Media 2.0 101: The tactical use of beachheads

the tactical use of beachheadsLucky attendees at Borrell’s annual local online advertising conference in New York next week will hear Clayton Christensen’s view of where media is heading. I’ll be looking forward to the video, because I’m unable to attend. However, I’ve read and studied Christensen over the years, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what people will hear. I want to write today about one thing in particular: that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to reinvent yourself from within. That IS the innovator’s dilemma and why the field of disruption is open to those not from within. They’re neither bound by the rules and processes of maintaining the status quo nor blocked by adherence to a set of traditions. They are free to create and innovate, and that is a significant problem for any institution of the West in the 21st Century. To paraphrase my dear friend Michael Rosenblum, “You’re all hosed.”

Indeed, and the innovator’s dilemma is why. Very smart, very well-intentioned people with all the reason in the world to innovate simply can’t, because they’ve got to protect the mothership at the same time. It’s driving the car and fixing it at the same time. Mr. Spock, where are you? (“raises eyebrow”)

Case in point: why are companies like Topix, Outside-In, Patch, and Examiner not run by traditional media companies? I’m always reminded of the old “railroad business” saw about how the railroad barons of old would have been running the airlines, if only they’d realized they were in the transportation business and not the railroad business. Same thing here. You can ask virtually any local media manager if the barriers to entry in their business are gone, and they’ll honestly tell you yes, but internal mandates of the legacy product force them into behaving otherwise or, at best, inertia. Clayton Christensen knows why.

There is, I believe, a way to drive the car and fix it at the same time, but it requires managers to step outside their comfort zone and behave more like leaders. The mission is to establish beachheads ahead of everybody else, so that when the vision materializes, they’ll be prepared to monetize it. This is a risk, of course. There’s no spreadsheet, no revenue projections to manage, no best practices, no charts and graphs, because it’s not about seeing who can outsmart, outthink or outspend the next guy; it’s all about anticipating new value and going for it. The risk, however, can be mitigated if the beachheads are based on broad trends.

This can be very tough for certain groups, because we’re so used to being able to hedge bets with facts and processes. Here, we’re leapfrogging processes to intercept a moving target. It’s Wayne Gretzky’s brilliant tactic of “skating to where the puck is going to be,” instead of following its current position.

In our war for future relevance, here are five beachheads we need to establish in order to drive our car and fix it at the same time. Four of them relate to content that, we hope, will be somehow monetized. The fifth deals specifically with enabling commerce via a form of advertising.

  1. Real Time Beach — It is absolutely essential that media companies understand that news and information is moving to real time, and that real time streams are what will really matter tomorrow. It’s already happening today, but until somebody makes big money with it, we’ll continue to emphasize that which we CAN make money with, the front-end design of our websites. These streams take place throughout the back end of the Web, and they will make their way to the front end, and soon. There are early signs of advertising in the stream, and we should be experimenting with this, too. This is an unmistakable trend, and if we don’t move and move fast, it’s one I’m afraid we’ll lose.
  2. Curation Beach — Examples like Topix above show that curation beach is really already here, although I’d call those types of applications “aggregators.” They’re dumb in that they’re simply mechanical aggregators of that which is — for the most part — being published by others. Curation is more the concept of helping customers make sense out of all the real time streams that are in place. We’re all using the streams of social media, for example, to “broadcast,” but the real value is to pay attention and curate. This is a beachhead ready for the taking.
  3. Events Beach — One of the key local niches still left for the taking is the organizing of all events into an application that helps people find and participate. The ultimate user application here will be portable, for it must meet the needs of people already on-the-go. I refer to this beachhead as “event-driven news,” and it is largely created and maintained by the community itself. Since many events dovetail with retail seasons, this is easily low-hanging beachhead fruit.
  4. Personal Branding Beach — If everybody is a media company then media is everybody. This is a fundamental reality within which we’re doing business today, and it presents a unique opportunity for us and our employees. The aggregation of personal brands is a winning formula for online media, and we should be exploiting it before somebody else does. Our people are our strongest asset for competing in the everybody’s-a-media-company world, and we have the advantage of a bully pulpit from which to advance their personal brands. This is more important than most people think, because the dynamic local news brands of tomorrow will be associated with the individual brands of the community. The time to begin establishing this beachhead is now.
  5. Proximity Advertising Beach — The mobile beachhead is both obvious but obscured, because we’re all waiting for somebody to show us how to do it. This could be a real problem, for we know what happened when we allowed the ad industry itself to commodify banner advertising. Outsiders set the value for our products. The same thing is likely to happen here, unless we stake out territory for ourselves downstream first. There are predictions that mobile CPMs will hold at between $15-$25, and that’s enough to make any mobile content creator smile, but I would argue that the real money hasn’t even been discovered yet, because these CPMs are merely targeted display. Remember that the Mobile Web is the same Web as the one that’s wired, and it behaves the same way. The new value for mobile is proximity, and that’s where we need to be focusing. Let’s do what we can to make money with mobile content, but let’s also establish a beachhead in the proximity marketing arena, too, because that’s where this particular puck is headed.

