Consumer groups rage against the institution

I’ve been saying for years that the soul of the disruption gutting the business model of traditional media and marketing is the people formerly known as the audience. None of this makes any sense without that basic assumption. As I tell groups in presentations, it’s all about people:

  • Informed people — never has there been a time when so much information was at the end of our finger tips.
  • Empowered people — if information is power, then guess what? These people are ripping power from institutions who were never designed to deal with a truly empowered citizenry.
  • Enabled people — not only do people have more information and more power, but technology is also enabling them to do something about it.
  • Connected people — connected in ways we never dreamed possible in years gone by, in the days of one-to-many media.
  • Involved people — and potentially involved on a level that history has never seen. Technology is enabling this. It’s getting more powerful and easier to use all the time.
  • Fleeing people — that’s right, and they’re running from the relentless bombardment of unwanted messages provided by mass marketing in all its iterations.

Now comes new evidence of this in the form of privacy groups banding together to create a “Do Not Target” list for people who’d rather not participate in the Holy Grail of web advertising — behavioral targeting. Here’s the lead sentence from PC World:

A coalition of nine privacy and consumer groups have proposed a U.S. do-not-track list that would allow consumers to opt out of advertising efforts that track their movements online.

…The do-not-track list, similar in some ways to a do-not-call telemarketing list maintained by the FTC, would allow consumers to take control of their personal information online, Cooper (Mark Cooper, research director for the Consumer Federation of America) said. While they would originally have to download the list and manually enter sites to block into security software, the privacy coalition expects that browser developers would create tools to automate that process, he said.

This is a single step for consumers, and this is completely needed,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum.

Such a list would not be good news for advertising companies. Dave Morgan of Tacoda told Advertising Age that such a list would actually defeat the idea of anonymity that the Web boasts.

It runs into the core issue of, we don’t want to take the anonymity away. This isn’t a consumer-led revolution like do-not-call was. … This is an advocate looking for a cause issue,

That may well be the case, and this is just a proposal for now, but this business with Facebook wanting to use private profile data to target members when they’re not on Facebook puts a big weapon in the hands of these consumer groups.

Nothing will ever be enough for those being disrupted, and that’s becoming increasingly evident as we watch various companies respond to decay in their business model. What needs to happen is that the media and advertising worlds have to start paying attention to the people who are running away from them.

How about talking with the targets instead of trying to hit them?

Postmodernism’s Most Important Gift

Here is the latest in the ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World. This one is an intellectual exercise that may not be for everyone. Hang with it, though, because it’s all about challenging our assumptions, something I’ve benefited from greatly over the last decade or so. I’m also offering ten mass media assumptions that need to be challenged while we work in a time of tremendous change.

As we go about our lives, we do so with a tremendous number of assumptions in place, little things or big things that determine how we think and sometimes how we behave. We’ve all heard the old saw about assumptions making asses, but I’m talking about core assumptions, things we don’t consciously question, because we, well, assume them to be truth — perhaps even absolute.

Postmodernism forces the challenging of assumptions, and I view this as a great benefit to culture. The legalists and fundamentalists of every field will disagree, of course, and that’s a source of great — albeit not necessarily visible — drama today.

Postmodernism’s Most Important Gift

Anderson to PR flacks: screw you!

Chris Anderson, he of “Long Tail” fame, has published the email addresses of hundreds of PR people who’ve solicited him via email. He’s tired of wading through 300 emails a day that are nothing more than spam.

Lazy flacks send press releases to the Editor in Chief of Wired because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching.

By publishing the email addresses of PR types that he’s banned, Chris is actually offering them to spammers. “Turnabout is fair play,” he wrote. Amen.

This is what happens when you try to pull the Web back into the reach/frequency paradigm. It blows up in your face, because the people formerly known as the audience can — and do — fight back.

Well done, Chris.

