missions to the moon (13, 15 and 16 respectively) - I gather Collins in his turn was offered the command of 17 but decided to pack it in (so instead the lunar module pilot from 10, Cernan, got the job).

#9 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 02:07 PM:

I got to meet Collins once (he was the head of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, and I was at an opening there because a friend had an exhibit) -- he was very quiet and unassuming, and indeed had a very dry wit that came across in a minute's interaction. I cherish my signed program from that event.

#10 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 02:31 PM:

Nicholas... Tom... You're right. Collins isn't a clown, but he does seem to have quite a sense of humor. I remember a mid-1980s documentary, where he talked about the rules imposed on astronauts during public events, something about not letting your socks be shown rolled down. In the miniseries From The Earth to the Moon, there's a scene where Buzz and Neil are trying to come up with some historical first words, and Mike suggests saying "Ohmygodwhatisthatthing?" and then to quickly turn off the microphone. That probably was made up, but it sounds like the kind of thing the real Mike would have suggested.

#11 ::: Michael Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 04:11 PM:

Serge, I chuckled a little thinking that "OMGWTF" might have been the first words on the moon -- then my heart skipped a little beat, as I realized how much better such a world would be, if that sort of thing could happen.

I swear, I have to stop reading alternate-history fiction before I just have a breakdown. I blame James Hogan.

#12 ::: Alayne ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 04:12 PM: (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website) is pretty good at this. They have separate links at the top of a news story to "Email the story to a friend", "Report a typo" and "Send your feedback". Then at the bottom of the story, you can "Post a comment" and "Recommend the story" (you have to be logged in for these 2 functions). You can also recommend each comment.

For example see

Controversial stories like my city's recent bus strike could attract 300-400+ comments (many of which would have been better unsaid, but it does show a vibrant level of interaction).

#13 ::: Paula Lieberman ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 04:24 PM:

A long time ago, I was doing market research as a freelancer. One of the other freelancers was a former electronics/computer trade industry press editor. He described the editor at the time at Byte magazine as a "space salesman" : someone who made sure that the editorial content of the magazine pandered to and fawned upon the advertisers, and who put the advertising and the happiness of advertising as the driving force for the magazine, and as the driver for all editorial content....

A friend who worked for various IDG businesses -- Network World while it existed, a magazine which was involved in cable programming, and maybe some other IDG publications, said that publications have a limited, often very limited life, that corresponds to advertising/advertiser interest in the focus of the magazines--or maybe the friend didn't say outright, but implied it strongly.

A few weeks back, I went to a Television Preview presentation, which presented two potential pilot TV episodes, and a bunch of test commercials.... it was quite evident to me that the entire purpose of the presentation was to gauge the effectiveness of the material as regards "commercial messages".

Bottom line--commercial interests rule/own/control the media, and regard them as venues/channels for "revenue enhancement" -- either directly, as in businesses such as Internet Service Provides who charge access fees, advertising industry businesses which receive income from producing commercial messages, and he advertisers which want to capture and own your eyeballs and ears and force you to buy their products, by eliminating all alternative options and advertising and information flow.

(RIAA and MPAA play this as a monopoly game, trying to eliminate anyone who is not a member from producing music or films and discouraging/attempting to eliminate distribution by non-members, and prevent informaion flow about non-member's music and AV work.... )

As for "buzz," I hate the marketdroid/commercial/etc. use of that term.

To me "buzz" is that annoying threatening whine from mosquitoes and bees too near my skin/my ears, which especially for mosquitoes, are about to BITE me. So, for me there is a very visceral, very negative kinaesthetic reaction to the term in an of itself, of a highly annoying, irritating, unpleasant noise, presaging that even more unpleasantry is going to follow....

The marketing universe however, wants all sorts of noise and promotion done for the products they are pushing, at the least cost for them.... I also hate the term "viral marketing" as opposed to e.g. word of mouth and such. I don't WANT to be "infected", I don't want to be targeted like something in a weapons gunsight, tracked and locked on and a missile or gunfire incoming at me. Being informed of stuff of interest to me, I might appreciate, being commercial EXPLOITED and expected to without pay promote something for some large conglomerate for free.... infuriates me. And particularly, astroturf-type promotions, ticks me off.

Stinkin' fascists....

#14 ::: Pablo Defendini ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 05:27 PM:

I like to say that marketers generally wear blinders. It's a good analogy—in their zeal to create buzz for the thing that they're being paid to promote, they tend to ignore any factors that may prevent them from being as loud and shrill—or, in their opinion, effective—as possible. Things like sensitivity to appropriate context, respect for your audience's intelligence, and respect for shared spaces (physical or otherwise) are usually the first things to go.