If we approach these beachheads entirely with the question “where’s the money,” we’re likely to miss the boat. This strategy is to get us ahead of that and let the revenue grow into it. None of these will break the bank, and they’ll position us to move quickly regardless of which direction things move or how fast.

We can’t always keep attacking the market head-on by reacting to its changes. It’s too resource-intense, and we’re fighting an uphill battle against the pureplays, who already own the bulk of the local online advertising marketplace anyway. We might, instead, view the battlefield from a distance and deploy our resources where they’ll run into what amounts to a moving target downstream.

In war, victory doesn’t always go to the biggest and baddest. It also takes a sense of the battlefield itself and where and how to attack.

Beware the death pronouncements

It's dead, because I said soWhile everybody is always on the look-out for the next great thing, there’s an equally large number of writers and observers who are quick to point out the “death” of things as well. This just adds to the confusion about what roads we should take tactically, and it’s something about which those of us at AR&D talk frequently. The problem with these forecasts is that they’re usually wrong. They make nice headlines, but the problem is those headlines are often the only thing people see. When understanding of something is limited, people often skim as much as possible to try and bring their understanding up to speed. With tech — and especially the media 2.0 world — that can be a dangerous thing to do.

This is why a New York Times article this week is getting so much attention among those who have this understanding. Like most newspaper headlines, this one probably wasn’t written by the writer of the article.

Blogs Wane as the Young Drift to Sites Like Twitter

This headline is actually completely false, and it’s proven within the text of the article itself. Growth may be slowing, but blogs are still a growing phenomenon. To suggest that blogging is on the decline, therefore, is simply untrue, as Mathew Ingram pointed out for GigaOm:

In many ways, this “blogging is dying” theory is similar to the “web is dead” argument that Wired magazine tried to float last year, which really was about the web evolving and expanding into different areas. It’s true that Facebook and Twitter have led many away from blogging because they are so fast and easy to use, but they have also both helped to reinforce blogging in many ways.

,what we really have now is a multitude of platforms: there are the “micro-blogging” ones like Twitter, then there are those that allow for more interaction or multimedia content like Facebook, and both of those in turn can enhance existing blogging tools like WordPress and Blogger. And then there is Tumblr, which is like a combination of multiple formats. The fact that there are so many different choices means there is even more opportunity for people to find a publishing method they like. So while “blogging” may be on the decline, personal publishing has arguably never been healthier.

So now we have the “blogging is dead” meme to add to the “Web is dead” and “RSS is dead” concepts. None of these are true, and it’s why a new company called “Trove” got a reported $5-$10 million from the Washington Post. Trove, according to Poynter, is a “personalization engine” for the news.

The site, which will aggregate and personalize news from among 10,000 online sources, launches into public beta next month. It will be free at Trove.com, and on mobile apps for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices.

The effort drops the Post into the middle of a crowded field chasing the elusive goal of news personalization. Several — LiveStand from Yahoo!, News.Me, originally a New York Times creation, and Ongo, a project the Post itself is a partner in — have been announced just within the past month.

Trove…also faces a challenge from tablet-only competitors such as Flipboard and Pulse, and older Web-based services ranging from Google News to My Yahoo!.

