They’ll be talking about it for years…

The day Google declared the entire Web malware.

I woke up with a toothache and Googled my dentist to get the number. It — and every other site on the web — was flagged as malware by Google. TechCrunch has some great images, including Google declaring itself to be malware.

Something bad went wrong, and it will warm the hearts of the Luddites everywhere.

UPDATE: Google’s Marissa Mayer tells what happened. Human error.

Old dogs and old tricks

the affiliates get hosed againSo ABC is out selling “new research” from, of all people, Nielsen that says people will tolerate more ads on streaming shows, such as “Gray’s Anatomy.” The AdAge article notes that the network has been running the data up agency flagpoles “in hopes of getting them to buy into the concept.” What’s at stake? Millions of dollars.

Network programming on the web, whether on ABC.com, CBS.com, TV.com, Hulu or any other distributor, has typically had a single sponsor. Sometimes ABC has featured one national advertiser and one local advertiser. Online programs have also generally had one ad per break, in part to keep viewers from clicking away, and in part to lure marketers to try what was once a new concept.

As a bonus, the networks disable the fast-forward button, so ads can’t be skipped, and since ad recall is higher, they’ve been able to charge higher cost-per-thousand rates than TV. But because there are many fewer ads, online revenue per viewer for the networks is still far below that on TV.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Albert Cheng, executive vp digital media at DATG, told a NATPE panel Wednesday that “We can actually increase delivery, reach and frequency by looking at a model that will have more sponsors and more ads.” Everybody rejoice, right?

The networks and advertisers are holding their breath about this, because everybody knows it’s risky. Donna Speciale, president of investments and activation at Mediavest Worldwide, told the panel, “The key is what is that very fine line and balance before we push them over the edge of being pissed.”

Despite all that, we know the networks and we know the demand for revenue, so let’s follow the dots on this one to see who really gets it in the shorts. The networks will slowly push the envelope (the frog and the hot water) and load the shows with more expensive ads that can’t be skipped, and find the balance that works (for them). The advertisers are so happy that they shift entire budgets to this, because, well, viewers HAVE to engage in their commercials. The viewers are (allegedly) happy. The network coffers are happy. The advertisers are happy.

But what about the network affiliates in the cities and towns across the country? This lowers (even further) the value of broadcasting those programs to the point where it’s actually a net liability. What can be TiVo’d will be TiVo’d, and what self-respecting advertiser wants to be a part of that? The aim, therefore, becomes removing TiVo from the equation entirely, and who gets hurt by that? The local affiliate system of program distribution.

Think I’m kidding? Stay tuned.

Unemployment advice, circa 2009

The government reported record unemployment today, as if anybody needed to have that validated. The economy sucks, and it’s not a fun time to be on the beach. The problem, as reported by MarketWatch, is that growth in continuing claims — a measurement of the difficulty of finding a NEW job — is even outpacing first-time claims.

Continuing jobless claims rose by 159,000 in the week ended Jan. 17 to a seasonally adjusted 4.78 million, the most since the government’s records began in 1967…

Meanwhile, the number of new claims for state unemployment benefits also increased, up 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 588,000 in the week ended Jan. 24. This put the number just 1,000 below the 26-year high for initial claims set a month ago…

We see no chance of this picture changing in the foreseeable future,” wrote Ian Shepherdson, chief economist for High Frequency Economics. “We expect net job losses of about 3 million through the first half of this year.”

Job losses are occurring in all sectors, including media, and my heart goes out to colleagues who lose their jobs. However, I found my new life while unemployed, and you can, too. So here’s my advice:

