Instagram may divide hashtags from captions to end overhashing

Geofenced sharing, Quiz stickers, Stories Highlight stickers, and a separate interface for adding hashtags to posts are amongst a slew of new features Instagram has prototyped or is now testing. The last one could finally #cure #the #hashtag #madness that’s infected many of Instagram’s 1 billion users, causing them desperately fill up their captions with tagged words that make the feed tough to read in hopes of scoring a few extra views or followers.

The pace of iteration at Instagram is staggering, and helping it to leave Snapchat in the dust. With Facebook’s deep pockets funding its product, design, and engineering teams, Instagram is able to keep its app full of fresh toys to play with. Here’s a look at three prototypes, one test, and one confirmed roll out from Instagram

Hashtag Selector

The feature isn’t released or even necessarily testing yet, and Instagram refused to comment on it. But frequent TechCrunch tipster and mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong was able to dig the designated hashtag selector prototype out of the Instagram Android app’s code. It shows a dedicated “Add Hashtags” option underneath the caption composer and people tagger. Similar past discoveries by Wong have led to TechCrunch scoops about the eventual release of Instagram video calling, name tags, music stickers, and more, though there’s always a chance Instagram scraps this feature before it ever launches.

Disambiguating hashtags from captions could make adding them to posts less invasive and distracting, and thereby get more users doing it. That could in turn help Instagram tune its feed algorithm to show you more posts with hashtags you seem to care about, get more users following hashtags, allow it to better sort the Explore page with its new topic channels like Sports, Beauty, and Shopping. But perhaps most importantly, it could just make Instagram less annoying. Everyone has that friend that slaps on so many hashtags that their captions become an incoherent mess.

Geofenced Posts

Wong also dug out a powerful new feature that could help social media managers, businesses, and pro creators reach the right audience. Instagram has prototyped a “Choose Locations” option for posts that lets you select from a list of countries where you want your post to be visible. Instagram declined to comment.

The geofencing feature might enable Instagrammers to design different content and captions for different countries and languages. Facebook has offered geofencing for posts for many years, and Instagram already offers ad targeting down to the zip code or mile radius. But if this location chooser launches for everyone’s posts, it could let people and professional accounts express their prismatic identity differently across the globe.

Stories Highlight Stickers

Instagram gave me a confirmation that this final find by Wong is officially in testing. It allows users to turn someone else’s Stories Highlight from their profile into a sticker to overlay on their own Story. It’s an extension of the Quote-tweet style feature Instagram started testing in March that lets you turn people’s public feed posts into Stories stickers so you can add your commentary — or dunk on someone dumb. Stories Highlight Stickers could create a new path to virality for start creators who could convince their followers to re-share their Highlights and turn their friends into fellow fans.

Quiz Stickers

This prototype discovered by WABetaInfo‘s Twitter account allows users to ask a question in their Story and designate a correct answer. The Quiz sticker functions similarly to Instagram’s recently added Poll and Question stickers, but instead of tallying the results or letting you re-post someone’s answer, they’ll immediately see whether they guessed the right answer to your test. This ties into Instagram’s strategy to crush Snapchat by making its own Stories more interactive and turning the connection between fans and followers into a two-way street.

Video Tagging

Instagram did confirm the launch of one new feature, tagging people in videos. TechCrunch spotted thIS last week and Instagram said it was testing, but upon our inquiry told us that it’s now fully rolled out. Video tagging could generate extra visits for Instagram as few people have the willpower to ignore a notification that they were named in a new piece of content. The feature could also help Instagram figure out who to show the videos too by allowing it to place them high in the feed of the best friends of people tagged.

Combined, this flurry of new and potential features proves Instagram isn’t allowing its dominance to diminish its shipping schedule. It also demonstrates that Instagram VP of product Kevin Weil’s move to Facebook’s blockchain team his replacement by former News Feed VP Adam Mosseri hasn’t disrupted the app’s brisk pace of innovation.

The jury is still out about whether Instagram’s biggest new initiatives will take off. IGTV is off to a slow start, but will need time to build a long-form video archive to rival YouTube. And we’ll have to wait and see if users grow addicted to Instagram Explore’s new Shopping channel. But constantly updating the app takes pressure off of any one feature to carry the weight of a billion people’s eyes. Who wants to build a direct competitor to something evolving this fast?

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Facebook and Airbnb told to change their ToS to fix EU consumer rights issues by year’s end

Facebook has been singled out for censure by the European Commission’s head of consumer affairs who has warned she’s running out of patience and said the company needs to make additional changes to its terms of service before the end of the year to bring them into line with the bloc’s consumer rules.

The Commission also said today that Airbnb has agreed to make additional changes to its ToS by December.

The EU’s executive body has been sounding off about tech and social media platforms’ terms of service impinging on citizens’ consumer rights for almost two years.

In February it warned a raft of companies they needed to do more to respect consumer rights. In July the Commission joined with EU consumer authorities to push Airbnb to make changes.

At the same time the Commission is pushing for an update to modernise EU consumer rules — and is hoping to get the backing of the European Parliament and member states, via the European Council, which is needed to reform EU law.

“I have respect for the work of national consumer authorities but sometimes the powers they have on national level are not sufficient for companies to co-operate efficient with them,” tweeted commissioner Vera Jourova today. “Hence the #NewDealForConsumers we propose strengthening their power and having persuasive sanctions.”

Reuters reports that Twitter was also warned by the Commission today that it must make ToS changes to come into compliance with EU consumer law.

The EC’s public denouncement of tech giants inexorably has a strategic political dimension, as it seeks to garner attention for its reform cause and drum up support for reworking the rules.

Though it clearly also feels that social media giants haven’t yet done enough to comply with existing EU consumer rules.

Giving an update on its efforts “to ensure fair treatment for consumers in the EU in the online world” at a press conference today, Jourova said that Airbnb’s current terms still mislead consumers because they are not clear enough about costs, while Facebook’s terms are not clear about how user data is passed to third parties.

