Serial Magic – How to Tell a Great Story Even When you Don’t Really Have One

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Unless you’ve been detained in isolation at a Maryland correctional facility for the past six months, you’ve heard of the popular podcast from NPR’s This American Life called “Serial.”

As a marketer, the phenomenon around the Serial podcast is interesting. Here’s a format, the podcast, that’s been around as long as the Internet itself, but has just now achieved broad acceptance. I don’t need the numbers to know that Serial is likely one of, if not the, most popular, shared and talked-about podcasts to date. But, while I’m focusing on the format, there are other aspects that made Serial great, the least of which is the story the podcast is based on.

As much as I love a good story, and we’ve all been challenged with having to tell a lackluster story, if you really look inside this one, the story isn’t that great. I can get a better story watching Dateline or even the Bachelor. If you’re not familiar, Serial is about a homicide that took place in 1999. The key suspect, who was ultimately found guilty, sits in prison in Maryland serving a life sentence. The narrator, a journalist, retraces the activities through the present-day testimony and historical evidence of the trial, with commentary from the convicted, unfolding the evidence before the listener week by week, giving us all an opportunity to be judge and jury in our own heads. It’s not a unique story, but everything else about the story works.

What Worked

  • The Series – Starting from the beginning of the night in question, all the way through the trial, challenging assumptions, recreating scenes and even uncovering new evidence week by week, episode by episode is a way to really draw people in. I, like many, came to the Serial party late, which gave me a chance to engage in America’s new favorite pastime – binge watching/listening to catch up on all of the episodes. And, there they all were – neatly organized for me on my iPhone in the Podcast app.
  • The Psychology – This water-tourture effect of dripping out just enough content to get you hooked and anticipating the next episode is what makes a great series addictive. A testimony here, a new piece of evidence there, and suddenly you’re hooked.
  • The Target Audience – The audience for podcasts like Serial tend to skew slightly older, making it an interesting medium to deliver content to a specific demographic. Given the characteristics of the audience, they also tend to be more educated and predisposed to stories that challenge their understanding or assumptions – like assuming that the convicted in this case is somehow a sociopath who is deceiving the narrator and all of us.
  • The Format – The type of story that can be delivered in this format typically needs to be consumed by an audience that appreciates the longer format and is likely engaged in another activity while they’re listening to a podcast – on a plane, train or in an automobile.
  • The Shareability – I initially learned of Serial from the lady next to me on a plane. In less than a minute, I was downloading the first episode as our conversation continued. It’s the culmination of the previous aspects of Serial that compelled this stranger to encourage another to get into the experience.

There are any number of other stories that can be told in this format. Given the captive audience that typically listen to this type of programming, the podcast lends itself well to any story that unfolds over time. That contains specific key elements of a good story, including key characters, conflict and a clear timeline of events. A good story also compels others to share or co-create. If you’re a fan of Serial, you’ve likely seen the Reddit thread where fans deconstruct the evidence and offer new theories. Even SNL has done a parody of the podcast, featuring Amy Adams.

For more on the insights from Serial, this Boston Globe article is a good overview.

In the end, good content has to be interesting enough to grab attention and compelling enough to share. Serial has all of this in spades.

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Guest Post – Emerging Television: Social TV and Participatory Psychology

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By: Zachary Weiner

Director of Global Marketing, Never.no

Co-founder, Connected TV Marketing Association

Understanding the true nature of Social TV and Participatory television is a lot less about technology and a lot more about psychology and sociology than most folks tend to realize or evangelize upon. Reading the media lately, we hear a lot about differing Social TV trends that whilst all true are lacking a very crucial understanding of the  behavioral background needed to capitalize upon these trends, which we’ll touch upon here (You lucky devils). 

At never.no (www.never.no) we’re looking into the emerging TV landscape holistically with respect to technology, media and psychology. It’s been brought to the TV industry’s attention that social media coupled with television watching increases viewer attention and engagement. Understanding why this is however, can allow those in the TV business to greatly take further advantage of these consumer behaviors. In what could  be hundreds of psychological correlations explored, I will simply highlight two I’d love to focus on, in order to further define and expand upon the notion that social interaction coupled with Television creates immensely  enhanced audience engagement and retention. 

