The Nasty Lessons of Ashley Madison

AMThe real story in the Ashley Madison scandal is the crime of the hacking, yet I’ve seen little in the way of follow-up on that and no reports about efforts to remove the database. What and who’s working on finding and punishing the people who did this? While there have been some stories about this, media outlets seem far more interested in exploiting the crime for their own profit. I’m seeing headlines like “Head of Louisiana GOP had Ashley Madison Account” or “Christian YouTube Vlogger Had Paid Ashley Madison Account.” This is journalism? I saw a report this morning on how the stolen database is now searchable. Really, people? Who does that serve if not those who wish to exploit the sordid underbelly of murder by character assassination?

My friends and family know I’ve struggled with issues of addiction my whole life. It’s a very long story — and one that has a happy ending — but before recovery, I lived two lives. Most addicts “live” their mask in order to hide the very deep shame they feel. I, too, had an Ashley Madison account, one that I obtained before addictive behavior in this very private side of life was discovered. I was curious, and what I discovered inside was fascinating but a far cry from what’s advertised. I’m also a cultural observer specializing in the Internet. It’s my life’s work. Nevertheless, I cannot be honest with myself if I were to say that my only motive with Ashley Madison was curiosity or work. We have a saying in AA that “the longer you hang out in a barbershop, the greater the likelihood you’ll get a haircut some day.” That awareness acts as a hedge against what the saying teaches, and besides, my relationship with God is such that I fear very little these days. The point is I never gave AM a dime, and that’s required if you want to make a connection. That doesn’t make me innocent, but it does give me a perspective you may not have.

So here are what I view as the real issues of this scandal.

1. We’re a society of hypocrites (what a shock!), and I’m not talking about those who may have used the site to have an affair. The joyful, self-righteous, and condescending energy behind the “stories” in the wake of the scandal bears the cloying marks of a vindictive form of murder by character destruction. While I have no pity for Josh Duggar, his case reeks of rationalization for the heinous nature of the real crime — the release into the wild of the private database. I honestly wonder how some people can look themselves in the mirror without seeing the enormous mote in their eye, for the exploitation of this leak for the sake of personal or political gain is as much a part of the crime as the leak itself. What have we become? We all need to be careful when stoning our neighbors like this, for the very glass houses we occupy could explode into millions of dangerous shards.

2. This is an early example of the legal system encountering the chaos of the network and attempting to wrestle it to 20th Century ground in service to the hierarchy. For one thing, lawsuits over breach of privacy will bankrupt Ashley Madison’s parent company, so the only people who’ll make any money from this are the lawyers. It’s simply too big a mess, and this is sanctioned and sanctified extortion. Secondly, do we really wish to live in a world where hackers can force this kind of ambulance chasing? If we’re ever going to reach a point where identity is a network requirement, this kind of breach simply cannot be tolerated, for the rules of real life that govern behavior run smack dab into the world of thoughts online. This is why membership in the site does not necessarily indicate intent to act, and why public assumptions to the contrary are such an egregious invasion of privacy and the purest form of “The Scarlet Letter.” My hope is always that we’ll rewrite some laws that will prevent lawsuits in the wake of such actions. There’s little hope for that right now, because our legislatures are filled with the same lawyers who profit from the laws they create. As I’ve written many times, it’s the biggest conflict of interest ever known to humankind. There’s no protection against time and chance.

3. This case reveals the true extent to which modernist hyperbole has replaced fact as a determining element of human understanding. Ashley Madison advertises itself as a place where men and women (can) find each other to have an affair, without strings attached. Hell, there’s even a guarantee and the boast of over a million “satisfied” members! The brand’s photo of a comely woman holding her finger to her lips is provocative and full of meaning. Really, people? Have we forgotten caveat emptor? It’s a business, and businesses are all about money, no matter what’s on the sign out front. These people will do anything and say anything to get a renewable fee from users. And like everything else in the world of adult entertainment (a.k.a. porn), therefore, the promise vastly exceeds the delivery, and it’s hopelessly naïve to think otherwise. Even if their hype is to be believed, for every “satisfied” customer, there are 36 dissatisfied members. What is Ashley Madison to them, if not, at best, a fantasy?

4. There are a staggering number of unhappy people in our world. Rather than slinging stones, we ought to be taking a deep look into the cave that’s home to all of these souls. My Evangelical friends would submit that all they need is Jesus, but you’d be amazed to discover the degree to which many of these people have been utterly rejected by the church. And now, the elbows and winks that accompany our self-righteous judgment of others in the wake of this scandal makes us the ones to be pitied. What is it about modern Christianity that produces such arrogance? The degree of discontent demonstrated in a website alleged to be for cheaters that has 37 million members ought to give us pause that maybe we’re not as perfect as we think we are. What does it say about our institutions? I think it discloses (again) that what we’ve built as a culture isn’t working. Let’s face it; Ashley Madison wouldn’t exist without demand. Shut it down, and that demand will retreat once again to the shadows, but it won’t go away.