She warned Facebook she’s “running out of patience”, having been engaged in negotiations on the matter for almost two years now. 

On Airbnb she said the company has agreed to make additional changes before the end of the year to make it clearer to consumers what the total cost of a stay with a host will be before they hit ‘buy’.

“Following our call in July Airbnb informed us that it accepted to improve transparency of prices — so the consumers can know up front about the final price or additional costs, like cleaning fees or local taxes. Airbnb will also make changes to terms and conditions for instance to be clear that consumers can use all the legal remedies available and in particular their right to sue a host in case of personal harm or other damages,” she said. 

“EU consumers must have guaranteed the same rights in selling and purchasing offline and online,” Jourova added. “We didn’t come with a specific legislation for online selling but we always said offline rules must apply also for the online world. So this is what we are now doing with Airbnb and Facebook where we still see some gaps in their contracts which they use for providing their services to EU consumers.”

Responding to her remarks today in a statement, an Airbnb spokesperson told us: “Airbnb is a community build on trust and transparency is a key part of that. Guests have always been aware of all fees, including service charges and taxes, before booking listings, and we are pleased to work with the CPC to make this even clearer for guests.”

In Facebook’s case the Commission wants to see greater transparency in its ToS on the key characteristics of its services and relations with third parties with whom the company shares consumers’ data — saying a clearer link needs to be made between the actual provision of the service; the fact that consumers’ data constitute the consideration for receiving that service; and the commercial exploitation of the data and user generated content (by providing targeted advertising services to third parties).

It is also not happy about Facebook’s terms granting the company a perpetual licence on user generated content even after a user quits Facebook, saying this is unfair.

It also believes the rights Facebook grants itself over the content users upload is not made sufficiently prominent to consumers when they sign up.

Additionally it criticises Facebook’s terms for not being clear on its obligations to remove user generated content and/or suspend or terminate an account, saying its ToS include vague phrases and do not clarify whether the consumer will be notified in advance.

The Commission also flags the lack of an appeal option for consumers in some cases.

It’s also not happy about Facebook granting itself the power to unilaterally change its terms of service, saying this is contrary to EU consumer legislation which identifies as unfair terms that enable: “the seller or supplier to alter the terms of the contract unilaterally without a valid reason which is specified in the contract”.

Jourova said both Facebook and Airbnb have a deadline of October 18 to propose additional changes — which will then be assessed by the Commission and the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network of EU consumer rights bodies that it’s working with on this issue — with the aim of having an acceptable (“fully functional”) final implementation by December, and new compliant contracts definitely in place by January.

In further remarks about Facebook Jourova said her latest meeting with the company had been “constructive” but pointed to the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a “stark reminder that not many people have clarity on how Facebook uses personal data of its users and how it works with third parties like apps, games or quiz creators”.

“Not many people know that Facebook has made available their data to third parties or that, for instance, it holds full copyright about any picture or content you put on it even after you delete your account,” she continued, saying she had spoken to many Facebook users who were “very surprised” to learn the rights its ToS grant it over user data.

“So we want Facebook to be absolutely clear to its users about how the service operates and makes money. Facebook has almost 380M users in Europe and I expect Facebook to take more responsibility for them.”

“I expect also Facebook to be honest with those that go and try to understand all the consequences of using their services,” she added. “I will not hide that I am becoming rather impatient because we have been in dialogue with Facebook almost two years and I really want to see not a progress, it’s not enough for me, I want to see the results.”

Responding to Jourova’s remarks today, a Facebook spokesperson emailed us the following statement:

People share their most valued moments on Facebook, and we want to make our terms clear and accessible to everyone. We updated Facebook’s Terms of Service in May and included the vast majority of changes the Consumer Protection Cooperation Network and the European Commission had proposed at that point. Our terms are now much clearer on what is and what isn’t allowed on Facebook and on the options people have. We are grateful to the CPC and the Commission for their feedback and will continue our close cooperation to understand any further concerns and make appropriate updates.

At today’s press conference Jourova also raised the spectre of a regime of co-ordinated penalties for consumer rights violations coming down the pipe to strengthen enforcement, saying there’s a need for the EU to have “unified sanctions” (something it does now has for data protection violations, thanks to the GDPR).

Unified sanctions are included in the Commission’s new deal for consumers, which it adopted in April — and which is now on the table as a proposal for the other two EU institutions to consider and (the Commission hopes) support.

She said the proposal is “the package which should improve the enforcement of consumer rights in a very big scope”, adding: “I do hope that the European Parliament and the Member States will adopt the legislation or the position quickly so that we have this done as soon as possible in Spring next year.”

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Inside Facebook Dating, launching today first in Colombia

Does deeper data produce perfect matches? Facebook is finally ready to find out, starting today with a country-wide test in Colombia of its Dating feature. It’s centered around an algorithm-powered homescreen of Suggested romantic matches based on everything Facebook knows about you that other apps don’t. There’s no swiping and it’s not trying to look cool, but Facebook Dating is familiar and non-threatening enough to feel accessible to Facebook’s broad array of single users.

Originally announced at F8 in May, Facebook has hammered out details like limiting users to expressing interest in a maximum of 100 people per day, spotlighting personal questions as well as photos, and defaulting to show you friends-of-friends as well as strangers unless you only want to see people with no mutual connections. If the test goes well, expect Facebook to roll Dating out to more countries shortly as the social network pushes its mission to create meaningful connections and the perception that it can be a force of good.

“The goal of the team is to make Facebook simply the best place to start a relationship online” Facebook Dating’s product manager Nathan Sharp told me during an expansive interview about the company’s strategy and how it chose to diverge from the top dating apps. For starters, it’s not trying to compete with Tinder for where you find hookups by swiping through infinite options, but instead beat eHarmony, Hinge, or OKCupid at finding you a life partner. And it’s all about privacy, from its opt-in nature to how it’s almost entirely siloed from Facebook though lives within the same app.