Rubel: Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Steve RubelThere was a time when Steve Rubel was one of the most prolific bloggers around. Steve’s a stand-out (and straight-up) PR guy who works for Edelman, and I’ve always found him to be one of the most astute observers of contemporary media in a time of great change. Steve’s job got the best of him, and his blog posts have been few and far between, but he’s posted something today that I consider a “must read,” and one that bears further exploration.

The endless dot-com parties are back. So are the countless trade shows/conferences that regurgitate the same “new paradigms” the last 10 events did — with no end in sight. And yes, the ridiculous BS press releases are flying into my Gmail box. This is why I don’t speak at or attend very many Web 2.0 conferences anymore. I don’t have the heart for it. I would be stirring the big pot of Kool-Aid.

Let’s face it, we’re skunk drunk and it’s because of money. It’s almost like we all need to enter Betty Ford Clinic 2.0 together. This time, it’s not stock market money but private equity, M&A, VCs and to some degree the reckless abandonment of logic by some advertisers who are perpetuating what is sure to end badly when the economy turns. Hubris is back my friends.

Steve calls this a “somber time for the Web” and says it feels just like it did before the last web crash. He notes that start-ups are more into the exit strategy than the entrance strategy, unlike post-bubble sites like Flickr and del.icio.us.com who launched because they had something that genuinely added value to the web experience.

I completely support everything Steve says in this post, and I want to point to two specific items on which to comment.

Meanwhile, the sleeping giant many of us mocked — the big media — got with the program.

This is bigger than you might think, because despite mistakes along the way, the “old money” behind traditional media has awakened to the reality that is the Web, and they don’t invest the way Silicon Valley venture capitalists invest. Traditional media makes investments designed to produce a return, and while I’ve chided them (and will continue to do so) for not extending the runway on some projects, the truth is they are definitely in the game.

What this has done is to make valley start-up investments even more risky, because they don’t have the wide open playing field of the first bubble. Barry Diller can say that most media company executives don’t get it and probably be right, but I believe the ship has begun to turn. Start-up Web 2.0 applications are making pitches to be acquired by these companies, only to be met with a very real, “We can do that for ourselves.“

I have become less interested in every new shiny object and more engrossed in the social changes it, slowly, effects.

Exactly. This is the safe ground, the place where we all need to be focusing. When hype is everywhere you look, it’s always smart to go back to basics. This is why I base my observations on culture and culture change, because the impact of all this hype is a form of vertigo.

Sites like Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch are extremely valuable in helping me sort through the new glitz and glitter, but over the past year, even reading TechCrunch has become a significant burden due to the relentless bombardment of this new start-up and that one.

Steve’s right, folks. The economy is weak and 2009 is coming. When this bubble deflates, it may be even more unpleasant than the first.

(Side note: When I write of “Media 2.0,” I’m speaking much more of a business shift than one of technology, the playground of new competency development.)

R.I.P. Jim Cummins

Jim CumminsMy old colleague and friend Jim Cummins has died, and I am sad. Jim and I were part of an amazing team at WTMJ-TV in the early and mid 70s and had stayed in touch. Like my other friend who died this year, Pete Wilson, Jim was a big early influence.

I use a story about Jim whenever I speak with budding journalists. When he came to WTMJ-TV from Grand Rapids, he was that station’s top reporter. I ran the desk, and Jim didn’t like that he had to wait in the wings while all the tenured reporters at the station got all the good assignments. Hey, that’s life.

One day, he came to me and asked, “What time do you get to work?”

7 o’clock,” I replied.

Tell you what,” he said, “if I have a story idea for you at 7 a.m., would you consider giving me a shooter instead of waiting until you’ve set up the day?”

What AE would disagree with that?

His first piece was on a local toy company that had stopped making a certain toy, because the manufacturer couldn’t get the petroleum necessary to make the thing. The year was 1973. The first line in the piece was this: “The Birdie Ball has gone the way of the energy crisis.” It was an outstanding piece, and it wasn’t but a few weeks until Jim was our top dog reporter. Nobody was surprised when he went to NBC Nightly News.

