January 2016




Keeping Your Footing

We were barely back from the holiday break when the social media world erupted in one of its favorite pastimes: speculating on the future of Twitter. Rumors that the social network was considering shifting its 140-character limit all the way up to 10,000 characters spurred mass hand-wringing and prophecies of doom. Whether it ends up being a disaster for Twitter or a positive turning point, the prospect of a social juggernaut axing its original defining feature drives home a harsh reality for brand publishers: The ground under your feet is never stable.

In this month’s Feature, we discuss how publishers can find stability in these shifting sands, and in our new Question, we share some practical tips for navigating Twitter’s potential change specifically. Finally, our new Case Study chronicles how one brand successfully negotiated some of the wildest content marketing terrain, the infamous Reddit AMA.


Cover and welcome photos: Blizzard Jonas hits Washington, D.C., by Geoff Alexander
Facebook Reactions


“The philosophy behind it is that when you only have a ‘like’ button, if you share a sad piece of content or something that makes you angry, people may not have the tool to react to it. And therefore, over time the community feels less comfortable sharing that content on Facebook. We want people to be able to share all of the things that are meaningful to them, not just the things that are happy and that people are going to ‘like’ when they see it.”

— Mark Zuckerberg, on Facebook’s new “Reactions” feature


Publishing on Shifting Sands

Publishing was certainly more straightforward in the old days, if far more limited. While publishers faced the same daunting challenge of creating content that readers cared about, navigating the available media options was a cinch. The basic formats of magazines, newspapers, and newsletters stayed pretty consistent for decades. In contrast, digital publishing channels change weekly, with new networks debuting regularly, and established platforms continually adjusting their feature sets.

Naturally, we can feel overwhelmed by this publishing vertigo. It’s a difficult problem, and there’s no getting around that for the foreseeable future, but building a sound, adaptable strategy can provide some stable ground.

Understanding How Channels Evolve

To build a strategy that weathers change well, focus on the big picture of where publishing channels are generally headed. Social networks tend to follow some general patterns, guided by the realities of competition:

  • The channel initially defines itself with a hook or two — most often a specific content form and sometimes an audience. Twitter’s had its 140-character status updates. Facebook was for college students. Snapchat offered messages that instantly expired.
  • A small audience is drawn to the channel’s simplicity — limited features and no advertising — as a welcome relief from the established channels.
  • The channel either plateaus with a niche audience then peters out, or gets enough attention that the crowds show up to see what it’s all about.
  • To turn a profit, the channel creates advertising opportunities.
  • To make the most of this revenue model, the channel needs to keep people on the network as much as possible. So, it makes a more self-contained platform, by adding whatever content forms it didn’t have initially: native imagery, long-form text, video, comments.

The end result is each social network becomes more and more like every other social network, evolving into some variation of this standard recipe:

A stream of updates from people and brands the user follows, which include short posts, long posts, imagery, and videos, and incorporate sponsored content into the mix. The content may be organized by topic, as well, and may be surfaced based on an algorithm.

Given that larger trend, it’s best not to get hung up on the particularities of each publishing channel’s feature set as it is today. Instead, align your strategy with the bigger trends and quality standards that have stood the test of time, so that you’re more likely to be in a good spot however any specific channels change.

Fundamentals for Stability

1. Create Adaptable Content

The key to sure footing in a shifting landscape is great content that works wells across channels. Build a team and processes for creating short posts, long posts, graphics, photos, and videos. Define an adaptable strategy for interacting with readers.

2. Invest in Owned Channels

Publish content to your own central channel, and share or republish on other important channels as appropriate. No matter how social networks emerge, evolve, or die, you’ll reach readers through search and inbound links. And evergreen content will give you plenty of material to adapt to the social network du jour.

3. Assess Channels By Audience

To a brand publisher, the real value of each social network isn’t its ever-changing feature set. It’s the channel’s audience. For each social network you’re using, or considering using, ask yourself:

  • Who, from your broader target audience, uses that channel?
  • What sort of topics are they looking for on that channel?
  • What content forms do they like most and least on that channel?
  • What is the native personality and tone on the channel?

