Another opportunity lost

Facebook’s announcement yesterday of its entry into the “check-in” space is yet another blow to local media. Local businesses — many of whom already are deep into Facebook — are now being encouraged to create their “places” pages, which is what users will see when they check in via Facebook. Why is FB doing this? The gold in the hills of local advertising.

By creating a brand new directory of local businesses, FB can monetize it a hundred different ways. Already projected to make $1.3 billion in advertising next year, I fully expect that number will be much bigger, as it begins to suck advertising dollars from the local marketplace. What will local media companies do to respond? Sell more banners on their brand extension websites?

Technology has allowed anybody to do anything online for years now, but local media companies have refused to use any of it to create new value for themselves. Why is a mystery and a failure at the top of company leadership.

Facebook is already “local” in the way it is used, and local advertisers are well aware of this. By entering the check-in space — and creating landing pages for local advertisers — the company is exploiting its “localness” to not only create a rich experience for fans but also make money. The company is also opening its doors to the two top players in the space, Foursquare and Gowalla, in so doing. Brilliant.

Local media companies who insist that content is their business are going to have great difficulties sustaining that downstream. In this week’s Media 2.0 Intel newsletter, I offered five things companies can do today to begin creating new value. It seems appropriate to repeat that here.

  • Data is a big part of the future, so start building databases. Begin with identifying and defining the Local Web. If we must attached an immediate purpose to it, then build a simply application that searches the database. The point isn’t to create an immediate revenue generator; it’s to build new value, and trust me, there’s value in databases of knowledge.
  • Build networks of people, beginning with a loyal amateur journalist following. Equip them with knowledge. Invite their participation in what you do. Build blogs for them, if that seems smart, and aggregate their content. Show them how to shoot and edit good video. Always be recruiting new members into your group, for they will become your eyes and ears in many ways downstream.
  • Build networks of websites for advertising. We recommend a horizontal ad network that serves the whole market, but vertical ad networks are there for the taking, too. Is your market home to big regional medical facilities? Create a vertical ad network to serve that community.
  • Teach advertisers what you know and how to do what you do. The reality is that anybody can function as a media company today, and who better to teach the amateurs than the professionals? If advertising is content in the new world, then there’s a market for teaching advertisers how to make content. Who should have a YouTube account rich with videos related to its business? Everybody.
  • Create an online video archive business that offers uncut video to those wishing to make their own shows, films or whatever. There is a market for this, because the shift to personal media is only going to get stronger, and you can create new value for your company by repurposing some of your old, raw footage. Assign somebody as keeper of this and pay them a cut. It’ll pay off downstream.

At the highest level, companies need to reward new value creation as much as they do meeting revenue goals. Otherwise, the emphasis will continue to be on making money with what we have, and that’s just not going to work in the long run.

Lifetime: Don’t contact us, except via postcard

Being the consumer that I am, I do a lot of writing to companies and whatever to explain my pleasure or displeasure. Most companies are happy to hear from people, or at least they pretend to be as such.

But not the Lifetime cable channel. I wanted to drop them a line to express my dissatisfaction with dropping the show “Models of the Runway” that followed Project Runway last season. Karen and I both thought it was great and added a whole new level of drama to the actual competition of Project Runway.

So I went online to get the address, and here’s what I found:

Lifetime only wants postcards

Hilarious, right? Actually, it’s pretty pathetic and further evidence of exactly what’s wrong with the entertainment industry, which is a blatant disregard of the people they’re supposedly trying to please: the audience.

Wake up, Lifetime. Postcards? Really?

The Web is dead, or not

The real danger of Wired Magazine’s story this week on the death of the Web (The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet) isn’t so much that it’s varnished BS as it is what people with a whole lot to lose will do with it. Media companies, for example, have much to gain if what the Wired article preaches is true, and sadly, I think, this will become yet another very costly diversion.

Based on data from Cisco, Wired has built a graph that seems to show browser traffic declining and app traffic on the increase. Never mind the fact that Boing-Boing has cut gaping holes in the image itself (“The use of proportion of the total as the vertical axis instead of the actual total is an interesting editorial choice.”), the reality, as Michael Arrington points out, is that much of the growth traffic on the net is video that runs via Flash through browsers.

Wired's image created from Cisco data

Boing-Boing reworked the image based on actual bandwidth usage, and it comes out looking more like this:

Boing-Boing looks at actual bandwidth

As Boing-Boing points out, that doesn’t look like death.

But Arrington’s argument goes beyond the simple manipulation of data to make a point.