He loved the resources of the network. I remember a call from him while covering a tornado in rural Missouri. He arrived on a chartered plane at the local landing strip known as the airport, only to discover they had no car rental place. The guy who ran the joint had an old beater, though, so Jim (er, NBC) bought it.

I loved Jim Cummins. He was an amazing storyteller, a great husband and father, and my dear old friend.

Farewell, Jim.

Let the HULU spin begin!

New York Times writer Brad Stone rightly set the stage with his summary of hulu.com’s private beta launch today:

Since March, when the broadcasters announced their joint effort to bring free, ad-supported television shows to the Web, critics have pounced, predicting the venture would be doomed by diverging agendas, technical challenges and an all-powerful enemy: YouTube.

Skeptical bloggers even slapped Hulu with a derisive moniker: “Clown Co.”

Now the defense is ready to present its case.

As any viewer of “Law and Order” will tell you, the defense is often not about guilt or innocence, but about the presentation of reasonable doubt. That’s what hulu has done with its highly-controlled press presentations on this, the launch of its private beta.

The NYT header says it best: “Hulu Readies Its Online TV, Dodging the Insults.” Over at TechCrunch, one of the site’s biggest pre-launch critics, the headline is just the way hulu wants it: “Hulu Launches Private Beta, Makes Very Good First Impressions.”

hulu.com logoSince I’ve been one of those critics — not of the presentation but of the strategy — I’ll admit that I’m naturally going to be skeptical of what I’m reading. Launching in private beta means you invite some people in to kick the tires. I’ve found nothing yet today from any such person, which means all of this positive coverage is coming from the information and screen grabs that hulu is feeding them. That said, everything looks very nice on the surface. The videos look well-organized. The player is portable, and they’re touting the ability of users to clip programs and embed those clips elsewhere. These are textbook unbundled media tactics, and they should help spread the monetized videos across the Web.

(You can view hulu vids via AOL Video. If this is the best they can do, it’s not saying much.)

There are two problems immediately. One, the videos don’t play anywhere except in the U.S. This is the result of trying to provide an application that lives by all the industry’s rules. Rights, you know. Secondly, the television shows that are offered stay online only five weeks. So think about this for a minute. Why would anybody embed a hulu clip if it couldn’t be seen in other countries and would disappear after five weeks?

The idea of a portal for “legal” videos is a good one, but 1.) all content creators must play in the same space, and 2.) the reach must parallel that of the Web itself. Hulu may work these things out eventually, but right now, those are big concerns.

Moreover, hulu further erodes the already damaged network-affiliate arrangement by making first-run show videos available after midnight, Hawaii time (nice).

In the Times article, NBCU head Jeff Zucker goes out of his way to position hulu as an entity separate from NBCU, and this will either be its greatest strength or its biggest weakness:

At a minimum it’s another way for us to offer our content to users and get paid for it,” Mr. Zucker said. “If the site itself does well, that will be gravy on top of it.”

This distancing himself from hulu is interesting, because it was Zucker who made the original announcements and led the original cheerleading. So now hulu is just another company that’s distributing content created by NBCU, which means if it crashes and burns, it was THEIR fault. Nice.

But this isn’t what we get from NewsCorp president Peter Churnin, who takes credit for the idea in the Times article and is a bit defensive about the criticism. “I think there’s a snarky desire to say this is big dumb media and this is a big dumb joint venture,” he said, adding that he thought of the idea as a way to distribute Fox programming. So is it a joint venture or a stand-alone company?

I guess it’s both, but the question is important in judging its viability from here. If it’s a stand alone business, will it be able to sustain itself without more investment money when the costs go up? That’s a fairly significant issue. If it’s a joint venture, then NBC and NewsCorp will foot the bills, and then it becomes just bad strategy and a drain on resources.

There is one distribution partner in this that really intrigues me, and that is MySpace. If hulu is to succeed, it would help to be THE application that exposes this content to people who don’t already watch it, and that basically is the definition of MySpace’s core demos.

Stay tuned.