Tailor the content mix on each channel to meet these specific needs. Adjust as necessary, based on performance metrics. As the channel’s feature set evolves, try new content types and see what resonates.

4. Build a Subscriber List

Social networks are an invaluable means of reaching and engaging an audience. The catch is they can remove audience attention at any time. They might do it intentionally, say by tweaking their algorithm in a way that diminishes reach for brand content (as Facebook has done), or they might do it unintentionally, by making an unpopular change that leads to a mass audience exodus.

There’s no getting around that bind completely, but you can mitigate the risk by getting followers to opt in to your owned subscriber database. For example, offer a polished email newsletter, and promote it regularly (but tastefully) across your channels, so social subscribers become email subscribers.

5. Watch for New Opportunities

While sticking to the fundamentals will help you keep your footing, it’s still important to keep tabs on how publishing channels are evolving. As part of a regular program check in — whether it’s every month, every quarter, or twice a year — review how the feature sets and audiences have changed for the channels you use and consider if it’s a good time to expand into new channels.

In the relatively short history of digital media, fortune has favored publishers who have embraced two complementary values: They’re open to adopting new platforms and ideas, but at the same time, they don’t let fleeting trends distract them from creating solid content aligned to their audience’s needs.

Ev Williams on Web Publishing


“There’s inevitably going to be a convergence of distribution points for media, and it’s going to make less and less sense to publish on the web… The role of publishers as a distribution point will change, but I don’t think that threatens their existence. I think there’s still a role of packaging and bringing together, with an organization, all the different skills that are required to create high quality content.”

— Medium CEO Ev Williams, in an interview with Re/code’s Peter Kafka


How should brand publishers adjust to Twitter’s rumored character limit change?

According to inside sources, Twitter plans to expand its character limit from 140 characters to 10,000 characters, as early as March. While Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey hasn’t confirmed any specifics, he did tweet a message making the case for the change in broad terms, which suggests it’s indeed coming. (Naturally, his message came in the form of a screenshot of a note, an increasingly common hack around the 140 character constraint.)

According to the insider reports, only the first 140 characters of longer posts would show up in Twitter streams, and users would have to click to see the full text. Like Facebook’s Instant Articles, the change feels like a move to keep users within the network ecosystem. Instead of clicking a link to see a full article or blog post elsewhere, Twitter presumably hopes, more users will be able to read the full post within Twitter. And as with Instant Articles, publisher partnerships may follow.

Putting aside what this means for Twitter’s future — and there are some strong feelings on the matter, to be sure — what does it mean for brand publishers in the immediate term?

First, don’t make any sudden moves. The shift is highly unpopular with a vocal contingent of Twitter users, and it’s best to stay out of the crosshairs until the dust settles. Stick mainly to conventional 140-character updates for now, keeping an eye on how the change is playing out. Even beyond the backlash period, short posts are likely to be the Twitter norm for the foreseeable future, so there’s no reason to make a radical change to your Twitter strategy.

That being said, your audience may indeed like longer posts now and then. The best way to find out is to dip your toe in with some experiments. For example, if you have some news that is longer than a 140-character tweet, but maybe not a good fit for a full blog post, try it as an extended Twitter post, and see what replies and retweets it gets compared to conventional tweets. Follow up the next week with another test.

If the change works as expected, it will be a good idea to use the first 140 characters as an opening that teases the full post. With any luck, Twitter will provide analytics for clicks to longer posts before long.

Even if longer posts are a hit and Twitter evolves into a blogging powerhouse, it’s a good idea to maintain an owned channel, such as a blog, as your content hub, rather than publish exclusively on Twitter. Depending too much on social networks you don’t control, which can change course at any time, puts your publishing program at risk.