“We wanted to make a product that encouraged people to remember that there are people behind the profiles and the cards that they’re seeing. We wanted a system that emphasizes consideration over impulse, We want you to consider more than that person’s profile photo.”

There are no plans to monetize Facebook Dating with ads or premium subscriptions to bonus features. But as Facebook strives to stay relevant beyond the aging News Feed and combat its branding crisis, there are plenty of incentives for it to find us a significant other.

How Facebook Dating Works…

“Dating is something we’ve seen on the platform since the earliest days. We know there are 200 million people who list themselves as single” says Sharp. He’s married himself but says with a laugh that Facebook Dating “is definitely a young and single team.” Back in 2004, online dating still had a sleazy reputation. But now that over a third of U.S. marriages start online, and Facebook has had time to identify the pitfalls stumbled into by other dating apps, it’s ready to pucker up.

The basic flow is that users 18 and up (or the local ‘Adult’ equivalent) will see a notice atop their News Feed inviting them to try Facebook Dating when it comes to their country, and they’ll see a shortcut in their bookmarks menu.

They’ll opt in, verify their city using their phone’s location services, and decide whether to add details like a free-form bio, workplace, education, religion, height, and if they have children. Facebook offers non-binary genders and sexual orientations. To fill out their profile, they’ll choose up to a dozen photos they upload, are tagged in, previously posted to Facebook, or cross-posted from Instagram as well as answer up to 20 questions about their personality such as “What does your perfect day look like?”

Users can select to filter their matches by distance (up to a maximum radius of 100 kilometers), if they have children, religion, height and age. They may then browse through the homescreen’s Suggested matches list, or they can choose to ‘Unlock’ Events and Groups they’re part of to see people from those who’ve done the same. Anyone you’ve blocked on Facebook won’t show up, though unfriended exs might. To see the next person, they either have to say they’re not interested, or choose a photo or question from the person’s profile and send them a message related to it (or at least they’re supposed to), and the sender can’t see the recipient any more.

The text and emoji-only messages go through a special Facebook Dating chat section, not Messenger, and land in the recipient’s Interested tab with no read receipts. If they reply, the chat moves to both people’s Conversations tab. From there they can decide to connect elsewhere online or meet up in person.

Sharp admits that “The moment you try to control the system you may have some unexpected behaviors occur there”. Facebook thought ahead so you can’t message photos (dick pics), you’re supposed to tie your message to a piece of their content (fewer generic pick-up lines), and you can’t follow up with people who don’t respond to you (stalking). But the company plans to stay vigilant in case unexpected forms of abuse or privacy issues emerge.

…And Why

Starting today users in Colombia will be able to create a Facebook Dating profile, but the company won’t start serving matches until there are enough sign ups. Sharp tells me “we don’t expect it to take months.” But why Colombia? He says it’s because much of South America has culturally accepted online dating, it has a sizeable population of 30 million monthly active Facebook users, and the social network can track data out of a few discrete metropolitan areas.

But there are a lot of other ‘whys’ to how Facebook Dating was built. Sharp ran me through the decision making process his team undertook to turn Facebook Dating from a concept into a concrete product. Here I’ll run through its rules and features while explaining the philosophy behind them.

  1. Meaningful relationships not one-night-stands, because “meaningful” is Facebook’s new watchword as it enters the ‘Time Well Spent’ era, and Facebook has the deep biographical and interest data to find you matches you’ll want to wake up next to each day, not just go to bed with.
  2. Opt-in not automatic enrollment, because “not everyone who’s single wants to date, not everyone who wants to date wants to date online, not everyone who dates online wants to date on Facebook” says Sharp.
  3. Within Facebook not a new app, because it lowers the barrier to behavior that’s already hard enough for some people, and it can only achieve its mission if people actually use it.
  4. Friends-of-friends and strangers not friends, because many people’s biggest fear is “are my friends and family going to see this” says Sharp, and people who are already friends don’t need help meeting and may already know if they want to date each other.
  5. A new profile not your same one, because some people might want to share a different side of themselves or might not publicly disclose their sexual orientation. The only info ported into Facebook Dating is your first name and age.
  6. Message and response not both people swiped right, because since Facebook wants you to be deliberate about who you show interest in, you have to send one message and hope to hear back. There’s no infinite right-swiping and then waiting get matched or messaged. “It puts the power in the responder” Sharp says.
  7. Profiles and chat are separate not part of Facebook, because it doesn’t want to scare users about privacy slip-ups, and doesn’t want people to pollute the main Facebook experience soliciting dates
  8. Real age and location not self-described, because Facebook wants to prevent catfishing as well as users contacting matches in distant cities who they’ll never meet.
  9. Matches through Events and Groups not randos, because a photo isn’t enough for choosing a life partner, interest overlaps are key to compatability, and they give people ready-mate happenings to use as dates.

A prototype of Facebook Dating’s onboarding flow

The end result is an online dating product that maximizes convenience, both in where it’s available and how much hunting you have to do by yourself. The big question remains how far Facebook will go to making Dating a hit. The feature could live or die by how much Facebook is willing to constantly nag its single users to sign-up.

Facebook’s in a precarious time for its brand, and may have trouble getting people to trust it with an even more sensitive part of their lives. “As all the events of the past year have unfolded, it’s only underscored the importance of privacy” Sharp concludes. No one wants their dating profile ending up Cambridge Analytica’d. But if analyzing your every Like and link gives Facebook uncanny matching accuracy, word could travel fast if it’s how people find their soul-mates.

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Facebook plans voter drive, partners with Democratic/Republican Institutes

Facebook will push users to register to vote through a partnership with TurboVote, has partnered with the International Republican Institute and International Democratic Institute non-profits to monitor foreign election interference, and will publish a weekly report of trends and issues emerging from its new political ads archive. Facebook has also confirmed that its election integrity war room is up and running and the team is now ‘red teaming’ how it would react to problem scenarios such as a spike in voter suppression content.

These were the major announcements from today’s briefing call between Facebook’s election integrity team and reporters.