Look, if this whole thing inspires discussion about infidelity, that’s a good thing. But during the discussion, let’s also look at the root causes (like the soul sickness of selfishness) and not dismiss it with the oversimplified notion of blaming a symptom instead of the disease.

The Ashley Madison story is one of the biggest of the 21st Century and a harbinger of conflicts yet to come. It has the potential to destroy not only real people but freedom itself, including one that’s most precious to all of us, the freedom of thought.

We all ought to be concerned.

Essay: The Fading Levers of Commerce

Here is the latest in my ongoing series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World.

The Fading Levers of Commerce

Hello, friends. I’m writing a new book, so it’s hard to find time to continue my essay series, but the article referenced in this one so got my goat that I simply couldn’t stand it. Last week, Fortune published a missive critical of Apple for encouraging ad blocking on the Web by building new mechanisms into iOS9 that allow for easier ad blocking software by developers. Why is it critical? Because it’ll do exactly what its promising, and that is intolerable to the ad industry. Sheesh. Give me a friggin’ break! Look in the mirror, ad people. You’ve brought this on yourselves.

Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point

“(W)e’ve reached the end of the Golden Age of Advertising,” says pioneering media researcher Gordon Borrell in a new report that paints a very realistic picture of the state of local advertising. This report — Local Advertising Hits A Tipping Point — is a 5-year follow-up to a report published in 2010 and tracks the opinions of 7,228 small and mid-size advertisers (SMBs).

While there is a lot of between-the-lines conclusions to be drawn, here are just a few of the report’s findings. Remember, these are advertisers speaking, or it would be more appropriate to call them “the people formerly known as the advertisers.”

  • 82% of SMBs have established their own media channel in the form of a website or social media page.
  • Since 2007, spending has skyrocketed to the point at which businesses last year spent 72% more on marketing services and promotions than they had spent 10 years earlier. Meanwhile, the annual expenditure on local advertising was 22% less than it was a decade ago.
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  • 72% of those are purchasing digital services to support those channels, spending far more on those efforts than on basic advertising.
  • By examining IRS tax records, Borrell concludes that “if businesses were devoting the same percentage of this year’s gross revenues to advertising as they were 10 years ago, the advertising economy would be $56 billion richer.”
  • Online media appeals to the largest percentage of local advertisers and takes the largest share of ad budgets of any other media. This is a pedestal newspapers have occupied for over 300 years! “Over the next 12 months, the gap will almost certainly widen to the point that all traditional advertising channels — print, broadcast, outdoor and mail — begin to look like niche support mechanisms to a local businesses’ digital marketing plan.”Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 12.33.49 PM
  • Traditional media has devolved into an option, selected by habit or by preference but certainly not by necessity.
  • Online is so strong that by 2020, Borrell projects that all traditional media will scramble to maintain a small set of advertisers who will spend small shares of their budgets with them.
  • Local businesses, on average, get 20% of their sales from online, versus 13% by the old standby, the telephone.
  • These businesses have just begun to become digitally savvy, according to a new metric from Borrell. 85% of SMBs fell short of a line considered “very active” in digital activity. What this means is that they are novices that somebody can teach and that the more savvy they become, the more disruptive they’ll likely be.
  • 82% of respondents maintain a social media page with an average of 2,123 followers, though 61% have fewer than 1,000. The report notes that growing their own audience base equates to real customers for SMBs, which is radically different than buying ads based on somebody else’s reach.
  • Native advertising (a.k.a. Content Marketing) is another area of satisfaction for SMBs, although its use is low. This equates to a growth opportunity for those providing a service.
  • Mobile is another BIG area of interest, although not in any traditional advertising sense. The projected spending categories for mobile relate almost entirely to SMBs own web franchises and include things like Responsive Design (mobile-friendly), search, SMS, proximity, apps and video.

With all Borrell research, it’s useful to take a step back and try to get a 30,000 foot view. What this report doesn’t say directly is that the levers of commerce in our world are shifting to the hands of businesses themselves due to the growth and development of a networked culture. The beauty (or evil, depending on your perspective) of the network is that it is a 3-way communications medium, which allows human beings to by-pass filters that the network deems inefficient and, frankly, now useless. This includes our entire cultural infrastructure of expertise divided into silos, the first of which is how we communicate. There will be others.