Focused yet divided Attention: One reason multi-screen attention can create engagement:
In a study  conducted by Muller in 2003, findings proved that individuals can divide their attention between two compelling sources of visual  focus. Attention will shift between these two sources within half a second and the brain is still allowed enough time to be cognizant and involved with both. When this attention is divided by these two however, many other elements and stimuli that one might typically focus upon, no longer become relevant or even brought into consciousness. The person in the other room, that meatball sandwich in the fridge, the birds chirping outside, whatever it might be is easily ignored.

So when we engage television watchers, with not just programming on one screen, but also a correlated  visual task on another, whether it’s a synchronized companion application or a social call to action, we allow those viewers to have their attention span divided into the same core focus. This forced selective attention on two different yet correlated items creates a far greater level of engagement without distraction. Everything else without an incredibly compelling call to action. I.E. The pizza guy ringing the doorbell, or a significant other yelling to clean the dishes gets totally tuned out. (See, psychology can be fun.)

Lesson learned: By activating a synchronized companion to TV whether it’s participatory or social, we allow viewers to tune out many other potentially distracting elements around them. We create engagement sans distraction. The permutations of what we can do with this knowledge to further activate participation and interaction are nearly endless.

Group TV engagement begets larger groups and furthers audience retention and interaction
How we act as a group and how we act as individuals are two very separate items that have been the focus of copious behavioral research. One basic component of Social Identity Theory tells us that when we we are in group setting, we often follow, copy or mimic the behaviors of other group members. In the twitter/social media/TV sphere, this means that people who watch what we are watching may become  part of our perceived group, and as such, we often follow their lead on interaction and behavior. We may even mimic their thoughts and actions.

This concept is greatly tied in to the concept social proof, which for all terms and purposes, means that when making decisions, whether it’s what to watch, or how engaged we become, we rely on our social circles. We do this in order to resolve personal insecurities. The point here is that by creating large group behaviors, by creating social groups offline or online, we further the potential for new watchers to come onboard or old watchers to become more engaged. When we create groups around TV programming, we create followers and participators, who beget more followers and participators. Something all in the TV biz should be striving for. A domino effect of active watchers.

Perhaps you may be  thinking that a few tweets for instance are too small an event to influence social behavior.  A study by Taifel  (Tajfel et al., 1971)  proved that people standing together at a painting for 30 seconds could spark group trends and behaviors. Reading a variety of tweets can certainly cause a lot longer and more intensive interaction than a simple .30 seconds.

Lesson learned: 
There are some incredibly robust ways to create groups of watchers around each other. When we give them compelling tasks to participate or interact further with, more people will go ahead, watch and interact as well. The greater we can solidify this group presence the greater potential.  More viewers who are engaged= greater revenue possibilities and increased loyalty.

How we capitalize on these most basic psychological factors are nearly endless when we start to consider  the multitude of further implications. The moral of the story is that when we can create social behaviors that tie in multiple screens, we can create further engagement and retention. When we engage participatory actions that can be followed by a group we enhance the content experience and spread it.  There is much more to discuss here, but I will leave that for another Never.no post on the subject!

Follow more of Zach’s posts on the Never.no blog.

Photo credit: by DigitalBob8 on Flickr; used under Creative Commons.

Social TV: Twitter and NBC Curate the Olympic Spirit

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Twitter has officially  announced a new partnership with US television network NBC   to curate millions of Olympic Tweets from athletes, their families and fans.  It’s the latest in the growing wave of Social TV activities brands and television networks are warming up to.

While much of the attention for marrying television programming and social networks is heating up, the potential has been there from the beginning.  In 2009, I sat in a conference room with Twitter’s Biz Stone and a few AT&T colleagues.  We were on a tour of San Francisco start-ups to find a way to connect the technologies of these new companies with the platform and reach of a global brand.  As we sat in the room brainstorming ways the two brands could work together, I mentioned how social media was making it harder for me to time-shift my television viewing.  I no longer wanted to record programs like the Grammy’s or sporting events to skip the commercials because the online (on Twitter) discussion I could have with my social graph made enduring the commercials more practical.

As a major sponsor of the upcoming college basketball tournament at the time, we saw the potential for that television event, which took place throughout the month of March, to curate the online fan conversation.  We knew fans would be out in numbers on Twitter sharing their support for their teams.  With development help from one of Twitter’s partners, we sketched out the user interface, identified the keywords to pull into the feed and launched the curation platform in time for the tournament.