The browser isn’t dead. Web pages aren’t dead. HTML works really, really well. Check out Facebook’s iPad “app,” for example. You don’t download it from an app store, you just point your browser to touch.facebook.com. Not only does it work really well, Steve Jobs doesn’t get to have a veto right over people using it. It’s no wonder that we’re seeing a surge of traffic from the iPad to our site, via a browser.

Apps are great on mobile phones with small screens. But they are a pain to install and keep synchronized. Eventually having less local software will make sense on phones, too. All you really need is that browser virtual machine and you can pull everything else from the cloud. This is obvious. Only a bunch of hipster tech journalists checking email on their iPads all day* would think otherwise, and then make up a bunch of data to support their argument.

*Wired, not us.

I couldn’t agree more with Michael, but here’s where I see the problem. The Wired article is filled with industrial age illustrations — like railroads and telephone systems — of how markets grow and then are seized by monopolies or oligopolies.

It is the cycle of capitalism. The story of industrial revolutions, after all, is a story of battles over control. A technology is invented, it spreads, a thousand flowers bloom, and then someone finds a way to own it, locking out others. It happens every time.

The problem, of course, is that the industrial age is drawing to a close, and one simply cannot apply industrial age concepts to the new world. Why? Because money can’t buy scarcity when it comes to connectivity. THAT is the problem. We’re not just connected “up” any more, as Jay Rosen has so often pointed out; we’re connected horizontally to each other, and that blows a gaping hole in anybody’s economic theories.

What Steve Jobs, Rupert Murdoch and a whole bunch of others want is to find a way to sell the world on the scarcity model once again. The Wired article does that by simply announcing that because apps “work,” that means that apps are the future, regardless of how much money it costs each of us to use them.

The Wired article points out opposition to its vision but does so with a blithe dismissal that belies the self-serving nature of its theory in the first place. Wired is, after all, a magazine, and magazines want to believe that their future is apps.

The defenders of the unfettered Web have their hopes set on HTML5 — the latest version of Web-building code that offers applike flexibility — as an open way to satisfy the desire for quality of service. If a standard Web browser can act like an app, offering the sort of clean interface and seamless interactivity that iPad users want, perhaps users will resist the trend to the paid, closed, and proprietary. But the business forces lining up behind closed platforms are big and getting bigger. This is seen by many as a battle for the soul of the digital frontier.

I think Wired is right here, in that this is indeed a battle for the soul of the digital frontier. I just don’t buy the argument that deep pocket players have some inherent right to it, nor do I buy any argument that offers only a mass media, one-to-many solution. This is my essential problem with Steve Jobs, who is certainly the hero of any thinking like this. He’s a hero in the sense that he wants to help people with control maintain that control, but this underestimates and undervalues the real revolution that’s taking place within the digital world in two ways.

One, horizontal connectivity breaks the back of any one-to-many system, so attempts to restore that kind of hold will always include the breaking of the horizontal in some way. Connectivity through an app is a different animal than connectivity through the Web, for the app restricts what can or cannot be “shared.” What good is horizontal connectivity, if the connection is manipulated for profit?

Two, the cultural ramifications of the digital disruption involve the scattering of knowledge to the four corners of the earth. Since protected knowledge is the source of authority, this, too, has staggering cultural implications. The app world can conveniently put an end to this, and I don’t think people will stand for it.

I’m sure the article will sell a lot of magazines, as will the Fortune cover, “Is Google Over?” That is what we do, right?

(And for a little comic relief and perspective, read Henry McCracken’s wonderful “The Tragic Death of Practically Everything: Microsoft, Firefox, Facebook, the Mac–they live on in our hearts.”)

The airlines themselves made Steven Slater

As a frequent traveler, I feel more than qualified to add my voice to the cacophony of praise and rebuke for former Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater. He’s being touted as a “blue collar hero” by some, and he certainly has given the press something to talk about in the doldrums of summer.

My view is that the airlines themselves are responsible for the growing tension in the cabin between flight attendants and passengers, and much of it goes back to the decision to milk passengers out of more money by charging for baggage. This caused an immediate burden on carry-on luggage space, because, let’s face it, jets weren’t designed for everybody to bring such luggage on the plane.

Every flight is now needlessly delayed by the search for a spot for carry-ons, which then results in the infuriating and relentless warnings from the flight attendants to “please move out of the aisle.” I even recall one American gate agent from LaGuardia (where they grow especially obnoxious human beings) who actually said over the intercom, “Come on, people, it’s not that hard!” It was enough to make me punch her in the face and deploy the slide, but the crush of oncoming passengers kept me at bay.

I’m all for the airlines making money and for full flights, but it is an impossible situation the airlines have made for themselves and their employees by forcing weary travelers to cram everything they have into the cabin of the aircraft.

