What are Google and Justin Timberlake Up To?

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the name “Justin Timberlake,” I instinctively roll my eyes.

And while that sentiment may have caused 90% of you to bounce from this page, please, hear me out: This post is about Google more than it is about him.

It all started when my colleague, HubSpot’s Director of Acquisition Matt Barby, pointed out that a Google search for Justin Timberlake would display the following within the search engine results page (SERP):

Naturally, I had questions. First, why isn’t “none of them” an option? But more important –  what is Google up to? Why is the search engine polling searchers on their favorite new Justin Timberlake songs?

The answer: Data.

What are Google and Justin Timberlake Up To?

Google Wants in on the Data Game

My colleague Kevin Raheja, HubSpot’s director of strategic partnerships, was one of the first to chime in when I began asking questions.

“Think about all the data Facebook has on users,” he told me. “Google is trying to make a play at some of that consumer data.”

Have a look at the search volume for Timberlake’s name over the past 30 days:

Source: Google Trends

If Google does want to begin experimenting with data collection on consumer preferences — in the same way, to Raheja’s point, Facebook has gradually done since its inception — it makes sense to do so by leveraging a high-volume, timely search query. Timberlake is already a rather popular figure, and his name is currently a trending search topic (love it or hate it, people are still talking about his Super Bowl LII halftime show).

But What Data Is Google Trying to Collect, and Why?

There are many reasons why someone might be searching for “Justin Timberlake” in the first place — to learn about tour dates, find videos, re-watch his halftime show performances, or to reminisce about his previous hairstyle choices.

But if you’re searching for Justin Timberlake, chances are, it’s because you have an interest in something about him.

That search query alone already tells Google something about your preferences as a consumer — especially if you use Chrome as your preferred browser and are signed into it through your Google account, which can connect your search history to your Google profile.

If that’s the case, Google now knows that you’re interested in Justin Timberlake — and if you engage with new interactive SERP features like the favorite track poll we discovered today, that tells Google even more about your consumer preferences, like the fact that you even have a favorite track from his new album at all. 

“I didn’t vote because I only liked one album he did back when I was in college, and think he’s good on ‘Saturday Night Live’,” explains Raheja, to illustrate his own level of engagement with this SERP content. “But I imagine most people who vote are fans. Knowing which Google users are, in fact, Justin Timberlake fans can theoretically help Google deliver more personalized ads, based on that consumer preference data.”

(Too bad there wasn’t an option for “none” — I can only begin to imagine what that would tell Google about my own preferences.)

So, Is Google in Cahoots With Justin Timberlake?

I had to ask: Is this something on which Google collaborated with Timberlake’s team? Could it simply boil down to little more than a publicity stunt?

“I doubt it,” Raheja told me. “My guess is that it’s not sponsored and that there’s an intent to collect data,” based on a search query that’s already trending. 

However, it is possible — likely, even — that we’ll see more interactive SERP content like this from Google in the future, including some that’s sponsored.

That could be something that Google is test-driving with this Justin Timberlake poll, to see if there’s potential for sponsored polls from artists and businesses.

But first, Google has to scale these consumer polls, says Raheja — which are, at least in these early stages, “designed to be engaging and collect data for Google.”

Google isn’t necessarily the only beneficiary, however. Consumers potentially have something to gain from this kind of feature.

“For a consumer, it seems fun and innocent to tell Google what your favorite Justin Timberlake song is,” Raheja explains. “Once they warm up to that idea a bit more, I could see consumers voting on things that deliver feedback to businesses or advertisers.”

Even in that case, though, consumers would be submitting some level of data as a byproduct of participating in such polls — and allowing advertisers to gain information on their preferences, or segment them into audience categories.

Google has yet to comment on the feature.

As always, feel free to weigh in with thoughts or questions on Twitter.

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Should You Let a Bot Write Your Content?

Everyone thinks they can write. Even, it would seem, robots.

But do these automated writers really have the ability to produce content to rival the work produced by those of us who write for a living? Should we see them as a threat?

Likewise, whether you are a brand manager within retail, travel, finance or any other industry, will this affect you and what, if anything, do you need to be thinking about now? Could you actually consider using robots instead of humans to get your content written?