Facebook’s voter registration drive will also partner with TurboVote, which Instagram announced yesterday will assist it with a similar initiative

Much of the call reviewed Facebook’s past efforts, but also took time to focus on the upcoming Brazilian election. There, Facebook has engaged with over 1000 prosecutors, judges, and clerks to establish a dialog with election authorities. It’s partnered with three fact-checkers in the country and worked with them on Messenger bots like “Fátima” and “Projeto Lupe” that can help people spot fake news.

The voter registration drive mirrors Instagram’s plan announced yesterday to work with TurboVote to push users to registration info via ads. Facebook says it will also remind people to vote on election day and let them share with friends that “I voted”. One concern is that voter registration and voting efforts by Facebook could unevenly advantage one political party, for instance those with a base of middle-aged constituents who might be young enough to use Facebook but not so young that they’ve abandoned it for YouTube and Snapchat. If Facebook can’t prove the efforts are fair, the drive could turn into a talking point for congressional members eager to paint the social network as biased against their party.

The partnerships with the Institutes that don’t operate domestically are designed “to understand what they’re seeing on the ground in elections” around the world so Facebook can move faster to safeguard its systems, says Facebook’s Director of Global Politics and Government Outreach Team Katie Harbath. Here, Facebook is admitting this problem is too big to tackle on its own. Beyond working with independent fact checkers and government election commissions, it’s tasking non-profits to help be its eyes and ears on the ground.

The war room isn’t finished yet, according to a story from the New York Times published in the middle of the press call. Still under construction in a central hallway between two of Facebook’s Menlo Park HQ buildings, it will fit about 20 of Facebook’s 300 staffers working on election integrity. It will feature screens showing dashboards about information flowing through Facebook to help the team quickly identify and respond to surges in false news or fake accounts.

Overall, Facebook is trying to do its homework so it’s ready for a “heat of the moment, last day before the election scenario” and won’t get caught flat-footed, says Facebook director of product management for News Feed Greg Marra. He says Facebook is “being a lot more proactive and building systems to look for problems so they don’t become big problems on our platform.” Facebook’s director of product management for Elections and Civic Engagement Samidh Chakrabarti noted, this is “One of the biggest cross-team efforts we’ve seen.”

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Telegram to replace iOS messaging app with Telegram X Swift rebuild

Telegram has announced it will be migrating iOS users of its messaging app to a rebuilt-from-scratch Swift version.

It’s been running two versions of its app in parallel on iOS and Android during 2018 — officially announcing Telegram X in January, when it billed it as an experiment and said the alternative app “may or may not eventually replace the existing official apps”.

Well, that maybe has now become a certainty — at least on iOS.

In a post on his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov says the company will be replacing the iOS app with the Swift rebuild “within the next week or two”.

“As a result, Telegram will become faster, slicker and more efficient,” he writes. “Since it will rely on an entirely new codebase, some minor bugs and glitches might occur, but we’ll make sure they are quickly — or should I say “swiftly” — fixed.”

“This change will make Telegram the most popular messaging app written fully in Swift. Some would say it’s a big risk, but I think somebody has to take such risks and be the first to implement new technologies, such as e2e [end-to-end] encryption — or Swift,” adds Durov.

At the time of writing, the original Telegram iOS app and the Telegram X rebuild are both currently still available for download in the App Store.

It’s not clear whether Telegram will also be entirely replacing the Android app with the Telegram X Android version (or not). Nor what the iOS switch will mean for Telegram users running the app on a version of Apple’s mobile OS that doesn’t support Swift apps (iOS 6 or earlier).

Telegram may well be calculating that only a very small few number of its iOS users are likely that far behind on iOS updates. (Whereas the Android ecosystem is far more fragmented.)

Also unclear: Whether or not Telegram plans to open source Telegram X code.

It has open sourced Telegram client-side code in the past but has also faced criticism for not immediately publishing the most recent versions and for not open sourcing server-side code. (Though in an FAQ it still makes the claim that: “All code will be released eventually.”)

We’ve reached out to the company with additional questions about the switch to Telegram X and will update this post with any response.

In the current App Store description for Telegram X the iOS app is billed as “an alternative Telegram client built in Swift, with higher speed, slicker animations, themes and more efficient battery use”.

The Swift rebuild, which has been available on the App Store since January, has a 4.0 (out of 5) star rating — with reviewers lauding its faster speed but also reporting a few bugs and/or complaining about some missing features.

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Instagram will promote mid-term voting with stickers, registration info

Facebook is getting ready to purposefully influence the U.S. mid-term elections after spending two years trying to safeguard against foreign interference. Instagram plans to run ads in Stories and feed powered by TurboVote that will target all US users over 18 and point them towards information on how to get properly registered and abide by voting rules. Then when election day arrives, users will be able to add an “I Voted” sticker to their photos and videos that link to voting info like which polling place to go to.

Combined, these efforts could boost voter turnout, especially amongst Instagram’s core audience of millenials. If one political party’s base skews younger, they could receive an advantage. “Ahead of National Voter Registration Day, we are helping our community register to vote and get to the polls on November 6th” Instagram writes. “From today, Instagram will connect US voters with the information they need to get registered.”

In 2010, a non-partisan “Get out the vote” message atop the Facebook News Feed was estimated to have driven 340,000 additional votes. The study by Nature suggested that “more of the 0.6% growth in turnout between 2006 and 2010 might have been caused by a single message on Facebook”. That’s significant considering the 2000 election had a margin of just 0.1 percent of voters.

You can watch Instagram’s video ads for voting below, which feature a cartoony purple Grimace character and are clearly aimed at a younger audience. They purposefully avoid any Democrat or Republican imagery, but also stick to a polished and American style that could ensure the clips aren’t mistaken for Russian propaganda.

Earlier this year, the company admitted that 120,000 Instagram posts by the Russian military intelligence group the Internet Research Agency reached 20 million Americans in an attempt to sow discord surrounding the 2016 Presidential election. They used a variety of image memes about polarizing social issues to try to divide the country. Facebook has since doubled its security staff to 20,000, required identity verification for political advertisers, and has stepped up its effort to delete scores of fake accounts associated with election interference.

