SXSW scheduling: indecision is the key to flexibility

AUSTIN–Looking at the glut of invitations to South By Southwest events that have landed in my inbox in the past few days, two things seem clear: Many publicists think this event starts and ends on Saturday, and I shouldn’t have bothered scheduling anything until this week.

SXSW 2018 logoI know from prior experience that this conference attracts a silly amount of marketing money that gets lit on fire in various #brand-building exercises–most involving the distribution of free tacos, BBQ and beer.

But this year–much like at CES–some sort of happy-hour herd instinct has also led many companies to schedule their events on the same day, in this case Saturday. Looking over the possibilities, it appears I could spend that entire day–starting with a 7:30 a.m. mimosa breakfast–drinking on the dime of one corporate host or another.

(I won’t. I have panels to attend, people to interview, and probably one post to write. I may need a nap too.)

And, yes, a huge number of these invitations came in the last 72 hours. Far be it for me to criticize other people’s just-in-time conduct, but weren’t all of these bars, restaurants and other event spaces booked months ago? I have to assume that after not enough of the A, B and C-list guests responded affirmatively, the sponsor reluctantly decided to invite the D-list.

Considering that you can’t tell which events will be mobbed and how you might be waylaid by random meetings at them, your only safe response is to RSVP to everything and leave your calendar looking like a game of Tetris that you’re about to lose. Then decide where you’ll go based on where you’re standing and what looks interesting nearby–as shallow and impolite as that is.

And that’s how I came to a conclusive answer to this question: What’s a less reliable indication of somebody’s attendance than an Evite response?

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Sharing stories from Apple News considered harmful

Last Tuesday, Google delivered some news that open-Web advocates have long awaited: Stories posted in the speedy, Google-developed Accelerated Mobile Pages format and served up via its even-faster caching service won’t zap onto the screens of mobile devices at google.com addresses, not the domain name of their publisher.

The avoidable but common facet of the AMP experience has bothered me since my early encounters with Google’s attempt to make the mobile Web less janky–it led the explainer I wrote for Yahoo two years ago. Google is now moving to fix the problem it helped create, which is welcome news in any publishing format.

(Specifically, Google will adopt a new page-packaging standard to preserve site domain names. In last Tuesday’s post, AMP project tech lead Malte Ubl says we should start seeing the results on our phones in the second half of this year.)

This, however, leaves another address-eating annoyance on the mobile Web: Apple News. This iOS app is a pleasant way to browse and read stories; like the open-source AMP, this proprietary format cuts out the cruft that can clog mobile reading.

But when you tap its “Share” button, Apple News serves up an apple.news address. And unlike even Googled-up AMP addresses, this one offers no hint after the domain name of where you’ll go.

The text Apple News pre-populates in a tweet or Facebook update–the story headline, an em-dash, and then the publication name–does. But on Twitter and Facebook, many people decide to replace that text with their own words, leaving users to guess what’s behind that apple.news address.

Apple appears to be doing this to ensure that other iOS users can read the story you shared in Apple News as well–its developer documentation even lists a story’s canonical address as a “not required” bit of metadata. But in the context of a button that can share a story on the public Web, that’s an absurd inversion of priorities.

Apple could fix this by coding Apple News to share a story’s original address when available, perhaps with an identifier to tell iOS devices to open it in Apple News. But knowing this company, I wouldn’t expect that any sooner than the arrival of a reborn Mac mini at my neighborhood’s Apple Store.

Instead, you’ll have to solve this problem yourself. If you’re sharing a story from Apple News, keep some reference to the publisher in your description. If that would cramp your social-media style, please take a moment to tap the share sheet’s “Open in Safari” button–then share the story from that browser, from whence it will have its real address.

How to get a CES PR pitch wrong

2018 is only six days old, and I have already received 725 e-mails mentioning “CES” somewhere–and that’s excluding those from colleagues at various clients.

Something about this gargantuan electronics show makes tech-PR types needier and thirstier than at any other time of the year–which, in turn, makes tech-journalism types crankier than at any other time of the year. It’s not a good look for any of us.

With that volume of pitches, any one CES PR e-mail faces dire odds. Those odds get a lot worse if the message gets some basic stuff wrong.