Two things strike me about Trove. One, it’s pretty cool. Two, it’s nothing but a pre-loaded RSS reader, just like many media companies made and threw away 7–8 years ago. Perhaps it’s the portable nature of the Web today that makes these more viable, but the technology for these kinds of applications is good old (dead) RSS. This is why I keep hammering away that we’ve got to get into real-time, RSS-delivered advertising, but that’s another story. Personalization aggregators is not a new concept, but start-ups and now traditional media players are suddenly seeing the value of the technology in a whole new way. I think it’s great.

The caveat in studying new media is to read enough from reliable sources to avoid getting trapped by headlines in the New York Times, the Wall St. Journal and other mainstream business publications. You’ll break your neck on the rocks in the shallows of their trend stories, if you jump in head first.

Broadcasters win one, for now

Of all the disruptions facing traditional forms of media today, none is greater than that which is threatening the value-through-scarcity of the broadcasting/cable arrangement. The broadcasters won one in court this week, when a U.S. District Court in New York issued a preliminary injunction against ivi, Inc. The injunction stops the company from streaming copyright-protected broadcast programming online, creating an online form of cable at much lower rates than cable itself ($4.99/mo).

According to the Associated Press, the court rejected ivi’s reasoning that it is “entitled to the same rights to distribute broadcast programming that federal copyright law automatically grants cable TV operators.” The court found that ivi does not qualify as a cable system.

ivi website

The company is being sued by a host of entities, including local broadcasters in Seattle and New York. ivi said it will shut down its broadcast offerings while it appeals. In a press release following the decision, ivi CEO Todd Weaver sounded a lot like protestors in the Middle East.

This fight is for the people and their right to choice and control over their own entertainment — and it will continue. The oppressive big media networks must open their doors to innovators or they will inevitably fall. People want responsible choice, not the one-size-fits-all television offerings imposed by powerful media interests.”

ivi argues that this is an issue for the FCC and not the courts under copyright, an argument they have little chance of winning. The content within the signals that ivi retransmits belongs to its creators, not the public. I do think, however, that ivi is right in stating that sooner or later, program creators are going to have to realize that the old model of forced scarcity — and for which they can charge an arm and a leg — can’t last forever. Personal broadcasting — including content marketing by the people formerly known as the advertisers — is on the rise, and if Hollywood (and the National Association of Broadcasters) isn’t careful, it’ll find itself on the wrong end of the public’s attention curve.

Consider that the rapid growth of what Borrell Associates calls “non-ad spending” among advertisers includes their own programming, and that these people would be very happy with any distribution model. They are, after all, the folks with the money that support all this programming in the first place. Here’s what Gordon Borrell told me on the subject:

The onset of digital media has accelerated the trend whereby businesses are spending more on non-traditional forms of advertising. Traditional advertising as we know it has gone flat, while “non-advertising” forms of marketing have increased — like spending money on their own websites, paying for product placement in programs, giving away products and services for free via the Groupon program, paying to have their websites optimized for search engines, etc. The table below shows that businesses spend twice as much on “non-advertising” marketing than they do on traditional advertising. To look at it a different way, you might say that advertisers, like consumers, now have control of the media.

non ad spending 2011, courtesy Borrell Associates

Consider also that all of the forecast models for the future show a dramatic increase in online video usage. Search and unbundled distribution options will rule the roost, not some programmer’s view of what to watch when and where. Google TV and everything like it will have their day. The broadcasting industry must be on the forefront of this and not be fighting every attempt to develop the marketplace. As we learned with music, the people will have their way. Does the NAB have the courage and smarts to lead the way, or will we simply try to stop it in the name of short term results?

ivi’s approach on all this has been bold and in-your-face and, as such, could be seen as almost laughably naïve. “They’ll never get away with it,” is a logical response. The noise they make along the way, however, will resonate with everyday people, and that’s a problem no matter what the courts decide.

Farewell, TBD. Why do the good die young?

By now everybody knows that Albritton has fired most of the staff of TBD.com and replaced it with word that the site will be a local entertainment portal. I ceremoniously removed its RSS feed from my reader a short while ago and said a fond farewell.

I really liked TBD, especially for its edgy writing. It had a personality, and I think we need more of that online. But the site never had a chance, not really. Despite the best intentions of its owner, a news start-up, especially in a competitive market like DC, needs a substantial runway, and Albritton simply couldn’t handle the money drain. 50 is an enormous staff for a local news start-up.