Well, it’s time to see what they’ve got to offer as, in what is believed to be a world-first for journalism, robot-generated stories have been produced by The Press Association.

The automated press service set up by PA — RADAR — is currently trialling computer-generated-data-driven content, funded by a grant from Google’s Digital News Initiative.

The plan: to create 30,000 localised stories a month from data using Natural Language Generation software.

At the end of November 2017 a pilot, involving 35 regional titles from 14 publishing groups including Archant, Independent News and Media and Johnston Press, resulted in multiple versions of four stories being distributed. These have since appeared in weekly and daily titles both online and in print.

What This Means for The Press Association

In its own words: “Press Association was conceived as a London-based news gathering service for the provincial papers … we are trusted because we are fast, fair and accurate. Today, much of the content people read, see or hear continues to originate from PA.”

Ultimately, it gathers data and facts that are then sent out to journalists who should source quotes and localize this information, turning the bare bones into a story suitable for their individual publication. So, in the case of computer-generated stories, this could offer an effective way of the Press Association sending out a lot of information very quickly.

It is important to note here that reporters are still at the core — merely using the information they receive as the starting point for stories.

So, the real question is, could a robot ever be trained to write the full piece? And, will they be replacing humans at news desks up and down the country?

The short answer is no.

More often than not, we want much more from an article than just the who, what, where, when and how — it must also take us to the emotion that lies beyond the fact. You don’t, for example, just want to know that a school excelled in its A-level results this year, you want to hear from the child who beat the odds to get top marks and is now set to attend Cambridge University.

This human element is key and it is why we can’t underestimate the importance of having a human write the content. There is a certain skill to writing – particularly copy that needs to be entertaining, engaging or persuasive – that goes well beyond typing words on to a page. To put it bluntly, solely data driven content is dull. It lacks the emotion and context that us writers could – and should – inject into a story.

We Still Need Human Writers

Recently, a new chapter was written for the Harry Potter series titled: Harry Potter and the Portrait of what Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. But this was not fan fiction, nor was it written by J.K Rowling herself — it was actually typed up by a predictive keyboard.

After feeding seven books through the computer, lines such as, “He saw Harry and immediately began to eat Hermione’s family”, and “‘Not so handsome now’, thought Harry as he dipped Hermione in hot sauce,” were produced.

The fact that your content needs to make sense goes without saying … but not when it comes to robots it seems.

This isn’t the only thing to consider, however.

Injecting Humor

If you get it right, you will reap the rewards from humorous content. People like to be entertained — and will share and interact with your content if they feel they have been entertained. But can a robot be funny?

During his time as New Yorker’s cartoonist, Bob Mankoff developed an interest in the creative potential of artificial intelligence. After launching the cartoon caption contest and receiving up to 10,000 entries a week he attempted – along with Microsoft and Google’s DeepMind — to develop an algorithm that could distinguish between those that were funny and those that weren’t. However, he eventually declared it a ‘dead end’.

Yet he did form Botnik studios and created the tool used to create the Harry Potter chapter. This tool takes the essence of a publication or topic – such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet – to create something ‘completely absurd’.
A tool which, although fun to play around with, won’t create content worthy of placing on your website in a hurry.

Being Aware of the Details

No matter how clever they seem and how much they can already do that you probably would never have expected, you can’t train a robot to have news sense. Take the example of this news story created by a robot for PA: ‘Most babies are born to married parents in Bournemouth, figures reveal’.

In this data-heavy article, the robot wouldn’t know if the maternity ward was due to be closed, for example. It’s often extra information such as this which adds an important angle to the story, making it more newsworthy.

Data can organize information, but journalists turn it into a story.

Recognizing Context and Emotion

The words shouldn’t only tell us the facts, they should bring a story to life and tap into our emotions.

Take the different approaches to this sports story, for example.

The robot version begins: Marcus Paige scored with nine seconds remaining in the game to give North Carolina a 72-71 lead over Louisville.

While the human version, written for ESPN, opens: Marcus Paige ignored the pain in his twice-injured right foot, put his head down and drove toward the rim.

This storytelling element is something the computer can’t imitate.

Capturing Thoughts and Feelings

The above sports story also included the quote from Paige: “I said jokingly to my teammates that I was back.” An understanding of natural language is and will continue to be a very big challenge for artificial intelligence.