  1. Go directly to the unemployment office. A lot of people resist this, because it’s a pain and an acknowledgment of your situation. Rise above it and get it out of the way. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll get your checks.
  2. Take a vacation. Get away. Clear your head. Rest. Read. Most people panic, but panic takes you into tomorrow, and your head needs to be in today.
  3. Make a plan. This is where a lot of people miss it, because their only concern is getting a job with enough income to sustain their lifestyle. Bad thinking. Time is your friend and your enemy, so use it wisely. What will you do the first month? In three months? Six? Your reality will change as time goes on, and you should prepare for it.
  4. Obviously, cut expenses. You cannot afford anything that doesn’t meet the criteria of basic “need.” I’d hang on to the Internet as long as possible, but there’s always the library.
  5. Open your mind and follow your heart. The worst thing about being unemployed is the waiting, and even that has been changed in the new world. In earlier times, I’d make Lego creations every day, just to keep the creative juices flowing. The last time unemployment graced by presence, however, all I did was study and write. The Web is endlessly fascinating, and if you’re going to lose yourself, do it here.
  6. Learn new skills, like basic HTML, photoshop and other tools of the Web. You’re taking control of your future in so doing, and you’ll amaze yourself along the way.
  7. Blossom where you’re planted. This is always good advice, but especially now. Be a blessing to yourself, your family and your friends. If you have a dog, pay attention. They’re always “in the moment” with a smile. Make a conscious effort to do the same thing. Some days will be harder than others, but no matter how bad you feel about yourself and your situation, it could always be worse. Unemployment is not a death sentence. If you choose the pity pot over Life, you’ll squander every moment that’s before you. Good luck with that.
  8. Develop and hone your brand. In a networked world, your brand is everything. Is it what you were, or will you make it something new? Make this your priority, for it will carry you far.
  9. Being employed isn’t what makes you a journalist, so if that’s your calling, keep at it. Audience building begins with one. Don’t despise the day of small beginnings.
  10. Pick a charitable cause, something you’re passionate about and volunteer. If you’re busy giving of yourself, you’re much more likely to “hear” the messages that Life sends your way.
  11. Don’t be afraid to turn the page. It’s not the end of the world; it’s merely a new adventure for you and yours. Fear is tissue paper disguised as a brick wall. It will destroy you and everything you love, if you let it, so meet the future with realistic thinking, but always temper that with the truth that opportunity doesn’t always follow our plan.

Your real mission is to give Life a chance to put all the pieces in place for your next doorway. You have a big role in that, but often it’s most important to just get out of the friggin’ way. You’ll be all right. I promise.

More content is not the answer

The wails and groans of a giant institution attempting to alter its course are enough to send shivers down the spine of a fearless man. Like those submarine movies, where bolts pop and pipes burst on a deep dive to escape the enemy, television stations are struggling with the necessary pain of reinvention. I’ve been preaching this stuff for so long that I ought to be immune from the noise of the silent screams, but I’m not. It hurts to stand by as friends and colleagues flop around on life’s fishing dock, knowing that only some will make it back into the safety of the water.

It was painful, for example, to read Phil Rosenthal’s account in the Chicago Tribune of WMAQ-TV’s mandate for change, especially the comments. The title of my book is “Reinventing Local Media,” so I certainly support the efforts of the station, but I don’t envy station manager Frank Whittaker, the guy responsible for implementing the changes.

It’s typical old media reactive stuff. Old specialization jobs are giving way to hybrids, where people are required to multi-task and embrace new skills. This is a necessary path, but one that’s fraught with danger absent an executable strategy for what to do with a versatile staff. Mr. Whittaker notes that the goal is more content, something that is more a means than an end.

“We haven’t got the numbers yet, so I can’t tell you if it matches up exactly or not. But the real reason is to take the resources we have and try to produce more content in more platforms than we’re doing right now, and more platforms also means that hopefully we’ll start making more revenue.

“The big picture is we’re trying to become a newsroom that provides content for a number of different platforms, including the growth areas, which could be Web, could be mobile … a lot of different places where our content may play now or may play someday,” he said. “That’s how we’re going to grow as our traditional business stays flat or declines or whatever happens in the future.”

I don’t want to pick on WMAQ, but the notion that more content for more platforms is the solution to revenue problems is the result of a failure to grasp the realities of the disruption that those platforms represent. When ad-supported content is your business model, then it logically follows that more content will produce more revenue, but this is not the way things work in the counterintuitive world of Media 2.0. The reality, as my friend Gordon Borrell points out, is that the deer now have guns; anybody can be a media company that produces content, even the people formerly known as the advertisers. What do you do when the deer have guns? You get into the ammunition business. This is the real reinvention of local media.