While visits to the site were strong for the time, they would likely not stand up to the numbers on Twitter today. There have been more than a few changes in that platform and the use of social media since we launched what was Twitter’s first entrance into a sponsored Social TV experiment and one of its first paid efforts.  The volume of people on Twitter and in social channels as a whole has reached critical mass.  Familiarity with social media queues – like hashtags displayed during programming denoting an action that takes place online but ties to the content viewed on television. And, brand and network willingness to push into these new places where consumers are congregating and dialing into the connected conversation that’s happening online.

While our Social TV experiment with Twitter in 2009 was just an experiment, it’s an example of the need for brands to push beyond what’s popular today and into new areas of innovation.  There’s an overwhelming need for brands to have proof of concept and understand all of the variables before they experiment.  With the speed at which social adoption is taking place, there’s a need to push beyond the mediocrity that’s growing in the fundamental social and digital space and look at new ways to innovate in a way that might take brands outside of their comfort zone.  It’s in that zone that deeper connections can be made and true innovation happens.

(Post originally appeared July 25, 2012 on the Never.no blog.)

(Photo credit: by dhammza used under Creative Commons.)

GUEST POST: Blendable Reality: New Formats to move above and beyond Social TV

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By: Zachary Weiner

Director of Global Marketing, Never.no

Co-founder, Connected TV Marketing Association

This is another piece I’m syndicating straight from the Never.no blog, who is leading the Social TV and “Blendable Reality” space. 

If Content is king and data is queen, surely interaction and socialization must be the twin princes of the television royal family.  I’m not yet making an interlude into anything even digital related, but expressing a truth that has been around for decades, way before the ‘Social TV’ phenomenon we know and love today.

We’ve always been driven to heighten our interaction with entertainment. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, He-man, Alf, anyone? (I was an 80’s child). We bought these toys of our favorite TV shows so that we could deepen our interaction. People used to talk about Seinfeld and Friends at work, and nowadays still talk  about the latest episode of Glee, or game of thrones around the water cooler (and twitter). We’ve voted for our favorite idol via text, simply because we wanted to interact .While Nietzsche may have believed the world is a will to power, I think at the least, the world is a will to participate and television is certainly a ringing endorsement of this thought. Sure, we want a lean back experience, but often a lean back experience where we get to be involved. 

This is my segue into the digital. Today’s versions of TV interaction and TV socialization make participating not just something easy, but something that can be robust, seamless and endemic to the programming. A lot of the industry will use the term “Social TV” to describe modern day television socialization, but  many others will state that the term is completely  redundant. TV is social. I prefer to think of most emerging TV formats asa differing term; “Blendable Reality.” A diverse array of methods to blend lean back television content, with our own personal realities encompassing multiple paths to engagement . 

So rather than wax lyrically on the philosophical and make this another opinion piece, lets discuss what is possible and take two formats on how we can blend TV with reality in a participative fashion.  This post was influenced by utilizing enhanced TV technology platforms such as  never.no (www.never.no) 

Choose your own ending:  For decades we have been able to  orchestrate television programming that broadcasts live and straight into the homes of audiences. With further tech enablement we can now allow those same audiences to reach back into the studio or set with their digital fingertips in real time.  This format allows us to base elements of the show on real-time feedback. 

While we often see some very mild and simple versions of voting and polling, imagine the potential of diverse programming formats that lets those same audiences vote to choose the best ending instantly. 

  • Vote to see which two politicians should go head to head on a question.
  • Vote to see which game show contestant should be selected or dismissed.
  • Which sports star do you want to see more clips of? Let the at-home audience decide. 
  • Which news story should we feature tonight?  Tweet us and let us know.   
  • Do you want to see X reality star take train 1 or train 2? Choose now and watch your results instantly.  

This is true participatory television and it‘s easily orchestrated. Why settle for “reality TV” when we can shoot for “choose your own reality TV“?  Television where we have the will, the way and the technology to actually allow those at home to influence it in real time and participate live.  

We can engineer the endings of programming based on audience choice and rather than base TV on assumptions. We can actually give the audience exactly what they want in unique ways and the above examples barely scratch the surface. 

