Archives for May 2012

User annoyance followup

My old boss and retired Huntsville, Alabama broadcast legend M.D. Smith IV has long been a fan of my essays, and he wrote this week to share his experiences as an annoyed media customer. Mind you, this man ran a family-owned TV station in Huntsville his entire life and sold it in 1999. He knew the good days of local television, never the corporate-owned model of today. I think you’ll find his thoughts about The User Annoyance Issue both insightful and entertaining:

M.D. Smith IVI just can’t watch a movie anymore on TMC, TNT, or any of the cable channels (or network for that matter).

I just have to record it on my DVR and watch it later, or even wait 30 minutes to start watching the recording so I can skip the commercials. It used to be four :30 sec commercials, then five, then six. Now, who can count? I was in the business and it was our bread and butter. Sometimes I breathed a “sigh” while waiting to get back to the interrupted movie. Today, I just can not bear it.

I understand that viewing levels are down and advertisers pay less per spot. So what I see is MORE spots. I guess some are :15s, but no one is timing them. What we know is one subject ends and another starts and my mind is keeping track until about seven or eight, maybe nine or ten. Yes, some are “promos” for upcoming shows, but they are commercials to the bulk of the TV audience.

It used to be that way in the early radio days. You started playing all the hit music with limited interruptions and when you became Number One, you loaded up the log with spots and eventually ran much of the audience off who just wanted to hear the music. Then you did research, found out commercials were killing ratings, so you bit the bullet, cut spots and hoped to get the audience back running lots of ads and billboard telling them you played 10 songs in a row. (Then you hit them with a “Stop Set” of commercials and they tuned away again.)

Many times I have clicked on a link and the video started with a 30-second commercial. About HALF of the time, I decided before the commercial was over, that I didn’t care about that link all that much, and just closed the screen, deleted the email about that link and went on. If it was something I was very interested to see, I would wait. At least the countdown helps letting me see by the time I am pissed, that only 14 seconds remain and it keeps on clicking. Sometimes I mute the sound until content comes up.

And yes, splitting pages is an annoyance, which we ALL realize is not needed. Web pages can be as long as they need to be. But yes, with more and different ads all over the page, AND more page “clicks” for a given web site is a commercial ploy. It joins the clusters of commercials every 6 minutes on TNT to get you to watch 4 minutes of commercials. I am going to time some with a stop watch, but I know I have checked sometimes and the movie only goes 6 to maybe 7 minutes before another break occurs. A two hour movie lasts over three hours on TNT, or longer.

Not a happy guy about what’s happened to his old industry.

BONUS: My interview with Mr. Smith from 2005.

Yeah, but just wait

The discovery that GM — the country’s 3rd largest advertiser — pulled its ad money from Facebook, because Facebook said “no” to its splashy take-over ads (a.k.a. “creative”) is more evidence that the User Annoyance Issue is a significant culture war issue. AdAge brought the back story about what happened.

GM wanted to brand Facebook. And Facebook wasn’t selling.

In a now-notorious meeting between General Motors Global CMO Joel Ewanick and other top marketing brass and Facebook sales executives, the automaker’s team asked whether it was possible to run bigger, higher-impact ad units than the current offering, according to people familiar with the discussion…GM asked if it could take over a page. It was told no.

The AdAge story goes on to suggest that this stance by Facebook has long frustrated the “deepest pocketed marketers” and that Mark Zuckerberg will have trouble maintaining such a position now that his is a public company. You can almost see the smoke-filled conference rooms of the “Mad Men” filled with gloating harrumphs of, “Cough-cough, That punk kid will learn, cough-cough, the realities of the, cough-cough, REAL world soon enough!”

Be very, very careful, here people.