Twitter Secret Society

“Try to explain to a mainstream consumer, even someone who’s decent at using an iPhone or Facebook, what counts in the famed 140-character limit in a tweet, or the difference between ‘blocking’ or ‘muting’ an unwanted follower, or whether ‘liking’ a tweet means you agree with it or not… Twitter has become what I call ‘secret-handshake software’ — something that’s so complicated that, as in a secret society, only insiders know the rituals that unlock its power.”

— Walt Mossberg, for The Verge

Case Study

Powering the Data to Capture a Supermassive Black Hole

Nine years ago, the scientists of the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) began a quest to capture an impossible image: a supermassive black hole. Black holes are by nature “un-photographable” — their gravitational pull prevents any light from escaping — so EHT began building an array of telescopes from around the world to capture radio wave data from around the black hole. This data would then be used to create a virtual image.

EHT needed a storage partner that could help capture and reliably store the massive quantity of data. Enter Porter Novelli client HGST, one of the world’s leading storage makers. HGST saw this as a huge opportunity to tell its technology story to a new audience. While it would be years before the actual photo of the black hole would be possible, HGST wanted to spark excitement around its products and this great scientific achievement.


To expand HGST’s reach outside of its traditional channels, PN turned to Reddit, where the topics of science and technology resonate particularly well. PN recommended a public Q&A on Reddit’s IAmA forum (as in “I Am A movie star, president, etc.”). The exceptionally popular IAmA channel would allow thousands of influencers to make an authentic, direct connection with an EHT scientist. This in turn would help amplify HGST’s message of how the ability to store massive quantities of data unlocks new possibilities for advancing scientific discovery.

PN recommended holding the Reddit IAmA one week after the initial announcement of the HGST/EHT partnership to create sustained interest and extend HGST’s audience. The team promoted the IAmA in advance on HGST’s social media channels and cooperated with other relevant influencers, including Twitter accounts @Discovery_Space and @saoastro, to promote the event as well. On Reddit, the team contacted the moderators of astronomy- and science-related subreddits (forums) asking them to link to the IAmA when it went live. The team used paid promotion on Twitter and Reddit to amplify its reach among target audiences. Finally, the upcoming IAmA was mentioned in a Fast Company article about the EHT project.

On Reddit, 74,000 users clicked through to the IAmA during and after the discussion. During the discussion, Reddit users specifically asked about the choice of HGST Helium drives for the project, and the EHT scientist spokesperson was able to talk about the benefits of HGST’s products and how they stood out from competitors.


The Q&A was the top story on the IAmA forum for the duration of the event and ranked among the top ten stories on Reddit’s main page. The EHT IAmA became the 34th-most-popular IAmA of all time, among impressive competition like Stephen Colbert and President Barack Obama. All told, the story generated more than 4.4 million social media impressions and resulted in over 300 interactions with HGST’s Twitter handle, an exceptional figure compared to previous benchmarks.

The team laid much of the groundwork for this initiative long before the actual Q&A began. By partnering with relevant influencers and selectively promoting to targeted audiences, PN and HGST were able to ensure that relevant and engaged audiences were ready and excited to participate in the discussion, making the conversation more lively and interesting and extending its reach.


PNConnect is the global digital services offering from Porter Novelli. Our global team spans 60 countries and brings the combined digital resources of our social media marketing, creative production, paid promotions, and web development capabilities together for one purpose — to help our clients share their story with the world.

For more information about our team and approach, or to learn how we can help your organization with digital strategy, development and measurement, please visit the PNConnect site.


Thank You


Many thanks to our January contributors.

Tom Harris in Raleigh wrote this month’s Feature about adapting to publishing platform changes, as well as our Question on Twitter’s rumored character limit change. George Wang in Alameda wrote our new Case Study on the Event Horizon Telescope project and HGST Reddit AMA.

The cover and welcome photos were uploaded to Flickr by George Alexander. John Seb Barber uploaded the bombe codebreaker machine photo, and Christopher Michel uploaded the photo of Ev Williams. Some backgrounds courtesy of

Thanks to Mary Gaulke, Tom Harris, and Chris Thilk for editorial oversight.

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