The Russian disinformation attacks could still make users weary to learn about voting from social media. But more turnout means a more democratic society, so it’s easy to see the positive impact of Instagram efforts here. The question remains whether this voter drive will end up the subject of congressional scrutiny at another enevitable hearing on social media and political bias.

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Epic Content Marketing (Or, 5 Practical Ways to Write Epic Shit)

We hear often about the ever-decreasing attention span:

Millenials need 5 second ads to keep their attention.

The human attention span at 8 seconds, down 4 seconds since 2000.

We have less attention than goldfish.

Thankfully, we know that’s complete garbage for two reasons:

  1. The BBC thoroughly debunked it.

  2. We need only look in the mirror to know it’s a false premise.

For example, I stayed up until 1AM, reading The Name of the Wind for three straight hours last night.

I watched almost all of Master of None in one sitting.

I would argue that attention spans are greater than they’ve ever been.

The only thing that has changed, and will continue to change, is the democratization of what we consume. It’s the reason that nobody reads listicles any more.

The moment that something sucks, we move on.

If we want our content, the message that we most desire to share with the world, to be the signal amongst the noise…

We need to create epic shit.

Write Epic Shit.

Film Epic Shit.

Record Epic Shit.

WHY You Need to Create Epic Shit

In 2011, Corbett explained why we need to write epic shit:

“In every conversation I’ve had with wildly successful entrepreneurs and bloggers about building website traffic, promotional tactics only make up 20% of our talks. So, what is the other 80% of building a popular site about? Building a raving audience online all starts with writing epic shit. Period. Hands down. End of story.”

But not everybody agrees.

“I don’t care if you’re an artist, consultant, main-street business owner or Fortune 500 marketing executive, it’s the every day grind of content creation that gets us to the Promise Land…

…not one piece of Epic content.” – Ryan Hanley

Here’s something we can all agree on: there’s a massive amount of stuff on the internet.  With 400+ hours of video going live on YouTube ever minute, 80+ million photos posted to Instagram every day, and Google + Facebook is the internet if you’re my mom.

You could literally never consume all this content, not in a thousand lifetimes. So if we want to stand out, we have to be the signal amongst the noise. What noise?

400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.

80 million photos are posted to Instagram every day.

3.8 million tweets went out in one weekend at Coachella.

There is so much content, we’re almost drowning in it.

If you want to stand out, you better be the first to tell a story (unlikely) or just the best to tell it.


So what is it? Rand Fishkin calls this kind of content “10X content” and says it:

  • Provides a uniquely positive user experience through the user interface, visuals, layout, fonts, patterns, etc.
  • Delivers content that is some substantive combination of high-quality, trustworthy, useful, interesting, and remarkableIs considerably different in scope and detail from other works on similar topics.
  • Loads quickly and is usable on any device or browser.
  • Creates an emotional response of awe, surprise, joy, anticipation, and/or admiration.
  • Has achieved an impressive quantity of amplification (through shares on social networks and/or links).
  • Solves a problem or answers a question by providing comprehensive, accurate, exceptional information or resources.

For bloggers and content creators like Matt Giovanisci, it’s “creating a one-stop-shop for solving a particular problem […] on one web page [that has] all the information you need in an easy-to-read format with lots of visual aid and downloadables.”


If we really want to approach epic content and marketing it in the smartest possible way, I think it comes down to evaluating our own skillsets (how can you best promote things and what are your unfair advantages), as well as looking at how the best of the best do it. (Also, yes I gave each of these names, haha).

1. The “Regular Human” (What 99% of People Should Do)

This is a quick breakdown of a process that I shared with the Creative Class community of how creatives and freelancers can use SEO to not only get more clients, but better serve their existing clients.

My favorite metric to report on is something like this:

We’re professionals, we’re freelancers, not media companies. We don’t want eyeballs and advertising clicks.

I love SEO because it has a compounding effect. You’re building assets, not just momentary spikes of traffic and interest.  

A. Find Your Focus

But Brendan, how is this going to help me with SEO?

It’s going to inform exactly what you should be writing about.

The pitfall here with finding your focus is going too broad or too narrow, let me explain.

B. Write Something

Top articles rank for 1k+ keywords so one keyword volume is a bad estimate.

More content = more keywords = more traffic

But, what Do I Write About?

First, should I write for my clients or my peers? The short answer is: both. In most of our spaces, we’re way more likely to get links from our peers than our clients. We’ll talk more about why links matter shortly. Here’s a few of my go-to resources for finding topics to write about:

  • Quora
  • Reddit (especially sub-reddits related to your topic)
  • Answer The Public
  • Google and YouTube autosuggest
  • Ahrefs content explorer
  • Google’s Adwords keyword planner (Note: This tool uses yearly average searches and are not very accurate.  Ahrefs, for example, uses adwords and clickstream to produce their numbers.)

But, how Do I Optimize My Content?

If it’s matching the intent of a searcher, you’re most of the way there.

For example, most people think it has to do with keywords, but can you imagine reading an article about the history of Chicago where every other word is “history” or “Chicago?”  Conversely, can you imagine reading an article about that topic where they never use that word or phrase?

Both are terrible options.

The best answer is to use Yoast in WordPress and make it have a green light. It’s a great basic tool and gets you 90% of the way there.

Even more simply, make sure what you’re talking about is in your URL, Title, Headline, and Content

Advanced on-page SEO has little to nothing to do with how successful your work is.  You need to show you’re an authority on what you’re writing.

Here’s how we get that authority…

C. Share Something

Less than 6% of pages get to the first page of Google in a year. To show Google you’re enough of an authority to get on the first page, you’ll need links pointing to your content.

Links (also known as backlinks) are one of the top ranking signals outside of the content itself.