Television that Reaches out to the individual rather than the masses:

As discussed above, television has typically been a one to many format. This has worked well, but it can be even better. Why not allow television to reach out to both the masses as well as  home audiences on a one to one basis?  By reaching out to viewers in a personal way we can heighten viewer retention, interaction and loyalty. 

  • Text/tweet/FB/MMS now to enter a live contest. 
  • Can you beat this celebrity in a game of trivia?  We’ll pick your answer from our social audiences.  
  • “The next 5 tweets we display live will win a chance to join our next show”. 

We can pick specific individuals at home to play along live with linear TV. We can allow home audiences to add their own content.  With interactive second screens we can even reward individuals for their participation. Be the first to send us an MMS of you holding a can of Coke (or other branded beverage) and we’ll fly you out to meet the cast. (Had to throw an Ad integration in there…it’s what I know) 

We’ll go deeper into these formats some time, but the fact of the matter is that Social TV is already an old term. Creating new forms to enhances the current methodology however, is young, on the cusp and ready to be integrated.  Now. 

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Image by cookbookman17 and used under creative commons.

Television – The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated


Talk of television’s demise has circled since the Internet gained prominence in the late 90s.  The truth is, there will always be an appetite for good storytelling, and the television will remain a compelling medium for immersing ourselves in those stories.  But, as we’re all aware, it will not be the only medium where we can be entertained, informed and immersed in an experience.  

As the ubiquity of the mobile experience evolves, the opportunity to bring more immersive experiences to more places and mediums becomes more viable.  You can argue that watching a full-length movie created for the big screen on the small screen of a mobile device isn’t ideal, and most would agree.  But, the point here is less about the ability of content to transition from one medium to the next than it is in the expansion of opportunities to extend experiences and adapt a story line that can connect in context beyond the single platform, single format approach of old models.  This opens up the possibility to rethink production, creative and story development in a way that can transcend intended context and create a more cohesive experience.

Brands will soon look for ways to extend the experience beyond the flatscreen and onto the mobile screen.  The consumable, short format of the mobile device and brief attention of the mobile context offer opportunities for brands to extend an experience and connect with consumers.  This trend will continue as the intersection of social TV gets more defined.

Brand Opportunity
There are several opportunities for brands to get involved in this highly consumable story telling.  At the center of a brand’s approach must be an understanding of the passion areas that drive its consumers and where the brand intersects or enhances those passions.  

  • Create a mini-episode for FB, bringing fans into an extension of the brand’s passion areas (Camping with a S’more – “Ghost Stories”)
  • Extend the story from advertising within television shows to the web/mobile (A Day in the Digital Life of a Reese’s Cup – Commercial Shoot Behind the Scenes)
  • Crowdsource and select clips offerd by those passionate about the brand (Pedal Passions – Driving a Camero)
  • Create a reality-based series based on recurring events the brand supports (The Cullinary Cozumel – Recipes from Starwood Resorts; Storm Front – Weather-related Documentary from State Farm)

Creative Context
Understanding how content is discovered, consumed and shared in the connected context offers guidposts to making the experience engaging. 

  • Content Quality – a qualitative measure that’s less about the quality of production and more about the ability to capture and retain attention through good storytelling
  • Duration – the amount of time it takes to capture and retain attention, directly related to the places online and off the story will be told 
  • Connectivity – difficult to assess, but an understanding of the connection speeds and coverage areas for where the content will be consumed is fundamental to creating a positive experience for the consumer
  • Context – where, when and how the content might be consumed determined by the pathway the audience will find and experience the story 
  • Planning – often these can be extensions of an existing program with the right planning; build in as an extension of the creative brief, plan for capturing experiences around existing events, etc.

Australian producer Russell Boyd recently launched his take on the evolution of the short-form series designed specifically for the iPad, showing how new distribution models will impact the content industry.