Undisclosed location: Proximity drives scheduling at CES, because the traffic is so awful, so I need to know where an event is at before I decide if it’s worth my time. If you don’t say where your event is at, am I supposed to think it’s at some venue miles from the Strip?

While I’m on the subject, a five-digit booth number is not that much of a help, since that could be anywhere in several square miles of convention-center space.

Unannounced time: More CES pitches than you’d think forget another Invitation 101 thing, telling me when an event is happening. Please remember to put that in the message–by which I mean in the message’s text, so mail clients can detect it and offer to add it to my calendar.

Micromanaged scheduling: The Pepcom and ShowStoppers receptions are an efficient way for smaller companies to get exposure to the press and for journalists to get dinner and a drink or three to numb the pain. I always attend them. (Disclosure: The ShowStoppers people put together my annual trip to the IFA trade show in Berlin.) I don’t mind PR pitches saying that a client will be at one of these events. I really hate requests to book an appointment at them; please don’t waste my time with them.

Breaking the laws of CES physics: Press-conference day and opening day of CES–this time around, Monday and Tuesday–are the two busiest days of the show. Coaxing journalists to some event that isn’t at the primary venue for each day (Mandalay Bay for press conferences, the Las Vegas Convention Center for opening day) is generally a doomed endeavor. PR folks reading this: I wish you good luck in convincing your clients to not try this next year.

Some of these event invitations come with an offer of a free ride to or from the LVCC. On opening day, that car will have to be of the flying variety.

Standard-issue mail #fail. CES is no better than any other time to forget about the BCC line in your e-mail and instead send a pitch to 258 people on the To: line. Somebody did that this time around, and it worked about as well as you’d expect. One recipient took the time to techsplain to the sender how he should check out the BCC option–“I heard it was rolled out at CES 1977”–and of course did so by hitting reply-all himself.

For tech journalists, this may not be the most wonderful time of the year

It’s almost the middle of December, which means I’m once again in the weeds with my CES planning, in the weeds with Christmas shopping, and in the weeds with writing stories in advance so I can maybe spend some of the holidays moderately unplugged.

All of these things have been part of my Decembers for 20 years (although working on a blog schedule has only been part of the deal for the last decade). I should have been able to get better at this, especially since I succumbed to leaning on the crutch of free Amazon Prime two-day shipping and let my wife handle the cards I’d otherwise not send out until early January. Nope!

CES, meanwhile, has kept growing in size–from 117,704 attendees in 2003 to 184,279 this January–and generally making a mockery of predictions that big tech shows no longer matter.

And because it’s 2017, there’s now the added hilarity of the Trump news cycle. Today, it’s given us the complete repeal of 2015’s net-neutrality rules. That’s been readership gold–2,678 comments on my Yahoo Finance post and counting–but it’s not exactly helping me ease into the holidays.

At least it’s not just me. Every CES-bound tech journalist has to be feeling the same crunch, and many of them have to post much more often. And as much as I hate CES PR pitches, I’m sure many of their senders tried to remind their clients that the space-time continuum still governs CES and that expecting reporters to attend an off-Strip event the first day of the show is wildly optimistic–and then the clients ignored their advice.

I do, however, have one thing extra going for me: CES doesn’t start until the second weekend of January, so I have an entire five blessed days between New Year’s Day and my getting on a plane. I plan on sleeping for as much of that time as possible.

Panel clock management

I spent part of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday sneaking a peek at clocks counting down.  Sadly, no rocket launches were involved: Instead, I had the less exciting but also important task of making sure that my Web Summit panels ended on time or close to it.

Web Summit panel clockGetting one, two, three or four other people to wrap up a conversation as a clock hits 0:00, as this week in Lisbon reminded me, is one of those skills where I still have things to learn.

Of the five I did at the summit, two required me to improvise some questions after I exhausted all the ones I’d written down–which, since these discussions only involved one other person, is something I should have known to be a risk.

Also predictable: The one panel with four other people went a couple of minutes over when I let one of the subject-matter experts have the last word, by which I mean words.

An on-time finish matters at a talkfest like Web Summit, where the stages have panels stacked up throughout the morning and afternoon and schedule overruns will result in people not being able to eat lunch or the audience fleeing for the reception that started five minutes ago. I continue to be in awe of the people who make that happen, considering both the overall chaos level of a 60,000-person conference and the high odds of a VIP deciding to be a windbag on stage.