Remember that advertising is our business, not content. We need to be spending more time, energy and resources in local advertising than in shuffling the deck to produce more content. The Media 2.0 game is about enabling commerce in our communities, not multi-platform distribution of scarce content. Scarcity is a trap in a world of abundance.

So my advice to WMAQ-TV is the same advice I give to clients. Strip away the specialist mentality of the workforce, because the economics of media don’t support it anymore (ASIDE: this includes on-air people). Do the multi-platform thing. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is your revenue salvation. Identify the local web. Organize it. Put ads all over it. In other words, be Google in your market.

Impartiality in a networked world

The delicate act of balancing journalismThe New York Times has published a policy document on the use of social networking sites by its employees, and it reveals the edgy nature of life in the trenches of social networking for people who work in traditional media. It also reveals the real life disconnect that old media feels it must maintain in order to be “impartial,” something that’s seen more and more these days as a problematic dinosaur in a world where trust of friends vastly exceeds trust of institutions.

Assuming impartiality transcends all, there’s a lot of common sense in the document, such as don’t take political positions or “don’t editorialize,” if you work in the news department. The paper also rightly notes that “personal blogs and “tweets” represent you to the outside world just as much as an 800-word article does.” It advises caution when joining groups, because it might suggest partiality to a cause.

Like most traditional media companies, the policy assumes a defensive posture.

Anything you post online can and might be publicly disseminated, and can be twisted to be used against you by those who wish you or The Times ill — whether it’s text, photographs, or video. That includes things you recommend on TimesPeople or articles you post to Facebook and Digg, content you share with friends on MySpace, and articles you recommend through TimesPeople. It can also include things posted by outside parties to your Facebook page, so keep an eye on what appears there. Just remember that we are always under scrutiny by magnifying glass and that the possibilities of digital distortion are virtually unlimited, so always ask yourself, could this be deliberately misconstrued or misunderstood by somebody who wants to make me look bad?

This is typical old school journalism, and something with which we can all identify. We’ve never been able to freely march in the parades of controversial causes or picket on behalf of sides in controversial issues (unless, of course, it’s about our employment). But social networking is a very different animal, and one that demands another look at the traditions and canons of the news business. Why? Because a social network is not a mass market.

Moreover, as the media disruptions continue, new values are coming into focus — concepts like honesty, transparency and authenticity — that don’t presuppose the artificiality of objectivity. Is the audience, for example, better served by obscuring the biases of the writer or by having them front-and-center? Will it ever be all right to just be yourself in covering the news? These are tough questions with no easy answers, but if we’re going to begin to address them, social networking is a logical place to start.

In a world where connections are everything, The Times policy suggests that “friending” certain people is problematic.

Another problem worth thinking about is how careful to be about Facebook “friends.” Can we write about someone who is a “friend?”

The answer depends on whether a “friend” is really a friend. In general, being a “friend” of someone on Facebook is almost meaningless and does not signify the kind of relationship that could pose a conflict of interest for a reporter or editor writing about that person. But if a “friend” is really a personal friend, it would.

Should we avoid consenting to be Facebook “friends” of people in the news we cover? Mostly no, but the answer can depend on the situation. A useful way to think about this is to imagine whether public disclosure of a “friend” could somehow turn out to be an embarrassment that casts doubt on our impartiality.

So it’s okay to be friends with people; it’s the public disclosure of that friendship that could be the issue.

The statement that one is impartial is the greatest evidence that one is not, for the best anybody can do is try. Human beings intuitively know this, and so it is that the people formerly known as the audience (TPFKATA) rank trust in the press right there with trust in car salesmen. After all, if you need rules to assert your impartiality, then you’re acknowledging that your employees default to partiality. This is old media’s greatest challenge in the face of disruptions that aren’t bound by these rules.

The ethical behavior of professional journalism in a networked world is something that demands examination, because, despite the efforts of those to the contrary, the network is not a mass. There is no stage where media companies can perform, because the focus of the attention of those in the network is on each other. Therefore, there’s no need to protect the stage, and this is a difficult concept to grasp. The network is participatory, interactive and tribal by nature. You’re either in or you’re out; there is no fence-sitting. To artificially manipulate your place in the network is fraught with danger, for as easily as you can be “friended,” you can be “defriended.” Truth will out.