That said, I have to agree with Patrick: we're lucky to have uncommonly commonsensical marketers at Tor. Emphasis on 'uncommonly'—having worked in advertising for some time before coming to the world of publishing, I'm well aware that they are the exception, not the rule.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 06:39 PM:

Michael Roberts @ 11... I am also reminded of the shortshortshort episode of Night Gallery where NASA people are guiding a probe down to the Moon then they basically go OMGWITT as a giant white mouse approaches the probe. Yes, it turns out that the Moon is made of cheese.

#16 ::: mjfgates ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 07:18 PM:

The lack of comments is a feature, from Time's viewpoint. Wasn't it just last spring that Joe Klein said that he had neither expertise nor the time to learn anything about a Supreme Court ruling, but plenty of time to pontificate about What It Meant? And didn't that result in a thorough roasting by Glenn Greenwald, and over a thousand comments in Time's blog all saying "You're an idiot, Joe Klein"?

Of course, they could do it the way the Wall Street Journal's blog does, and only display the comments that agree with them, but that would be work.

#17 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2009, 09:32 PM:

Paula @#13: To me "buzz" is that annoying threatening whine from mosquitoes and bees too near my skin/my ears, which especially for mosquitoes, are about to BITE me.

Actually, that seems like a very good metaphor for advertising, q.v. my comment on the "Web advertising fail" thread. ;-)

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 07:38 AM:

I do see a difference between "viral marketing" and "word of mouth".

"Viral marketing" is about the advert. The other is about the product. If I'm pointing to an amusing advert, I'm not quite recommending the product.

But, done well, viral advertising gets the product name out, without leaving people feeling abused. I don't feel guilty about linking to the Furry French Orangina advert because it's done so well. And, I suspect, it's fed into some of my writing. It isn't Wolf Baginski courting his Sylvie, and Wolf wouldn't quite carry on like that. Polish name, he's a bear, but I rather think the advert was why Sylvie was a deer.

So drink Orangina, and get laid by non-humans?

You will certainly remember the brand. Me, I think I shall go stroke the cat.

#19 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 08:24 AM:

Dave Bell @ 18... So, bears do do 'it' in the woods.

#20 ::: Michael Turyn ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 11:06 AM:

'You knew damn well I was a snake
Before you took me in'

#21 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 11:15 AM:

Dave Bell @#18:

Maybe I'm too literal, but:
1) That first "Flashdance" riff immediately made me think -- eep, sticky orange stuff all through her fur!
2) Octopus with breasts -> brainfault (core dumped)!

#22 ::: martyn ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 01:01 PM:

Patrick, are you really, really sure it isn't spelled 'MacMillan'? After all, this is Time and they, like the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Societ Union, are incapable of error.

#23 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 01:34 PM:

Viral marketing is merely greed-focused astroturfing: cynical, despicable, and hideously effective at times. These dark skills are part of what people with marketing degrees routinely sell their souls for.

#24 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 02:37 PM:

My respect level for Time Magazine was set when I was in college. A few years earlier, there had been student takeovers of buildings, police overreaction, etc. There was a large Time article on it. One student I knew had been there, and wrote to Time about various errors and inaccuracies in their article. Time responded "We stand by our reporter's story."

I've seen nothing since then to indicate that their accuracy level has improved.

#25 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 02:37 PM:

David Harmon @ 21:

3) Female peacocks.

#26 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 04:54 PM:

Well, as you know, Patrick... that "Contact Us" link you'd like to see in the Interact With This Article box would only make the news hole smaller without actually providing any revenue. Just more cost.

#27 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 05:59 PM:

Yes, those extra pixels are expensive, y'know. Hand-imported from Magagascar, along with each square millimeter of empty white space on the web page.

#28 ::: j h woodyatt ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 06:39 PM:

It's particularly galling because the Interact With This Story box is at the bottom of the page, before a section of sponsored ads and the template footer. It's not like we have to use any brain power to skip past it in order the find the GetRichQuick™ scam below it, or to find the link to the legal boilerplate. Much. Less. The. Story.

What we have here is a clear case of TIME's people applying print production and distribution thinking to electronic media, thus my quip about the news hole. The markup text for a "Contact Us" link would consume a tiny fraction of the server load used by the inline graphic used to display the first and smallest of their three separate advertisements for their "Get 4 FREE Issues" promotion. It also might produce more useful feedback than than the cost of receiving it, which one assumes is not a matter under consideration. It seems highly likely that TIME regards all reader feedback as an information processing cost that must always exceed its potential benefits.

I suppose when your business model assumes that your readers are as contemptible as your advertisers believe them to be, then the process of lifting the useful reader feedback from the dross will by necessity be extremely time consuming.

#29 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 07:16 PM:

KeithS @#25: Hah, you're right! I must have lost that to the brainfault. ;-) Or maybe I just mentally folded them into their "showgirl" role.