Then there was this foolishness of TBD replacing the WJLA-TV branded website. That was never going to work. Online brand extension is a necessity for a television station, and referring people to TBD.com had to be problematic on the air. Moreover, since the site “featured” WJLA-TV and its content, TBD’s intrinsic value as a pure local news portal was lessened. It was the confusing website of a TV station, and this would never work.

Moreover, Poynter notes that Albritton tried to use the sales force of the TV station to sell the site, a KNOWN recipe for failure. TBD needed its own dedicated sales force, because it was, in fact, a competitor of WJLA-TV. This is textbook “innovator’s dilemma” stuff and sufficient to sink the ship all by itself.

So now everybody has lost. TBD is gone, to be replaced by a ghost of its former self. WJLA-TV has to reconstruct what was previously deemed a failure. Albritton has egg all over itself and will be less likely to trigger new ventures than before.

You’re hearing a little of the “it’s good to fail early” meme in this discussion, but I think that’s a cop out. This was doomed from the start, and TBD.com joins a growing list of local content plays birthed by traditional media companies that essentially failed because they didn’t provide a sufficient return on investment or ran into cost-cutting management.

It’s a shame, for everybody.

The Web Is Our Friend

Here’s the latest in my ongoing essay series, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Web Is Our Friend

We’re watching the world change before our eyes in the Middle East as everyday people are picking up the tools of new media to spread revolution against tyranny. Most of us “over here” see this as a good thing, although we fear the vacuum that might result. Good or not is an important question, because this idea that everyday people can connect so easily is at the core of everything that’s disrupting the media world today. If everybody is a media company then the media is everybody.

I’ve dedicated my life to the belief that the Web is a good thing for culture, and I teach that we’ve just begun to feel the ramifications of a genuinely hyperconnected world of human beings. I think it’s going to change everything we know, and if I had the money, I’d invest in that wager.

And so I think it’s appropriate for me, today, to take a trip back and explain why I think the Web is our friend. Insofar as Life moves us upward and onward, it’s important to know where our belief is, for only then will we be free to explore tomorrow.

Why all the hate for AOL?

aol logoEver since AOL’s “AOL Way” manifesto was leaked, I’ve scratched my head over all the fuss. This is an internal PowerPoint designed to spread the business mission of the company among its employees. It’s back in the news this week, because editor Paul Miller has quit AOL’s Engadget over what he describes as AOL being “an unwilling partner” in the evolution of Engadget. He’s used the manifesto to detail his angst for all the world to see.

It doesn’t take a veteran of the publishing world to realize that AOL has its heart in the wrong place with content. As detailed in the “AOL Way,” and borne out in personal experience, AOL sees content as a commodity it can sell ads against. That might make good business sense (though I doubt it), but it doesn’t promote good journalism or even good entertainment, and it doesn’t allow an ambitious team like the one I know and love at Engadget to thrive.

I will admit that I have no personal experience with what it’s like to work with AOL, but I’ve read this “AOL Way” and just don’t get the fuss. Mr. Miller is doubtless a fine writer, editor and journalist, but this feels an awful lot like one of those multi-sided stories about which we only have one view.

The world of journalism is overflowing today with confusion and concern about its future. There are wonderful minds dedicated to figuring out how to pay for the news and lots of stories about how “real” journalism is losing the battle. Everybody wants to go back to the days of double-digit automatic growth, when operating as a profit center didn’t mean necessarily playing by the rules. That’s all gone, and when anybody actually tries something about making money today, these same people start groaning about how it violates some ethical mandate of purity. We can’t have it both ways, folks. Not. Gonna. Do. It.

I’ve followed Tim Armstrong’s efforts since taking over the reins at AOL. I support and have written about his anti-portal strategy, and I think the guy’s pretty smart. His purchases of TechCrunch and The Huffington Post were both smart strategy, so I think the guy really does understand content and advertising. I’m willing to give him a chance, which is why I find stories like Miller’s departure so difficult to embrace.

What do you want, people? Moving big rocks up a hill is a job for folks with courage, strength, vision and purpose. Sitting back waiting for one to roll downhill, so you can criticize the effort is for malingering, lazy jackwagons (love that word) who have nothing better to do.