You see, Madison Avenue is built on big money’s ability to “move” people who don’t necessarily want to be moved. Never forget the words that Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, wrote in The Engineering of Consent:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”

Or, as Ries and Trout demonstrated in Positioning, The Battle for Your Mind, you can “Make and position an industry leader so that its name and message wheedles its way into the collective subconscious of your market-and stays there.” I’ve always liked the word “wheedles.” Such a nice, friendly thought, eh?

This is both the success and failure of mass marketing, but times are changing. ESPN had the clout to say no to online ad networks, because they wanted to control the advertising on THEIR site. You may not like some of their ads, but you’ll never be confronted with a 30-second preroll on Facebook is now saying “there’s got to be a better way.” The jury is out here, but I applaud their position.

Meanwhile, Doc Searls continues his efforts to generate ad messaging from consumers-to-businesses as a way to generate commerce (Project VRM), which is one of the most revolutionary concepts in modern history.

I’m want to quote Dylan here, but I won’t. I’d just like to offer to those who sit back and say, “Yeah, but just wait” that you might be waiting for a very long time.

Viva Le Revolution!

The User Annoyance Issue

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

The User Annoyance Issue

One of the essential conflicts between the revenue model of legacy media companies and the people who consume the content created by these companies is how far audiences will go in tolerating the annoying nature of that model. Television, after all, is sustained by messages that interrupt programming, and who likes to be interrupted? This is exacerbated online (where people can do something about it), and so we have a problem that’s so fundamental to doing business that unless we deal with it, we’re going to strike out in trying to replace revenue lost through our legacy platforms. This is one we simply have to get right.

Happy Memorial Day to everyone.

Facebook’s fail? No, Madison Avenue’s!

Michael Wolff’s link bait grabber line today for Technology Review at MIT that “Facebook is not only on course to go bust, but will take the rest of the ad-supported Web with it” begs, no demands, a significant qualification. He bases this argument on a simple and very real premise:

At the heart of the Internet business is one of the great business fallacies of our time: that the Web, with all its targeting abilities, can be a more efficient, and hence more profitable, advertising medium than traditional media. Facebook, with its 800 million users, valuation of around $100 billion, and the bulk of its business in traditional display advertising, is now at the heart of the heart of the fallacy.

I don’t necessarily disagree with Michael, but he’s missing a very key perspective that renders his argument a bit naive. Here’s the problem: The industry that’s about to collapse isn’t the “ad-supported Web;” it’s the wacky world of Madison Avenue, which has tried to take advantage of the Web’s targeting efficiency only to press its tired, old methods in the name of protecting its place in the status quo. CPM advertising doesn’t work on the Web. It. Doesn’t. Work. It never will. It NEVER will. The idea of “ad-supported content” is also questionable for a season, because the people now making content that really matters are, you guess it, the people who used to buy the advertising. They’re off in their own little (paid for) world, and it doesn’t necessarily include old players.

What do you think when you read that the CFO of Coke, for crying out loud, says publicly that “the 30-second spot isn’t the way to go anymore?” You think that’s hyperbole? GM pulls its advertising from Facebook and the Super Bowl. Why? Everything is changing for these people, the people with the money who have fed Madison Avenue since its beginning.

At the 2012 NAB conference, Digitas executive Ashley Swartz said that everything around advertising has changed, but the advertising agency model has not. Advertising from a technical perspective may be evolving rapidly, she noted, but “the advertising business model, and broadcasters’ focus on digital advertising possibilities, isn’t changing fast enough to adapt.”

And who is the least motivated to talk about that and innovate different options? Madison Avenue. They’ve simply got too much to lose.

So we’re all seemingly stuck, because the ad agencies still control vast amounts of money. They tell media companies — including Facebook — what they want for those dollars, and media companies — with notable exceptions like ESPN — roll over and give them exactly that.

This is the core problem with trying to bolt the old model onto the new. It’s new wine into old wine skins. The market will fix itself after a great deal of pain, and the first today will then be last.

BONUS READ: Peter Kafka’s “TV Everywhere’s Counting Problem.”