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http://www.linkedin.com/in/bradmays // @bradmays // @socialisms

Mobile Evolution – From Noun to Verb

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The Mobile Imperative

iPhones, iPad, tablets and readers – it’s easy to define mobile by the devices we use in the places we go.  But, the real revolution in mobile is happening semantically.  For a culture on the go, mobile is silently moving from noun to verb.  From what we use to how, where, when and why we use it.  Fueled by expanding mobile networks, carrier hand-offs, faster processors and more features and form factors, we’re no longer confined by the wall sockets that tether us, but are unbound to move around our world and through the lives we live – mobily.  It’s because of the places we go, the people we see and the lives that we live wherever we live them that defining a long-term mobile strategy must first acknowledge the semantic shift from noun to verb. Having a dedicated roadmap to reach mobile consumers is no longer a feature or addendum to an effective program, but central to it and integrated within it.

An Integration Approach

Watch behavior of people in public, and you’ll see a common thread – the dim glow of a blue light on their face posting to Facebook, sending or receiving a text  or checking email.  Ninety-one percent of American cell phone customers have their phones within arm’s reach 24 hours a day.  During that day, depending on their age group, they check email between six and 20 times.  They text between 5 and 110 times.  Understanding how people navigate their lives through their phone provides insight to a sustainable mobile strategy. For any brand, this considers how a Facebook post can be received on a desktop computer, commented on with a mobile phone and shared through a tablet or within an offline conversation. With consumption and behavior habits blurring across platforms, mobile features and devices, it’s important to find integration points that connect or at least span technologies, geographies and programs.  Organizations that can find a cohesive way to align purpose, platform and audience while delivering the experiences that enhance consumers’ daily travels.

Context is King

When assessing the mobile opportunities for your organization, it’s important to understand the mobile context of your customers, constituent, users.

1)     Behaviors: Create an archetype for the personalities of your customer base.  Where does this person go during the day – the dry cleaner, school, drive-in, restaurant, hiking?  Think about how the use of devices (noun) impacts the use habits (verb) of the demographics that make up your customer base.  And, don’t fall into the traps of assumption of stereotypes.  Seek out knowledge – both anecdotal and concrete – about how your target moves around, through and into the experiences that connect their world.

2)     Content: It’s important to assess not only what type of content is most compelling and consumed within the context of the customer’s daily excursion. It’s equally important to understand how your specific content/experience will be accessed and consumed. Assume much of your content will increasingly be consumed on a mobile device of some kind – whether on a cell phone or a tablet.  This impacts form, format and other characteristics of your content.  Make content consumable for mobile devices to maximize the experience for the consumer.  Shorter videos, visually compelling photos, succinct audio clips.

3)     Experiences: Understanding the pathways your consumer follows throughout the day can provide insight into how to enhance their experience.  Much like how marketers need to understand that it’s not about them in social channels, this concept becomes more relevant when connecting in a mobile context.  Are you just repurposing content to be available on mobile devices, or are you looking for ways to enhance the mobile experience?  I receive brief text messages from Redbox for a free rental each month.  It’s short, plain text and in a format that makes it easy for me to take action at the kiosk.  No need for html codes or flash widgets.  Just me, my phone and my Redbox text.

4)     Measurement: Do you know how often your site, channel, content is accessed through a mobile device?  What is the termination rate?  Bounce rate? Can you tell which information is accessed the longest through mobile?  All of these are indications of when, how and why your information is accessed.  And, it’s valuable to know these baseline metrics to understand what content and experiences are more compelling.  It also reveals some of the situational context (time of day, length of time on content, etc) that can be used to dial up or modify content pathways.

5)     Evolution: There are any number of reports that show estimates on mobile penetration and adoption – from operating systems to devices to downloads.  Some marketers make decisions based on those metrics, which are sometimes months old.  One of my favorite stories is from a time I was working with a major mobile chip manufacturer.  I was in a room with smart marketers and engineers who had helped revolutionize the mobile technology of the time.  They were debating whether or not to account for a new feature that some consumers were starting to ask for on their mobile phone.  The new feature was music.  All of the data pointed to the fact that consumers would never really want to do anything more than talk on their phones. If they wanted music, they could use their Walkman for that.  We know how the rest of the story end.  With few exceptions, most would agree that this mobile thing is going to be big.  Basing program decisions and mobile investments on the degree of adoption today doesn’t account for the speed of overall adoption.  Chances are it takes longer for your company to agree on and launch programs than it does for mobile use patterns to evolve.  Look at where your audience will be in six to twelve months, rather than were they’ve been for the previous six or are today.  This will help ensure you’re meeting the evolutionary needs of your constituents and customers.