This Borrell report tracks empirically the shifts relating to the way money changes hands in the levers that grease of the skids used by businesses to reach customers and sell their wares. Those businesses are loudly telling us now — along with their customers — exactly how THEY want things done, and clearly that doesn’t include traditional forms of getting the word out. It’s too expensive. It’s too haphazard. It’s out of control in ways that we tend to disregard in the name of profit.

While I certainly respect the crisis that journalism may face in all of this, we’ve been our own worst enemies in the assumption that we could simply shift our model to the Web. It’s too late to effect any significant change in that strategic blunder, but it’s not too late to shift our focus to what we’re being given and away from what we want. That, I’m afraid, is the only logical path for the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

Meanwhile, Gordon Borrell will continue to apply his fascinating research to helping us understanding not only what’s going on today but also where that’s all headed.

Just sayin…

Dear people.

Once upon a time there was a writer who tried to present logical views of tomorrow in a rapidly-changing media universe. His words were rejected, and the reasons given were usually based in the idea that this prophet’s projections were a) not our business model b) too negative or c) my favorite: too out there (in other words, crazy). This was one of them: “Creating Spectrum Within Spectrum,” published in September of 2007.

I’m waiting (but not holding my breath) for an arrangement between all incumbents that allows them to move their competition between each other to a single platform on the Web, to operate as they wish within this specialized platform. Think of it as moving their existing spectrum to cyberspace and operating therein. If you want network television, for example, you go to the network television platform. If you want movies, you go to the movie section, and so forth. This could actually be done — and it would be useful for “consumers” — but it would require individual companies within these industries to work together, and that is very unlikely to happen.

For local media, the same thing could be done. If users wanted access to local news video, they would go to one place, where all local news video was available. This would create a form of spectrum within the whole, where individual players could duke it out just like they do in their own universe today. The problem, again, is that it would require separate companies to work together, and that’s highly problematic. The number one station would tell the others to go to hell, because they think they can a) do just fine on their own and b) it would “cheapen” them by putting their work on the same stage as their competitors.

Would this station prefer their work to stand alone as a blip in the overall spectrum of the Web or be a part of a bigger blip, a piece of spectrum designed specifically to better enable users to find their work? And this same number one station is stratching its head, trying to figure out how it can attract a larger audience.

For the answer to this dilemma, let’s go back downtown, to that piece of closed retail spectrum. As people moved to the suburbs, the retail world understood that it had to be where the people were. It could not expect the people to come to them.

And so the suburban shopping mall was created, and what is a mall but a group of competitors banded together for the convenience of shoppers? Would the number one department store refuse to anchor the mall, because its chief competitor was on the other end? Of course not!

Fast forward to today, where my friend Harry Jessell of TVNewsCheck and NetNewsCheck fame published an article: TV News Groups To Offer Local News App.

“In the ideal world, we aspire for it to be an iconic destination for people who care about local news,” says Louis Gump, the CEO who developed similar news apps for CNN and The Weather Channel.

“You can see multiple stations potentially in the area where you live and you can also get content from other places you care about, either because you are from there or you have friends who live there.”

…The charter station groups insure a large initial footprint for the service. Collectively, they operate 112 news-producing stations in 84 markets, including eight of the Top 10 and 17 of the Top 25. There will be multiple stations in 21 of the markets.

That’s just for starters. NewsON intends to sign on other stations or “affiliates” to stretch the footprint across the entire nation. “I would be ecstatic to see one station out of every market. We would like to serve everybody in the U.S. with content that it relevant to them. That a big audacious goal.

“I’m not assuming that every last station group will participate, but I want them to know that everybody is welcome to participate in some form or fashion.”

And so, once again, the writer rests his case. How do you judge a prophet? If the things he says come to pass.

Just sayin…

The Referral-Driven Web

referral

The vast majority of online consumers of news and information connect with content through what Google calls “referrals,” and in my experience and study, second place isn’t even close.

This phenomenon has been growing for years, but the rise of social media has accelerated it to the point where it cannot be ignored. In fact, we’re at the place where it’s safe to say — with a great deal of certainty — that for traditional media companies, online distribution is referral-driven. Our online strategies and tactics, therefore, need to be centered around this reality, and that includes making money.

I like to use Google Analytics, because it provides an apples-to-apples comparison with most of the Web, including local businesses. If you’re going to use data to sell your services, you might as well use a reference that your customers understand. There are many other analytics systems available to media companies, but understanding your web usage through Google’s eyes provides standards accepted by our real online competition — the pureplays. We can only gain.

Session Acquisition is a key component of website understanding: how and where do our “eyeballs” come from? Google identifies people who visit a site by rules-based groupings known as “Channels,” which is their way of quantifying sessions. These involve several types of referrals, including social, search, email, and others.