Warning, soul search underway

soul searchingThe GOP must do an immediate about-face on its position on gay marriage. That’s not some liberal shouting at some conservative; it’s an official position from a top-ranking GOP pollster. Go read Andrew Sullivan’s post today on a remarkable memo circulating among Republican Party thought leaders from Jan van Lohuizen, a highly respected Republican pollster and strategist. It basically says the party needs to shift its position on gay marriage and gay rights and do so quickly. Otherwise, van Lohuizen writes, the GOP risks marginalization, irrelevance or worse. Wow!

Go read it, and when you come back, I have some things to say.

In the late 1970s, evangelical Christian leaders looked around and proclaimed life in the United States to be a mess. They had happily helped elect a Georgia farmer-turned-governor as President, in part, because he professed to be “born-again.” One of theirs in the White House held out so much hope, but it quickly turned disastrous as Jimmy Carter became their national embarrassment. There was budget balancing by gutting the military, and blaming the “malaise” of the American people for a sliding economy. Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, a failed rescue attempt, and, well, hurry 1980.

At about that time, Pat Robertson hired George Gallup to do a study of American attitudes about evangelical Christians. He found that people viewed Christians as illiterate and uneducated, bigoted, overweight, wearers of ill-fitting polyester suits, Bible-thumpers, self-righteous hypocrites, rural and Southern. Dr. Robertson then made a brilliant, mad-men-esque marketing decision: he would use his television program, The 700 Club, to depict Christians as exactly the opposite.

I began working for Pat in 1981. Being a TV magazine show guy (12 Magazine, PM Magazine, Louisville Tonight), I had some of the knowledge he needed to help build his program into a news magazine “with a different spirit.” I witnessed the rise of the Christian Right as a participant and an observer. Above all, Pat wanted to change the view of Evangelicals in the country, because he felt anti-Christian attitudes were bigoted, anti-intellectual, self-serving, and mostly, bad for the country.

We had unwritten policies in place at The 700 Club, for example, that denied access to overweight people. We required people who wrote to us to report a “miracle” to include a photograph, so that we could filter people out based on how they looked. We wanted youngish, intelligent, attractive and articulate people to counter the view that Christians are all stupid Bible-thumpers. We very rarely, if ever, invited guests on the show that were overweight or fit the stereotypes discovered in the Gallup study. When crowd shots were taken in the studio, the camera operators were advised to zoom in on the most attractive people in the audience. None of this was written down, of course; it was just understood.

Reagan was now President, and a conservative shift was underway in the U.S. In 1984, we did $248 million in contributions, and the clout of the Evangelicals was gaining. When Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert went down in scandals, Pat’s stature increased, because his was the voice of intelligent Christians. In 1985, The Saturday Evening Post ran a cover feature on Pat, raising the possibility of a run for President. We were later summoned to a retreat, where Pat told us that “God has told me to run for President and that I will win.” It split the ministry as the plan unfolded. Contributions crashed, as donors responded by closing their checkbooks.

And so it went. Pat lost. His ministry never recovered completely. The Christian Right evolved and eventually morphed into the Tea Party, and the gap between the Evangelicals and others widened, all of which leads us to this week, and President Obama’s historic support of giving the gay and lesbian community the same legal rights to marry that are enjoyed by heterosexual couples. In the same week, North Carolinians did the opposite ratified Amendment One, which outlawed gay marriage at the constitutional level. The usual suspects are saying the usual things in the usual “he said/she said” way, but beneath all that, I sense a great soul searching underway, one that I think is long overdue and will have lasting consequences for our culture. Jan van Lohuizen’s memo is a part of that, and so is what follows.

A young Christian writer, Rachel Evans, published a moving and personal piece this week that speaks to all of this. How to win a culture war and lose a generation is a heartfelt cry to anyone who will listen that “my generation is tired of the culture wars.”