We want to know people’s thought and feelings on the facts and stats. A robot can’t yet conduct a natural interview and filter out the answers to be used as a key quote. It’s often in these quotes where the emotion of an article comes across.

Don’t Rely on Robot Writers Just Yet

Emotion, context, news sense and humor should all feed into a compelling content calendar for brands too. You need to appreciate what your readers like, what matters to them, how best to talk to them and how to entertain them.

There is a lot that happens at Zazzle before we write any words on a page. This includes:

  • Discovering the target audience of a brand and then creating personas
  • Keyword research to make sure we are targeting the relevant terms
  • Ensuring content we plan to create is relevant and there is a variety of it.
  • Understanding (and sometimes creating) the tone of voice

Once all this is done we will start to write. But, unlike a robot, we will be able to keep all of the above in mind while making sure that we write content that other humans want to read. Writing involves analyzing and interpreting this information to deliver a message effectively.

As Mankoff said: “Machines in the end are idiots, or maybe idiot savants, that need humans to create content that’s going to be interesting to human beings.”


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How to Figure Out the Next Step in Your Career [Quiz]

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

Of all the job interview questions out there, this has always been one of the most difficult.

These days, however, the next steps in your career aren’t always linear. The age-old corporate ladder model of putting in a few years as an associate contributor, becoming a manager of a small team, and climbing your way to the senior management or director level is not right for everyone.

To help you plan confidently for your next five years, HubSpot has launched a brand new career assessment called The Next Five. Tell us your interests, strengths, and working style, and we’ll help you identify a next step that’s right for your long-term professional goals.

Here are the five steps to this career quiz and some initial questions to ask yourself when deciding where to go in your career:

Career quiz questions for taking the next step in your career.

5 Basic Steps of This Career Quiz

1. Your Work Environment

What do you do for a living? How much experience do you have, and how many coworkers do you work with? This is important context around the challenges you might be expriencing.

2. Your Work Challenges

In short, how’s it been going there? You won’t know where to go in your career unless it’s clear what your current challenges are and how you go about solving them.

3. Your Happiness Level

Are you happy where you are? With what you’re doing? It’s important to occasionally check how you feel — you might be getting in your own way when trying to regain your comfort with the job.

4. Your Skills

Do you want to be a manager, but struggle to hone your mentorship skills? How are you at public speaking? Perhaps too much supervision is a challenge you face. These are just some of the critical metrics for what you’d excel in when making a professional move.

5. Your Goals

What are you currently working toward, and what will indicate that you’ve reached them?

The Next Five is not your average test. With your result, we’ll include a detailed plan that encourages you to rethink the idea of a career path. Each tip is paired with customized articles, ebooks, videos, and more that will help you score visibility for your work and bring value to your company.

Career development is complicated, and a lack of open dialogue around the personalization of career planning can make it worse. If you’re unsure how to bridge the leadership gap between your current role and becoming a manager, the quiz below is the perfect exercise.

No five-year plan? No problem. With The Next Five career growth assessment, discovering your next step has never been easier.

take our five-year career plan quiz

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The Surprising Relationship Between Stress and Creativity

Thomas Edison grossed 1,093 patents over the course of his career. He was also reportedly fired from his first two jobs for not being productive. Huh?

Popular opinion might say that’s because creativity needs both stimulation and room to breathe. These workplaces were likely either uninteresting or too stressful, preventing Edison from flapping his inventive wings toward the problems he wanted to solve.

But this might not be the case. As it turns out, stress and creativity aren’t always mutually exclusive.Download our complete productivity guide here for more tips on improving your  productivity at work.

The stressed, many-hats-wearing employee could actually be the most innovative one in the office.

Here are three different kinds of stress, their connection to creativity, and how your career could be on the verge of the most inventive work you’ve ever done with just the right type and amount of stress.

1. The ‘Task-Switching’ Stress

In a recent behavioral study conducted by Columbia Business School, researchers had participants engage in creative brainstorming for multiple projects while using one of three work styles. Some could change projects whenever they wished, others split their focus in half, and a third group continuously shifted to a different project at a set interval.