Anyway, these folks clearly just took every animal pattern they had handy and layered them over the dancers, along with the boobs and "sexy stretch" proportions. (Did you look at the "making of" clip? They took the motion off real dancers, but clearly not the body shapes.) And notice how most of the octopussette's tentacles just curl out of the way? I could think of much more interesting things to do with those....

#30 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 08:54 PM:

KeithS: There are NO female peacocks. None. Period. No, I'm serious.

Why? For the same reason there are no female roosters. 'Peafowl' is the generic; the females are called "peahens."

(This lesson in useless information presented by PedanTech™ International.)

#31 ::: Soon Lee ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 09:15 PM:

Xopher #30:

Say it ain't so! What about genderqueers?

#32 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 09:18 PM:

They're caught as peaeggs and used in peaomelets.

Humans are nicer than birds. Not MUCH nicer, but at least we don't make omelets of our children like they do.

Yeah, they have frying pans and everything. They just hide them when they see humans coming.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a foil hat to make.

#33 ::: WereBear ::: (view all by) ::: February 02, 2009, 09:53 PM:

When marketing is taken to the Nth degree, we have the example of the Bush Administration, which worked very hard at seeming to care, while expending very little effort at actually doing something.

Likewise, it is much harder to market something crappy. Most of the time (90%, if I remember my Sturgeon) they have to work very hard to sell the crap.

#34 ::: KeithS ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2009, 10:25 AM:

Xopher @ 30:

I'm very well aware of that, but in that video, well... Let's just say that the makers of the video were confused and leave it at that.

#35 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2009, 10:33 AM:

KeithS @ 34... My own impression from that video is that those guys aren't so much confused as that they need to get out more often.

#36 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2009, 11:50 AM:

This is my pain.

Trying to explain Spam Bad to marketing people is like talking to a brick wall and expecting it to respond. It's insanity.

Part of my job entails using Constant Contact. I limit the use to a weekly newsletter but they constantly try to justify ways to send out multiple mailings a day. Telling them that we would loose our account and/or get sued doesn't seem to deter them.

Not us...they say. Marketers...even the young ones seem to have very little grasp on the web.

#37 ::: Cat Meadors ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2009, 02:37 PM:

Michelle - could be worse. I worked for an association that was not only fond of daily mailings (with no opt-out), but also made part of its money selling its member list. (This in the days before there were really any relevant privacy regulations, but still, people knew what spam was.) Did not matter how many ways I tried to explain to them that their members would not like it if they found out, they always tried to find new and exciting ways to sell that data. Eventually sold it to some really nasty spammers that used the association's name in its mailings (as in, "Association X told us you'd be interested in...") and boy, you shoulda seen the blowup.

(They never did learn, though. That they don't exist anymore isn't directly attributable to that particular incident, but it is an example of the business ideas that led to their demise.)

#38 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2009, 09:46 AM:

Cat #37: And members will find out immediately. I give different email addresses to different organizations, so I know who is selling their mailing lists (and who is allowing them to leak due to lax security). I also learn companies' responses when notified about such things, which varies from Untied Airlines lying about how it couldn't have been a leak from them (three separate times that I caught) to Orbitz catching it quickly, fixing the problem and apologizing (to AOL getting the thieves jailed).

Businesses that annoy their customers is a self-limiting problem.

(And for those who've accused me of being anti-commerce for opposing their spam: my total spending on the net is well into six figures.)

#39 ::: Seth Breidbart ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2009, 10:21 AM:

Michelle #36: Have you tried walking into their office once a minute and telling them "Spam is bad"? After a few hundred repetitions, ask them if they've decided not to spam. If so, you've won. If not, ask them why they expect customers to act any differently. (You can, of course, include a lot of phone calls and paper deliveries with the message.)

There's also the fact that if they spam the wrong person (e.g. me), they might suddenly find their mail blocked as spam a lot of places. They are likely to find this counterproductive.

Depending on how they get access, they could find their entire connection cancelled.

Constant Contact will fire customers who spam. They should also have some good explanations on their web site in marketroidese.

#40 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2009, 11:35 AM:


It may also be that the marketing droids are responding to their incentives, which are probably more about being seen to do something to improve sales than about safeguarding the company's long-term reputation.

I learned this lesson long ago, at a dot-com that got itself committed to all kinds of money-losing crap by salesmen who were driven entirely by the need to make their quarterly quotas so they made enough money to live on. (And then, a new VP of sales came in and, in order to consolidate his power, ousted the guy who was personally responsible for getting and keeping our biggest consulting contract at the time going. This lost us a huge pile of money which we badly needed, but it did make sure the new VP of sales didn't have anyone willing to disagree with him in public anymore.

IMO, when you see an organization doing stupid things (often!), the explanation is almost always found in the incentives of the individual decisionmakers, and the way those contradict the goals of the organization as a whole.

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