Do I really need links? Yes, for anything related to what you do, you will need links for two reasons:

  1. There are lots of others doing what you’re doing and writing about you’re doing.
  2. They do have links (or they will).

How to Get Links to Your Content:

This might sound over-simplified (and a repeat of what you’ve already read), but start by creating something that gets links.

People like to link to and share content that:

  • Makes them look smart
  • Is helpful
  • Provides a reason for an emotion that they’re feeling
  • Teaches totally new things
  • Explains remarkable things
  • Tells a great story

20% in writing and 80% in promoting. This does not mean 1 day writing and 4 days promoting. This means one month writing and 4 months promoting. Yes, I’m really recommending that you reach out to other people who would find value in what you’ve made for four months.

D. Don’t Quit

The best way to get links is to provide value. Sometimes it works out differently (a fan will reach out to somebody you’d like a link from and it’ll happen), but that’s 100% not going to happen for most of us so let’s not rely on that.

We have to write for other people.

Pitch other sites that accept guest posts.

Pitch publications that our clients would read (here’s a brilliant article from Kaleigh Moore on this).

And, most importantly, don’t quit.

Jason Zook has produced more content than anybody reading this article (he made one blog post and video per day for three years).

You will get better. I promise. Just don’t stop.

2. The “Professional” – By ME

This method is called the “professional.” What you’re reading is what I do for a living.

Sort of.

I’m not some sort of SEO ninja/guru/rockstar, but SEO is what I do professionally and everything that I do, including writing this very article, is based on that very specific area of expertise.

The reason that I think of writing epic shit as a core value of successful SEO is that we want to create content as assets that stack on top of eachother.  Not only do we get the “spike of hope” in a small traffic boost as soon as a new post is published (often via social shares or an email blast):

Instead of seeing the “flatline of nope” that often follows, we’ll see continued traffic building over time into a rising slope.

(Ok, I’m clearly struggling with that “rising slope” rhyme.)

Below, I’m going to lay out the process of how I think about writing epic content for myself and for clients.  Honestly, when it comes to SEO, if you aren’t trying to make the best thing on the internet, don’t bother.

Here’s how I do that.

  1. I create a master list of topics we can write about.
  2. Look up the amount of people that search for that topic each month using Ahrefs.
  3. Look at what the current landscape is for top-ranking content. (Can I create something better?)
  4. Look for link opportunities in that area.
  5. Create a list of influencers and popular sites that are interested in the content.
  6. Assess and analyze the possibility of ranking in the top 3 for that article’s content.
  7. Get input from other influencers and thought leaders (often, in the form of quotes) before even starting to write the content.
  8. Start crafting content that meets the above criteria.

1. Create a Master List of Topics I Can Write About

You’d be mistaken to think that this process starts with me just writing down a ton of random topics and ideas that I think will bring in traffic. These topics also have to meet business goals for the website that’s publishing them, whether they’re a client of mine, or my own site. In the case of Fizzle, the content needs to grow their email list and increase Fizzle membership.

Below, I’ll outline how I went through this process for a post that I wrote about starting a photography business, but I firmly believe this process can be replicated across every possible topic and niche, not just business. For me, this met the business goals of growing my email list and bringing in traffic that would be likely to buy a digital product around starting their photography business. Check and check.

2. Look At How Many Searches Per Month There Are Across Top Keywords

You can use a lot of different tools for this from free tools like Google’s Adwords Keyword Planner or my favorite, Ahrefs.

Here’s Google’s Keyword Planner:

Now take that, compared to Ahrefs:

Ahrefs is definitely better, but at $100+ per month, you get a lot of value from Google’s Adwords tool for free.

One of the fast ways I’ve found to generate a lot of keyword ideas (this also tells you the best things to include in your content), is to use the Google and YouTube autosuggest features, like this:

3. Can I Create Better Content Than This?

I’ll do a few Google searches for the main ideas around this topic and thanks to Google, a master of synonyms, I’ll likely see the same articles over and over. I open each of these in new tabs and start breaking down the quality of the articles to see what I can do that will give my work a unique angle.

  • Can I add a case study or a walkthrough?
  • Can I pull in more outside data or, better yet, generate new data points to add value (likely, via survey)?
  • Can I improve the design?
  • Can I apply a new angle or theory to this (typically stale) topic?

If I can do more than one of these, that’s a huge green light for me.

4. Can We Get Links to This Content?

As much as I’d love to create content in a niche that is such low-hanging fruit that nobody has any links to their content, that’s often a big DANGER sign for me.

If there aren’t any links pointing to the top content, it’s unusual that I’ve discovered a completely new niche. In a perfect scenario, I want to see links pointing to the top content, just not too many. Like this:

I’ll take a look at what links they have and where they’re coming from to assess if I can get the same links or better links from more authoritative websites.  Also, I want to know why they got the links. Is the content great or was it just written ages ago and it’s been the only “go-to” source for so long that it’s earned some links.

5. Will Influencers Share or Link to My Content?

I haven’t always seen the value of influencers versus “sites I can get links from,” but I’ve radically changed my thinking in this area for two reasons:

  1. Sites are run by humans. It’s more fun to make friends with humans than trying to score a link from a website.
  2. When you have an actual relationship with somebody, you’ll get infinitely more ROI than just trying to score a link and never speaking to somebody again.

I love to use Ahrefs “Top Referring Content” for all of the sites currently ranking because those sites not only link to the current top content, but are also growing and active.

Once my content goes live, I’ll follow my own proprietary outreach method.  I think I do email outreach quite a bit differently than most people (I prefer quality outreach over quantity), but if you want to learn more about how to share you content with others (without being a spammer), this is a great guide.

It’s “old hat” in the marketing space to mention influencers in your articles and later reach out for them to share it, but it still works wonders in almost every niche. I highly recommend it, especially if you use the tactic that I’ll recommend shortly.