As a moderator, I just need to allow roughly equal airtime in my role as verbal air-traffic controller–while also asking intelligent questions, not stepping on other people’s responses, throwing in a line or two that gets a laugh out of the audience, and trying not to close out the panel with something lame like “well, it looks like we’re out of time.”

At events that invite audience questions, you have the extra challenge of people asking questions that are more comments–the dreaded, time-wasting “quomment.” I can see why the schedule-focused Web Summit organizers usually tell panelists not to bother with audience Q&A.

It’s maybe one panel in three that leaves me feeling like I checked off all the boxes. I hope I can get that average up to one in two at some point. And maybe later on I can have the prospect of being the only person behind the mic for 30 minutes or more not make me quite so antsy.

Another experiment in spending Facebook’s money on a Facebook ad

Last week, Facebook offered me a chance to play with the house’s money: a $10 ad credit to boost my ode to RFK Stadium, which the social network’s algorithms had seen drawing an outsized audience on my page there.

Facebook RFK-post ad reportLike the last time I got this freebie, I could target people for the ad by geography, interests (as perceived by Facebook), age range and gender. Unlike the last time, I got this warning, Facebook’s belated response to learning that its self-service ad system was not magically bigotry-proof: “Ad sets that use targeting terms related to social, religious or political issues may require additional review before your ads start running.”

The logical demographic to target for a post about RFK would have been the greater Washington area–but Facebook didn’t present any such option. In a hurry and on my phone, I told it to target users in D.C., Bethesda, Silver Spring, Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax.

Then I stuck with the default age range of 21 to 65+ and added the following interests: music festivals, Washington Redskins, Washington Nationals, D.C. United and local history. RFK being its dilapidated self, it’s too bad “peeling paint” wasn’t a choice.

Three days later, I got my results: The ad reached 847 people and yielded all of 26 clicks through to my post here. That leaves me nowhere near Russian propagandists in using money to get people’s attention on Facebook–even if in terms of reach I fared about as well as Sens. Mark Warner (D.-Va.) and Amy Klobuchar (D.-Minn.) did in their test purchase of ads to lure Hill staffers and reporters to a fake Facebook group.

But while I still see no reason to spend my own money on Facebook ads, I hope the site continues to throw out these freebies. It’s fascinating to see how the marketing machinery works from the inside; that alone easily justifies the time I put into my Facebook page.

Spokespeople should (still) have names

I got a too-familiar question in an e-mail from a publicist after Sunday’s USA Today column ran: Can you please update the story to attribute my quote to a company spokesperson?

That’s a scenario I’ve been dealing with for years. PR rep e-mails me a comment, I run it with the rep’s name attached, they offer one of the following reasons:

• I’m not a company employee;

• It’s supposed to be the company speaking;

• That’s just our policy.

All of those blank-nametag rationales have some logic behind them, but they suffer from the problem that as a journalist, I’m not a mind reader but do have my notebook open all the time. And in that notebook, quotes normally follow the names of the people who said those words.

It is not my job to guess that you want to speak on a not-for-attribution basis if you don’t say so. And removing a detail that I know to be true after the story’s been published won’t hypnotize the Internet’s hive mind into forgetting that it was there before.

(This habitual insistence on anonymity is especially annoying coming from somebody paid to represent a social network that enforces a real-names policy–yes, Facebook, I’m talking about you. It’s also annoying when somebody wants to defend their employer or client as a faceless source, as if doing so without putting your name on the line somehow makes you more trustworthy.)

So I had to tell this PR firm’s staffer: Sorry, no can do. As far as I can tell, the staffer’s employment remains intact. I hope that continues to be the case.

But since people continue to be surprised by this, let me offer this reminder: If your job is to answer media questions for the company, I will use your name. If you ask me not to, I can honor that request–subject to my editor saying otherwise–but expect that I won’t shelter your exact words inside quotation marks. That’s a privilege I would rather reserve for named sources.

If, however, you want to talk without your name attached because speaking otherwise will risk your job or worse, your conversation will stay safe with me. Encrypted, if you prefer.