And the most original team was …

Group three! So-called “task-switching,” although much faster-paced, shakes up the thought process before it hits a wall — and it often does. Mine did in this very blog post.

“When attempting problems that require creativity, we often reach a dead end without realizing it,” the study’s authors explain in Harvard Business Review. “Regularly switching back and forth between two tasks at a set interval can reset your thinking, enabling you to approach each task from fresh angles.”

Frequently changing gears forces you to change your view of each task as you revisit it. This style of working fosters more creativity and avoids the “rigid thinking” that occurs when you focus for too long on the same project. You know what this feels like: the mental block from writing, designing, analyzing, or thinking about one thing so hard, you exhaust the subject.

Changing the subject refreshes your view of each undertaking, curing this classic problem. In other words, Thomas Edison’s creativity likely has a direct correlation to the size of his patent list …

Where You’d Find It

Graphic design and video production — especially in agency settings — are volume-dependent work. An awesome YouTube channel needs a consistent stream of content. But you’re only as awesome as your bandwidth allows, right?

Wrong. Task-switching says a diverse workload can make you more efficient and effective. Think about it: The more creative assignments you have on your plate, the broader your mental canvas, and the more opportunities you’ll have for inspiration as you shift back and forth between each design or video you’re working on.

2. The ‘Meaningful’ Stress

Recently, two Chinese psychologists published a study about job stressors and their effect on the creativity of more than 280 employees in various businesses. What they found is that not all stress hampered good ideas. The stressors that were seen as constructive and challenging to an employee’s goals and development had a direct link to idea generation.

On the other hand, the stress that was seen as as a hindrance to those goals did the opposite.

What made the difference? The first stressor holds meaning to an employee, and it’s another way stress can make us more creative.

Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, explains this idea in her book “The Progress Principle.” She suggests there are four stress conditions where you’d feel the heat:

  1. “On a treadmill”: Your work is high-pressure but low in meaning.
  2. “On autopilot”: Your work is low-pressure and low in meaning.
  3. “On an expedition”: Your work is low-pressure but high in meaning.
  4. “On a mission”: Your work is high-pressure and high in meaning.

Here’s a matrix of this concept by marketing consultant Kim Tasso:

Four conditions that connect stress and creativity, according to Kim Tasso.

Image via Red Star Kim

Both “on a treadmill” and “on autopilot” are highly repetitive work environments and therefore less engaging — requiring little creativity. However, “on an expedition” and “on a mission” are more goal-oriented and more meaningful to you as a result. That meaning is precisely what kindles creativity, according to Amabile.

When people reach goals they consider meaningful, Amabile writes in her book, they “feel good, grow their positive self-efficacy,” and “get even more revved up to tackle the next job.”

The relationship between stress and creativity here depends on how you perceive the stress you’re under at any given time. Is it connected to a goal you find meaningful? Does it push you to accomplish this goal? If so, that little dose of stress may be helping you think outside the box and grow your career.

Where You’d Find It

Marketers are no strangers to work that has a specific endgame. SEO strategy, social media management, and conversion optimization are some of the most rewarding projects to take on because they’re usually attached to a meaningful, quantitative goal.

Having goal metrics chained to your ankle may not be the most comfortable, but they’re a positive form of stress that can actually inspire some of the most creative problem-solving approaches over the course of your career.

3. The ‘Deadline’ Stress

Perhaps the most common work stressor of all, time constraints are the plague of everyone who’s paid to do anything. But as the above two scenarios prove, certain amounts of pressure are important to keeping a creative task moving forward.

For this third stressor, let’s look at a case study by Amabile detailed in “The Progress Principle,” wherein she surveyed creative teams from seven companies across three industries. She found that although tight deadlines did hinder creativity, so did mild deadlines. Spoiler alert: The third situation — moderate deadlines — produced the best ideas.

The first situation carried a tight deadline where people were performing high-pressure, low-meaning “treadmill” work. These employees’ efforts simply weren’t making an impact, and therefore they didn’t see enough meaning in the work to think creatively. They faced crises, ad-hoc tasks, and the proverbial fire drills that kept them busy but no closer to finishing their core project.

Mild deadlines were the detriment of creative thinking as well, particularly if they allowed people to fade into large project teams, trail off to assist others, or stew for too long over the same assignment (remember “task-switching”?).