6. Can we rank in the top three for this?

The vast majority of clicks from organic search go to the top 3 search results:

So my goal is always to get my content in front of as many people as possible. The quality of the content matters the most, and links help as well. But, there are a few more things to consider when I assess whether or not we can get into the top spot:

  • Did I write epic shit? Or just more shit?
  • Can I share this content without feeling like a snake oil salesman?
  • If I got this sent to me, would I link to it?
  • Are the top rankings sites on really high-authority domains? Even without their high authority, can I outrank them?

If I can answer yes, to all four of these, I’ll proceed to the next step.

7. Get Input From Influencers

Finally, I take my list of influencers and start reaching out to them (typically via Twitter). This helps me in two ways:

  1. It makes my content more epic by including quotes from people that I respect.
  2. It involves influencers in the content, making them more likely to share it (or link to it) later on.

A big mistake I see many new content creators making is thinking of this strategy as a traffic strategy (“I wrote about you, PLZ RT!”), when it’s actually a content strategy (number one, above).

If I can gather a number of quotes from people that I’m stoked to get a quote from, I know I’m on the right track because they’re as psyched about the premise of the article as I am. (And now you know how all of these tweets got in this article!)

For example, here’s a few more people I respect sharing what they think about when writing epic shit:

By focusing on this thought process, it’s no wondering that Barrett contributed such high-level content to Fizzle and now produces a monthly magazine at Convertkit called “Tradecraft.”

One of the articles that Kaleigh is referencing is also one that I share quite often and did so above!  (Also, if you want to be a better writer, you should read her newsletter).

Quick Tip: Want to see if your content is going to be evergreen? Drop the topic into Google Trends. Using that, we can easily see why Kaleigh’s article continues to get more and more traffic over time:

And finally, remember that we’re not just talking about writing. As Margo (the owner of my favorite homepage header photo + copy ever) mentions below we’re talking about video and audio as well.

And one more tip from Jason:

And you might be thinking, “So I’ve done all the above steps, now what?”

No, no, no padawan. You’ve missed the point.

I do all of these steps BEFORE I start writing.

Very often, I don’t write an article because I got held up midway through this process.

But, please realize that my way is not the only way.  I wanted to include a few more voices, the next of which you’re quite familiar with.

3. The “Think Traffic” – Corbett Barr

The way that Corbett has, seemingly, always thought about epic content is interesting to me. Instead of external research, he advises we look inward:

“What have you been holding back from your readers, because if they found out they’d think you were an impostor?

What are you not writing about because you’re afraid of what your mom or spouse or family will think?

What have you written about recently to try and “fit in” with a certain group of people? Is that how you really felt, or did you write it just to be accepted?” – Corbett Barr

For Corbett, this was the “18 Months Manifesto” that he was terrified to publish. I think you, reading this (and me, writing this) are intimidated by what almost held him back: being thought of as a jerk for bragging about his income or being thought of as a loser for not accomplishing that income level faster.

In another classic post from Think Traffic, Greg Ciotti of Sparring Mind lays out a similarly structure 7-step framework that I think it helpful when we think about marketing epic content:

  1. Find Discontent & Solve It To Perfection
  2. Don’t Be Afraid to Generate Outrage
  3. Give People a Place to Start
  4. Take Readers for a Journey
  5. Leave People with a Game Plan
  6. Make Content that Keeps You Up at Night
  7. People Love Secrets, Inside Looks, and Exclusives

4. The “SEO Impossible” – Matt Giovanisci

Matt and I definitely differ over how we think about traffic and SEO (so much so we made a recording of us chatting about it as a bonus for his SEO course), but one thing we are 100% aligned in is how we think about content.

As a designer, Matt’s top focus is always making the most epic content possible on a given topic and trust, over time, that the best content will rise to the top of Google without needing intentional link-building.  Here’s how he sets out to create his own take on epic shit:

A. Gather Data

Similar to me, Matt does an insane amount of research to cover every aspect of the topic that he’s writing about.  Also in a similar fashion, he reads every single article on the first page of Google for the topic and starts taking notes in Google Docs (I use Airstory).

B. Outline Everything

Next, Matt creates an outline.  One of the biggest mistakes that most bloggers and content creators make when looking to create something epic is they start without a plan.  By creating an outline, we’re able to (somewhat) make sure that our work flows from beginning to end.

C. Write & Edit

Once everything is outlined and his research is complete, the next step for Matt is to start writing. He creates tasks in Asana for each of his topics and subtopics and just starts writing.  Matt edits as he goes, but also goes back to revise multiple times before (and after) publishing.  If you want your content to remain epic, it’s worth revisiting it a few times per year to improve it.  For Matt, “epic shit” is synonymous with “timeless.”

D. Design All of the Things

At his core, Matt is a designer (and an amazing one, in my opinion).  All of his content is designed in a very clear and thoughtful way.  Whenever you have long-form content, making it as easy to consume as possible is a necessity.

E. Promote and Share?

Wait, Brendan, I thought you said Matt didn’t do this?  Well, he does, but only for a jumpstart.  Matt’s style isn’t to cram it down people’s throats until they start linking to it and sharing it.

This is one of the big reasons that I want to share multiple approaches to creating epic shit.  You don’t have to do it my way, or Matt’s, or even Joanna’s, who created the web app that I’m writing this on just to help people create epic shit.

5. The “Copy Hacker” – Joanna Wiebe

The “copy hacker” method of creating epic shit is heavily research-focused.

Whenever you’re writing a definitive guide to something or creating the ultimate piece of content on a topic, you’re going to need to research and cite your sources.

Hey look, here’s me writing this exact section. You can see on the left how I keep track of my sources.

When I’m pulling in as many sources as I possibly can, I also want the reader to be able to learn more from content on my site, but also from others. I realize how extremely meta this is, but here’s how Joanna thinks about this:

Your pulling in 100+ data points and citing each one with links, with quotation marks around the quotes, doing all that kind of stuff so people have the reaction that is, “Wow, there’s a lot of research in here.” Like where they look at it like it is a source to refer back to again and again because it’s so well cited. That’s what you want. You do not want to hide your source material. You want to make sure people notice it. – Joanna Wiebe

After we’ve got our research together, Joanna looks to start crafting it into a post that people actually give a shit about and want to share.  Don’t spend 2 hours on a content upgrade to #BuildYourList because #TheMoneyIsInTheList or whatever.