Flight attendants are leaping to Mr. Slater’s defense with stories of rude passengers, but I’ve honestly experienced more rude flight attendants and gate agents than I ever have passengers. I understand the pressure under which he “popped,” but I point the finger of blame at the airlines themselves.

You had this coming.

Education is next. Are we prepared?

education is in disruptionEducation is next, as western civilization’s second Gutenberg moment moves along, and those readers with universities in their markets need to be pursuing this story with all seriousness. I’ve been saying it for years, but now Bill Gates is saying it, so people will have to pay attention (the guy’s pay grade is a little above mine!).

For the unfamiliar, when Gutenberg printed the Bible, he tossed a significant monkey wrench in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, because access to the Bible was what gave “the church” its role in the culture. There were kings and lords, but all feared the church, because the church controlled the masses. They were the ones who published the Bible, and here was Gutenberg defying them. Damned heretics! When you add John Wycliffe’s common language translation, anyone who could read could access formerly protected knowledge.

This event dramatically changed everything in the West, and the modern age was born.

The same thing is happening today, because the Internet is making formerly protected knowledge available at our fingertips, and any institution — there are NO exceptions — whose authority is based on protected knowledge is threatened. The 21st Century will be one of disruption upon disruption, and what comes out on the other side won’t even resemble what we have today.

Media was first, because it’s so visible. Media controls life’s narratives, and that has worked just fine for culture’s élite, but no so much for everyday people. Journalists like to think that we have some sort of “special” knowledge that enables our trade, but as the tools of personal media have advanced, that knowledge doesn’t seem so special after all.

A lot of writers think that technology is doing the disrupting, but my view has always been that it’s disgruntled people USING technology that’s doing the job. This is why the second Gutenberg moment is so important to understand. Hyperconnectivity is something very new under the sun, and it’s going to continue to get very ugly for the trappings of modernism as this chugs along.

Bill Gates at the Techonomy conferenceAccording to TechCrunch, Bill Gates told the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe over the weekend that “five years from now on the web for free youÂ’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”

He believes that no matter how you came about your knowledge, you should get credit for it. Whether itÂ’s an MIT degree or if you got everything you know from lectures on the web, there needs to be a way to highlight that.

He made sure to say that educational institutions are still vital for children, K-12. He spoke glowingly about charter schools, where kids can spend up to 80% of their time deeply engaged with learning.

But college needs to be less “place-based,” according to Gates. Well, except for the parties, he joked.

I think Gates’ five year prediction might be a little soon, but I am absolutely convinced that advanced education in the latter half of the 21st Century will be far different from what you and I have known. And when the disruption takes place, thousands upon thousands of people who exist to support the institution of higher education will lose their jobs, and most university buildings won’t be needed. Sound familiar?

Just as we have with media, we’ll hear plenty from education “experts” about why this will be a bad thing, but as they make these claims, the financing for education will begin slipping away. It will be slow. It will be painful. But in the end, our culture will be better educated than it ever has been, which will also be something new under the sun. How can that really be bad?

There’s already an assault on so-called “education for profit” with bureaucrats calling for special regulations for this class of higher education. A recent Frontline report on private sector education was conceived, written and produced from a “this is God-awful…how we gonna stop it” perspective, completely missing the point of the disruption. I expect we’ll see much more of this, because in the minds of higher educators — just as it was with media companies 15 years ago — there’s just no conceivable way that anything disruptive could ever impact them.

Every institution under disruption will, of course, fight for its life, and that will include legal challenges galore. It’s here when the biggest unknowns exist and why seemingly simple concepts like net neutrality are so profoundly important for the future. Net neutrality opposition is nothing less than modernism’s status quo trying to hang onto power that no longer belongs to it. This includes the whole fiasco this week with Google and Verizon “partnering” on self-centered recommendations for net neutrality.

My advice to news departments in markets with a university is to assign someone to this as a beat. Every university in America has had discussions about this, but it’s not something they’re prepared to talk about publicly. We need to talk about it, however, because we are a culture in transition, and our role ought to be one that informs and prepares.

(Originally published in AR&D’s Media 2.0 Intel Newsletter)

TV station websites are preaching to the choir

Few knock on the door of local media websitesNine of ten visitors to local televisions station websites are already fans of the station, but only half of any given station’s “fans” visit their website. This startling piece of information comes from AR&D cross-platform media studies based on 2,200 interviews with consumers and reveals a major weakness in the operating strategies of local television companies. Online, according to AR&D senior analyst Rory Ellender, “stations are only playing to their on-air audience and not even doing a very good job of that.”