This brings us to Amabile’s main finding: Workers who were under a low to moderate deadline — the middle option between “tight” and “mild” — showed the most creativity across each organization, followed by those under tight deadlines. The stress of a due date may not be exciting, but a time-sensitive environment can give your work the focus it deserves and help you fend off the distractions that can derail an inspired train of thought.

“If people and companies feel that they have a real deadline, they understand it, they buy into it,” Amabile wrote in a Forbes article. “They understand the importance of what they’re doing, and the importance of doing it fast — and if they’re protected … so they can focus, they’re much more likely to be creative.”

Where You’d Find It

Few marketers know the plight of a deadline quite like content creators, but you already know what I’m going to say here: Bloggers need deadlines. One crazy tight deadline may result in lower quality, but the weekly or monthly quotas you have to meet are what keep you honest and your content focused on the needs of its audience.

Don’t let an article that welcomes stress, well, stress you out. The relationship between stress and creativity is a complex one, and any one of these stressors in excess can ruin creativity. Too much pressure, too many tasks at once, and assignments with too short of a turnaround can all cripple the final product. Keep in mind that breaks as you need them are just as healthy as the constraints of the project itself. 

Productivity Guide

free productivity tips

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YouTube Will Start Labeling State-Funded News Content, but There’s a Big Problem

Last Friday, YouTube announced it work to further curb the spread of propaganda on its network — this time, by adding a designated label to state-funded content.

As part of YouTube’s overall work toward greater transparency into the content shared on its site, videos uploaded by news creators that receive any degree of public or government funding will be labeled as such.

The label will appear below the video itself, and above its title broadcasters, as per the example below:

Source: YouTube

The news came via a blog post penned by YouTube News Senior Product Manager Geoff Samek, who explained the efforts are part of those to “get [news] right” on its platform, ”helping to grow news and support news publishers on YouTube in a responsible way.”

It’s a move — much like other YouTube changes we’ve reported on in recent months — likely in response to scrutiny received for its role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

YouTube was largely blamed for allowing the spread of political propaganda on its site — not only allowing polarizing content from RT (a Russian-government-backed news outlet) to go unflagged, but also allegedly spending significant time growing its presence through the platform.

Source: Office of the Director of National Intelligence

But there’s a problem. Not all “state-funded” media is created equal.

With this new labeling system, publicly-funded news outlets like the U.S.-based PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) — which has aired famed shows including “Sesame Street” and “Frontline,” as well as exclusively syndicating British programs like “Downton Abbey” — will receive the same classification as the likes of the RT.

In other words: The same rules apply to two very different content creators receiving different levels of public funding. PBS will be labeled as a “publicly-funded American broadcaster,” and RT as “funded in whole or in part by the Russian government.”

And while those labels do provide some distinction, it still muddies YouTube’s news broadcasting waters. As opposed to serving as a government-sponsored media outlet like the RT, for instance, PBS runs according to funding rules designed to “ensure the complete editorial independence of producers from influence by underwriters.”

And while PBS does receive a small amount of government funding — which has faced recent threats of elimination — it is not federally-run.

That leads to fears of confusion among viewers who might not be familiar with such news broadcasters as PBS, and the unintentional alignment of it with propaganda content. 

“PBS is an independent, private, not-for-profit corporation, not a state broadcaster,” said PBS in a statement. “YouTube’s proposed labeling could wrongly imply that the government has influence over PBS content, which is prohibited by statute.”

While YouTube itself has acknowledged it doesn’t “expect it to be perfect,” the presence of a glaring flaw before the feature is rolled out is one that many find less than encouraging.

On one hand, says HubSpot Brand Marketing Associate Henry Franco, “It seems like another step in the right direction in terms of verifying content, as platforms like YouTube seek to redeem their credibility.”

But at the same time, Franco explains, the lack of verification might not even be the issue. “The real problem isn’t that brands are good at deceiving. It’s that viewers don’t do the work in identifying what is or is not factual.”

“It all boils down to psychology,” he continues. “People tend to believe what aligns with their existing values.”

I’ll be keeping an eye on this feature as it rolls out. As always, feel free to weigh in with thoughts or questions on Twitter.

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