The reason this is called the “copy hacker” method is because Joanna’s primary expertise is in copywriting, so she always starts with a traditional copywriting formula:

  1. Problem
  2. Agitation
  3. Solution

Next, Joanna starts to think about how to turn that formula, traditionally used to sell things, into writing about something that people will want to read and share. 

  1. A why → something you and your reader both care about

  2. A personal story – story is built around conflict

  3. 100+ data points from 15+ sources

  4. A way to pull it together (this is the narrative that you set throughout)

(Aside: Notice something familiar about the way this article is formatted? A why, my story, Corbett’s story, tons of research, and a narrative? Now you know where I learned it.)

Before you write off this technique as only for extremely long-form content, Joanna also has a really smart framework for putting together epic shit:

  1. Let a recent (problem-based) event in your life inspire you

  2. Do a few hours of research into how others have tried to solve your problem

  3. Organize your research notes

  4. Organize those notes in an outline

  5. Stitch the notes together, section by section

  6. Do additional ad-hoc research to fill in the gaps

  7. Write the introduction and conclusion (tie the conclusion to your product or offering)

Wiebe focuses a bit more heavily on the writing, but I think is extremely helpful because it continues a thread that we’ve seen throughout of solving a real problem that you and people you care about are trying to solve.

Solving those kind of problems is difficult (at best) and, even if creating this article, I found this tip from Joanna extremely helpful:

“Does putting the research first solve the writer’s block problem when finding an angle for a blog post?” Yeah. That is what I have heard ever since … I don’t know. Maybe I was 18, whatever it was. Somebody once wrote that the cure for writer’s block is research. – Joanna Wiebe

4 Examples of Epic Content Marketing

“When I first started my blog, it was pathetic. I was writing 500-word blog posts on “how to budget” and “how to invest money. With 500 words, you’re not gonna get a lot of information you’re not gonna get very deep on where those topics are. So, eventually, I started writing epic blog posts that were two thousand three thousand sometimes four to five thousand words” – Jeff Rose in an interview with Noah Kagan

I’ve sprinkled in a few examples of epic content throughout this article, but what’s best to think about here is there are levels to this.

Don’t be overwhelmed because you can’t create the level of shit that you want to, at first.

But also don’t let that hold you back.  Below, I’ll give you four examples of epic content that will provide a bit of a stepladder for you to follow as you start making content that people give a shit about; content that just might change the world.

Totally Practical (Level 1 Epic)

Title: Azul Fives Weddings: The Ultimate Guide to Photos, Packages, Costs, and Locations

Word Count: 5,700+

Why it’s epic shit: Vincent van den Berg is a destination wedding photographer in Mexico.  He realized that he kept getting the same questions over and over about a venue that he photographs often.  In fact, there are so many questions form brides that there is even a Facebook group that some brides (who’ve now been married for years) put together so that they could help answer questions.  I helped Vincent put together the ultimate guide answering every single question that a bridge might have about the venue and giving his best advice.  You’ll notice, we used a framework very similar to the “Copy Hacker” method above by beginning with a problem and personal story.

This level of epic shit is totally attainable for you.  It will take time, and it will take effort. But, like Vincent, you’ll be rewarded for the effort by helping those you care about and attract new readers, customers, and clients to your site.

Maybe Possible  (Level 2 Epic)


Word Count: 6000+

Why it’s epic shit: Remember, a high word count isn’t necessary for writing epic shit. There are tweets (❤ like this one ❤) that get more views and shares (and change the world more) than any piece of content that I’ll ever create.

Roughly one year ago, I was asked to lead the SEO team at Clique Studios and immediately noticed that there was a huge disconnect in the RFP process (where a potential client sends out an RFP (request for proposal) to an agency.  So I worked with one of the partners Clique to created this piece of content that would look to actually improve how the RFP process works.

We heavily researched every possible thing that people were searching for related to sending out RFPs and made sure they were included, but what resonates most with the article’s readers has been the human voice that we wrote it in. They feel like we’re inside their head because we’ve explained that we understand exactly where they’re coming from as a user searching for information on RFPs.

Wow, Now THAT is Epic Content (Level 3 Epic)


Word Count: 7,073

Why it’s epic shit: This is the level of epic that you might need help putting together. This took Mailshake’s co-founder and their team 6+ months to put together and, in the end, was well worth the effort (it’s generated $100k+ in income).  I personally discovered this playbook while looking to improve my own cold email outreach, something that is easy to do (it’s as hard as sending an email), but really hard to do well.  The guide not only solves the problem, but does so in a way that is engaging

Insanely Epic Content (Level 4 Epic)

Title: GrowthLab’s Ultimate Guide to Starting an Online Business

Word Count: 18,432

Why it’s epic shit: This is basically one third of a book. It might change your life. For free. On the internet.

Most Insane Epic Level 99 Content (Level 99 Epic)

Title: How to Pick a Career (That Actually Fits You) – Wait But Why

Word Count: 16,637

Why it’s epic shit:

Urban also creates analogies for every single thing he’s trying to explain. For example, the “Yearning Octopus” that outlines exactly what we want out of life and our career:

and he doesn’t just say that you need to get to know yourself better before deciding on your career, but explains the exact process you’ll go through and illustrates all of the idiosyncrasies within:

Honestly, You Have No Excuses Now…

I know that most people reading this will see it as a neat post with a few ideas, but for the true Fizzlers out there that don’t want their business and passion to slowly fade away into the ether, I know you see it a bit differently.

Like Corbett’s original article, it’s a call to arms BUT also a step-by-step walkthrough.

You have no excuse for your next article to be epic in one way or another.

Create something amazing after reading this? Link it up in the comments below. I’ll read every single one. 🙂

from Fizzle
via My Media Pal NYC