This is the fruit of trying only to be a television station online, while the marketplace is vastly bigger.

Even when we speak with actual local information seekers — those people who, in the course of a typical week, regularly keep up with and follow local news and events — only one-fourth visit local media websites daily, including newspapers.

  • Visit once per day or more (25%)
  • Visit weekly (26%)
  • Visit infrequently or never (48%)

That’s right. Nearly half of those people who identified themselves as local news and information “seekers” don’t go to local media websites. This is a serious problem with no easy solutions. Local news and information seekers get their news from the major portals, so it’s inevitable some will click through to local media sites, but they do so through side doors only.

But the bigger issue of preaching to the choir means that local media companies must find ways to reach beyond their core audiences, or we will continue to cede market share to pureplay Web companies with considerably better software and user experiences. How to do this is problematic, because media companies believe it is content that matters — the content WE produce.

Local media company information portals, for example, that are called something different but essentially function as the TV station or newspaper’s brand extension site (community.com), run into the reality that people recognize them for what they are. If we’re going to do information portals, they must aggregate all local information and be presented in addition to our own brand extension sites. Otherwise, we don’t stand a chance of recruiting users beyond our own “fans.”

But perhaps even more important is the type of news and information that local stations are putting into their online efforts.

Earle Jones, AR&D Senior Vice President of Research, told me that TV stations can be their own worst enemies when it comes to recruiting even their own viewers online. “We consistently hear,” he said, “that most people see local TV websites as just a rehash of what the station does on-air. Also, the url’s most stations use (call-letters.com) suggest something much more narrow that a community information portal.”

Take a look at these verbatim comments from the open-ended question: “Earlier you said youÂ’re a regular local TV news viewer, but you rarely or never visit local TV news station Web sites for information. Why is that? What could they do differently or better with their Web site?”

“I just feel that I get enough information from watching the news and looking at Google news or msn.com.” — Male, 25–29

“They are usually poorly designed and they make it difficult to simply find the specific news story you came to read about, they could vastly improve thier web sites by having an actual working search function.” — Male, 30–34

“Give me a reason to read to their web site. No one wants to read the stories they’ve already seen.” — Female, 25–29

“It’s the same on TV as it is on their website. Why get the same thing twice?” — Female, 35–44

“If I cant get all the info I need from the news when it is on, then thereÂ’s not any more info on their web site it is just a summary of the story you see on the news. In the past I had found their web sites not very organized enough to find the story I was looking for.” — Female, 30–34

“Because I watch it so regularly before I go to work and when I come home and I subscribe to their ‘breaking news’ that texts me local information, I don’t feel that visiting the website is necessary. The texts messages I receive from WAAA gives me all the info I need while I’m at work and I forward the messages along to my husband and friends daily so they can be made aware of what’s going on also.” — Female, 30–34

“I generally like to watch, and listen while I’m doing other things, like making supper, cleaning etc. I have gone to the website if I missed something that I want to get more information about, but frequently find it difficult to track down the story. There’s just too much information on the home page, and they may file a story in one place, and I look in a different place. The search tends to bring up too much information as well, and it becomes more tedious than it’s worth to try to find something.” — Female, 45–49

Lousy site search is a frequent complaint of those who don’t use local media sites, and this goes back to our belief that we can organize information in such a way that search is unnecessary. Search, however, is THE default mechanism that consumers use to find things. It is, after all, 2010.

Social media is beginning to show up as a source of local news and information. “Facebook shows potential,” according to Ellender. “On average, 56% of News & Information Seekers are registered on Facebook and around one-third use it daily, though that does vary considerably by market as you might expect.” He added that Twitter shows very limited reach right now. “Only 15% of Seekers are even registered on Twitter and just 5% or less use it weekly or more.”

As I stated up front, this data suggests problems for local media companies at the strategic level. Something is wrong with a digital strategy that a) plays only to its core audience and b) doesn’t do a very good job at even that. Regular readers here may be tired of hearing this, but here are three things that local media companies should consider:

  1. We need to create an online news service that is 100% Web native. At AR&D, we think that real-time “Continuous News” is the solution here, and we’re seeing verifiable results in markets where we’re doing this.
  2. We need to be able to separate our ability to make money from our ability to create content. Since everybody else in our communities is “making media,” we need to get on board that growth by creating ad networks that serve the needs of these creators, while we administer it and take a cut.
  3. We need to place strategic control of making local money in the hands of local people. Certainly, there are efficiencies that must be considered through centralization, but we cannot truly expect massive local revenue growth without local authority.

Meanwhile, if we’re going to preach to the choir through brand extension, let’s at least pay attention to what people like those quoted above are saying.

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