 

The mobile revolution began years ago.  The evolution will continue as networks expand, the tools and toys we use get smarter and there’s more of us connecting in more ways in more places.  Viewing mobile as a verb, instead of noun puts our head in a place that our actions can follow.

Photo: ACL Fest Bike Rack Photo by AdamJ1555

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http://www.linkedin.com/in/bradmays // @bradmays // @socialisms

Platform Review: Scoop.it – Brand as Curator Comes to Life

While a lot of attention is on content, brand as publisher and the ways a brand can push its message through the social, shareable formats of the social web, growing interest is in the curation aspect of establishing a complete brand presence.  Content curation can bring another dimension to a brands presence online, showing that it’s aware of and a proponent of those individuals and organizations interested in similar or related topics.  Being a convener of, as well as a participant in, the larger discussion alleviates the content burden and puts the brand in context.

One of the new tools to help accomplish this is Scoop.it.  The following is a review of the platform as posted on the Scoop.it platform where I used a free trial of the pro version they offered to kick the tires, create two curations (“Curationist” and the co-curated “MDigitial” curation with Greg Matthews.)

 Usability Overview – Curating the Content Stream

As brands begin to find more options to tell their own story, they’ll look beyond the brand as publisher model and to the brand as curator – or becoming a convener of conversation around a topic or industry.  Scoop.it promises to make finding, reviewing and curating content an easy proposition.

One of the challenges of curating content around a topic is being able to easily select from a stream of good content.  Scoop.it allows you to use keywords to pull in possible content to curate.  The challenge is that the search tool isn’t refined enough to eliminate unwanted content.  This returns results from individual Tweets that may not have anything to do with the topic other than a keyword. It allows you to remove sources from consideration, but this can be a bit more time-consuming that it’s worth.  Having only spent a few hours with the platform, there may be an easier way to refine results. (Originally began reviewing the platform Dec 20. Additional time revealed additional and compelling features – included below.)

Other Curation Options

In addition to pulling potential content in through keywords, Scoop.it also lets you enter specific URLs for the content that you’re interested in curating – a good option for adding a specific post to your curated selection.

Scoop.it also lets you create your own blog post to be published alongside of the other content you’re curating.  It’s the feature I’m using now to provide these reviews of the platform.

Curation Platform – Pros & Cons

As my free trial of Scoop.it’s pro edition ends, I’ve had a chance to test the features and functionality as a curation platform. My experience with the platform has been generally positive.

The features I liked the most include:

  • The ability to share curation responsibilities with others
  • The usefulness of the platform as a way to curate across keywords
  • Being able to add specific urls to your curation list
  • The browser plug-in that allows you to easily pull in items you’d like to curate
  • The blogging feature (which I’m using here) to add your own content to your curation
  • The WordPress plugin (although I haven’t yet set this up on my blog)
  • Easy to create and share new topics

Some things that could improve include:

  • Further refinement of the keyword tool to turn up more specific results, eliminating the number of results that are less useful
  • Spell-check in the blogging widget
  • The ability for those you share curation with to edit or add keyword filters
  • Overall UX could improve (some of the features that are hidden should be more intuitive)

I think platforms like Zite and FlipBook do a good job of bringing in content based on specific filters. Expanding the ability to pull in or integrate with Zite or FlipBook content over mobile and the addition of some of the features above could make the platform an indispensable tool.

At $79 per month for the pro edition, it’s a relatively inexpensive way for brands to test the waters and encourage curation.

UPDATE: Scoop.it President Marc Rougier left a nice comment related to the post. Specific to pricing he added, “I’d like to also complement your review: beyond the free version of Scoop.it, we actually launched three premium packages: Scoop.it Business ($79/month), Scoop.it Pro ($12.99/month), and Scoop.it Education ($6.99/month).” See more from Marc about the platform in the comments.

Final Assessment

As it stands, I like the platform because it’s a single tool with a single purpose and almost makes curation a simple task. It’s definitely worth taking a look if you’re considering ways to curate the broader discussion, themes and trends.  The ability to plug the curated content into a blog is also a useful feature.  If the filters were more refined, reducing the amount of work to dial in a topic, Scoop.it would be on to something.  But, it’s a platform I’ll look at as some of the brands I work with consider curation options.