We are tired of fighting, tired of vain efforts to advance the Kingdom through politics and power, tired of drawing lines in the sand, tired of being known for what we are against, not what we are for.

And when it comes to homosexuality, we no longer think in the black-and-white categories of the generations before ours. We know too many wonderful people from the LGBT community to consider homosexuality a mere “issue.” These are people, and they are our friends. When they tell us that something hurts them, we listen. And Amendment One hurts like hell.

…it should be clear that amendments like these needlessly offend gays and lesbians, damage the reputation of Christians, and further alienate young adults—both Christians and non-Christian—from the Church.

I like what Rachel has written and think she speaks for the vast majority of younger Christians in the country today. Her plea reminds me of something Kathie Lee Gifford once said on The 700 Club. Kathie Lee was the darling of the Evangelicals in the late 70s and early 80s until her very public divorce in 1983. Many people turned against her, and she talked about it on the show. “It’s easy to walk in black and white,” she said, “until life forces you into shades of gray.”

I have strong feelings about civil rights for gays and lesbians, and I think if what Rachel calls “The Church” wants an honest confrontation with God on the matter, it needs to take a deep and thoughtful look in the mirror first. Will it see the youthful, intelligent, slim and successful people of the old 700 Club, or will it see the bigoted, self-righteous sheep who deny the Gospel of Grace in favor of the very “Law” that Christ died to overcome? Take a look at this remarkable diagram from The Guardian for at least part of the answer.

And finally, hasn’t history noted that the prophets of the day were always the most different of all? People of the arts – those whose sensitivity puts them in contact with worlds beyond the flesh – have always been those who carried the message of the moment to others. Why? Because the others have a tendency to get too comfortable within the status quo.

One day long ago, the prophet Jeremiah took a message to the recently enthroned King Shallum, son of King Josiah. Josiah was a righteous king and the land and its people had prospered under his rule, but Shallum was in it for himself. He let the people do as they wished and built himself an incredible mansion. Jeremiah warned of trouble ahead as a result, and then said these powerful words about Shallum’s father: “He pleaded the cause of the poor and the afflicted. Then it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know me, saith the Lord?”

We need to get back to basics

Symbol for RSSThe issue is RSS, really simple syndication, a Web protocol that is EXTREMELY efficient for moving content from place to place along the byways of the Web. It’s an XML protocol, which means it passes content separate from formatting, to be reconstructed at the other end. It frustrates media companies, because it removes “their” content from the infrastructure within which they make their money.

I’ve been a student of all things new media for over 14 years, and the current spinning & whirling hodgepodge of everything from this to that has caused me to take a big step back for a bit. When this happens, I start looking at fundamentals and those “big” trends that I’ve talked about often. Maybe it’s the pending Facebook IPO, but I sense forces building for some form of cosmic explosion that will force everyone back to basics. Let me explain.

In earlier days of The Pomo Blog and in my earlier essays, I wrote of the revolution in what I called “unbundled media.” People were sharing individual cuts from albums and newspaper articles and TV clips among other things, all separated from their infrastructures. Today, it seems the successful ventures (can you say “Instagram?”) are trying to do the opposite: putting media into infrastructures like, well, Facebook. This is why I think we all need to be very careful today, because in big money’s attempt to inject artificial equilibrium into the chaos of the Web, things are moving in opposite directions. There will be a day of reckoning.

Back in the early days, I wrote of unbundling news stories and of building newsrooms that would function in such an environment. I even wrote about a revenue play with unbundled content, in some cases, created by the people formerly known as the advertisers. None of it has materialized yet to the extent that I saw, and I’ve always wondered why. I mean, I knew that media companies would struggle with the concept of making money apart from their infrastructures, but I felt (still do) that the right people with money could force this on unwilling industries and that media would eventually see and seize the new value.