But the real rub is this: at some point in the not-too-distant future, we’re all going to approach a fork in the road. One path is the old; the other path is the new. Our world is either networked or it is not, and which will we choose? If our choice is to stay outside in the name of impartiality, our observations will be skewed and we’ll risk not only a greater disconnect with the people we’re trying to serve as journalists but also complete irrelevance. If we enter in, the sacred canons of journalistic ethics — which were designed to protect the institution in a mass marketing world — will have to be modified or left at the door.

(Originally posted in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter)

CPM rates are falling (thank God)

AdAge reported yesterday that online CPM ad prices are falling. Does this surprise anybody?

Cost-per-thousand ad impressions for online publishers are generally off about 20%, according to several people on both the buying and selling side, and sell-through rates are dropping. And where publishers used to unload 60% of their inventory, some are now able to sell only 30%.

But perhaps indicating more trouble ahead is just how cheap the low end of the market has gotten. An August study from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Bain Capital found the average CPMs on ad networks ranged from 60 cents to $1.10, only 6% to 11% of the prices publishers could command when they sold inventory directly. And the pricing for networks appears to be getting worse not better.

The report notes that, blah, blah, supply and demand, blah, blah, direct response, blah, blah, ad networks, blah, blah, spray and pray, blah, blah, click-through rates, blah, blah, “It’s like crack,” blah, blah, blah. Go read it for yourself. This is a significant issue, but like so many others in this day of disruptive innovations, it will not be resolved from within the industries affected; there’s too much to lose by changing.

The Web is not now, nor has it ever been a CPM medium. It’s that simple. That it has been used as one is the result of four related things:

Innovation never comes from the fat cats who suck on the tit of the status quo. Things are comfortable. There’s no incentive to change. When your life is based on broadcast and print CPMs, the only ad model you see is, well, CPMs.

The ad industry needs wants a static playing field. The movers and shakers within the ad industry want the creative and the ability to manipulate reach and frequency to be the difference makers in ad campaigns. It’s what they know. This requires an arena that sits still. The Web is a dynamic, moving target.

Web publishing has been driven by a print model since the beginning. Newspapers dragged their advertising concepts with them (and then gave them all away in the name of “bundled” ad packages) without stopping to consider that the Web isn’t conducive to an ad-supported content model. TV stations did the same thing by first copying the print model, then using the display avails to add value to TV ad campaigns or to actually drive those campaigns.

Contemporary advertising demands a helpless, captive mass. I’m always amazed at how little Madison Avenue thinks people know about advertising in particular and hype in general. Whenever I introduce the idea that people are actually fleeing from the relentless carpet-bombing of unwanted messages, it draws various WTF shoulder shrugs. “You’re kidding me, right?”

CPM stands for “Cost Per Thousand.” Thousand what? Sets of eyeballs. Dehumanized receptacles propped open with toothpicks (thanks Doc) that leave behind piles of dollars. And if you don’t think the people formerly known as the audience realize this, you’re living in a cave.

Moreover, Madison Avenue has been ignoring the wisdom of web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, who has proven that nobody even sees the bloody CPM-based ads anyway, so this sudden discovery that the CPM model is failing really can’t come as a shock to anybody. They don’t work, and who would know that better than the people who are actually paying for the ads — the advertisers. They’re now routing around the ad industry and becoming content companies that can play in the real world of the Web. Yes, folks, advertising is content in the Media 2.0 world. As money gets sucked away from CPMs and moved to promotions, social networking, and other forms of content, Madison Avenue is left scratching its collective head.

It’s ironic that Hollywood has discovered the world of advertising and marketing as a form of comedy and drama. We have AMC’s “Mad Men” and TNT’s new “Trust Me.” These are shows that academics will view with amazement from the culture museums of tomorrow.

The good news is that when the bottom is completely torn out from underneath all the blue smoke and mirrors, we’ll actually get on with the business of enabling commerce for businesses and their customers.