There were others on this particular vibe back then, people I had already grown to respect. Umair Haque wrote of the difference between a blockbuster and a snowball rolling downhill, the latter of which is a part of a networked world. He also wrote of unbundled media and the value of quality content over marketing. Dave Winer was putting forth a concept called “rivers of news” based on the simple process of RSS — which he actually invented — and I felt I was joined at the hip with Dave. RSS was and is the perfect distribution vehicle for unbundled bits of media, but it, too, has not yet reached anything near its potential. Dave blames an almost conspiratorial effort by leaders in tech media. RSS, after all, is free and unencumbered. How does Silicon Valley make its fortune from that? Jeff Jarvis, Doc Searls, Jay Rosen and others were also on the vibe, and if anyone claims provenance for the whole thing, I think I’d have a problem with that. It doesn’t matter who got there first; the point is that a handful of people (much smarter than me) were all exploring this obvious (to us) development at about the same time, but it has seemingly sat there unattended.

Dave Winer never gave up. Heck, I don’t think any of us gave up, but he’s the one who has kept trying to move the rock while the rest of us have been basically cheering him on. Now this week, he’s posted “River of News — FTW!” and it bears a fresh jolt of energy and enthusiasm.

I wish I could work with the teams of the best publications. If that could happen, we’d kick ass. But I’m here on the sidelines giving advice that you guys take on very very slowly. It’s frustrating, because it’s been clear that rivers are the way to go, to me, for a very long time. A lot of ground has been lost in the publishing business while we wait. There’s a lot of running room in front of this idea. We can move quickly, if publishers have the will.

Dave Winer is a very interesting fellow. A lot of people misinterpret his genius for self absorption or worse, and I think the tech industry is the real loser for it. The more I read Dave, the more I get to know him, and the more I get to know him, the more convinced I become that he’s right.

Doc Searls followed Dave’s piece this week with “Take us to The Rivers.” Doc admonishes his readers to take up arms with Dave, encouraged by this piece by Jason Pontin of Technology Review.”

The bigger and older the industry, the harder it is to make fundamental reforms, or to embrace disruption. Publishing, including newspapers, had been working the same way for many generations, so it has taken awhile for the obvious to sink in…

Last fall, we moved all the editorial in our apps, including the magazine, into a simple RSS feed in a river of news. We dumped the digital replica. Now we’re redesigning, which we made entirely free for use, and we’ll follow the Financial Times in using HTML5, so that a reader will see Web pages optimized for any device, whether a desktop or laptop computer, a tablet, or a smart phone. Then we’ll kill our apps, too.

Now back to Dave… Please, this time, listen to the man. While you still can.

My sword is with this group to any extent possible, but I have some advice. Unless and until we set our minds to resolving the revenue problem for media, we’re going to have a hard time (with people who really count) being taken seriously. That’s not intended as a swipe at anybody; it’s a simple fact. How does a media company put ads into its river without insulting people? Is that something we cannot tolerate at all, or would it be best for us to create the rules and protocols? And what about using RSS as a commerce mechanism? The people putting out the content that really matters today are those who used to be advertisers. What’s so wrong with using this technology to resolve their problems. Again, if we could influence the rules, wouldn’t that be worth the effort? And besides, content from advertisers is news in many ways.

I wrote about this back in the day in “The Economy of Unbundled Advertising,” and while the ideas expressed there were perhaps ahead of their time, I believe fundamentally in their hand shake with the Web, and that’s via RSS.

I owe my blogging history to Dave Winer, for he helped me get started. He’s right as rain on this, but the anti-capitalist nature of an open, seemingly chaotic architecture is what’s causing so much grief for those institutions and industries who exist in the old-fashioned, top-down world of modernity. This is the pragmatic postmodernism about which I write and preach. It’s also why, I suspect, I’m so drawn to the minds of people like Dave, Doc, Umair, David Weinberger, Kevin Kelly, and many others. None are opposed to making money; they simply all see the limits of doing it the top-down way.

Like I said, it’s time for all of us to get back to the fundamentals.