Of the limited sites I’ve studied, around 3/4 of traffic comes via referrals. They tend to view one page and leave via that same page. Contemporary media websites have become mostly mobile, as shown by shrinking numbers of sessions recorded as originating from desktops. This is important, because the vast majority of those sessions are acquired via referrals.

The top referrer I’ve seen is Facebook, and its dominance is enormous. A recent site I studied revealed over half of all traffic (52%) came via Facebook, and most of those (68%) came via mobile.

This strongly suggests that people themselves are showing media companies how they want their content served, and our response is crucial.

Will we force them into an infrastructure built upon our wants and needs, or will we create an experience for users that will encourage them to come back? Remember, this is a world of abundance, not scarcity, and that means it’s entirely a pull medium.

Attraction works better than promotion. People don’t have to tolerate our interruptions anymore, because they can find what they need elsewhere. Oh, there are occasionally “must see” pieces of video, for example, but exclusivity is an advantage only where distribution can be controlled.

People can find them almost anywhere today, even down to just the core scene or scenes. Trying to protect this offline advantage online forces us into relentlessly playing defense at a time when we’d be better off adhering to the new rules being written by the people formerly known as the audience.

For ideas about how to create a favorable pull experience for users, we need to look to new media companies, those who aren’t bound by the concept of competing online as an offline company.

Click on any link from ESPN or Digiday, for example, and you’ll find the piece you’re seeking is at the top of an infinite scroll. I mean, how smart is this? If users are going to view only one page via referrals, why not make that page into something that allows (not forces) them to scroll on beyond a single story? We’re the ones who believe the one-page equals one-story model is what we need. despite the evidence that people don’t like to click, especially via mobile.

The question hounding media companies since the dawn of the Internet and its World Wide Web has been “how can we use this invention to further our business model?” Newspapers created a response that was identical to its offline products and even carried the same language with words like “pages” and the “fold.” TV stations responded initially with the newspaper model, but when we finally got around to video, we brought with us the 30-second spot. Brand extension has always been our goal, for it’s the power of those brands that fueled the business of mass media, a scarcity that only those with a license or a printing press could provide. We had the levers that those with money could pull to grease the wheels of commerce, and it was a heady thing.

As we’ve learned by now, however, the Web is nothing like what we imagined, and evidence is now coming forth that offers a very clear understanding of how users connect with media content. We owe it to ourselves to look at this with a clean whiteboard. Our future depends on it.

The lesson of Bill Simmons and ESPN

bs_report_300The always astute James Andrew Miller, writing for Vanity Fair, makes an important observation for all media in his “Inside the Shocking, Abrupt Divorce of Bill Simmons and ESPN.”

In the end, one could say with minimal originality, but considerable accuracy, that Bill Simmons simply flew too close to the sun. He miscalculated how much value ESPN put on him and on his unique abilities and talents. He might also have forgotten a cardinal company rule that remains sacred whether it’s ESPN’s Old Guard talking or its new one: Nobody, but nobody, can be bigger than those four initials.

On the other hand, it could be said that Bristol forgot a kind of cardinal rule itself: In an era where fans can get not just scores but highlights, and a ton more, on their smart phones, distinctive and original content is the way to engage and hold onto an audience plopped in front of big 99-inch screens. That content often comes with a big price tag—and with a requirement that the people with unique abilities and talent who create it be treated like the stars you’ve paid for.

In a world of mass media, the single brand of the company rides atop every other marketing concern. This is a core Madison Avenue concept and the truth behind Miller’s statement that “nobody can be bigger than those four initials (ESPN).” In the next paragraph, however, he describes the truth of Jay Rosen’s The Great Horizontal, which is the newer and greater reality of today and, especially, tomorrow.

So allow me to restate what I believe is obvious. Media is increasingly about personal brands, because those are what’s permitted in the revolutionary conversation taking place among the people formerly known as the audience (another Rosen witticism). Even where brands are able to “act” like people, they are not, and this is the harsh reality of doing commerce in the age of the consumer. Harvard’s brilliant Umair Haque noted long ago that companies should be spending money on products instead of marketing, and his justification was this very thing.

This is why I encourage students and people already in the media industries to expend the energy necessary to create and maintain their personal brands. In the end, it’s the only thing that really matters in a networked world, where exchanges of knowledge and information occur at the personal level. The age of slick marketing is drawing to a close. You won’t be able to buy your way into anything downstream, because the process for doing such is slowly disintegrating. In 15 years of trying, Madison Avenue has returned to an old stand-by — one that empowered consumers have already dismissed — the pop-up ad. It’s truly amazing that, just like The Odd Couple, this tired old irritant is back with a vengeance. How true is the old saw that if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Commerce in the Great Horizontal will require great products and services and people willing and able to pass them around. There’s already the idea that “influencers” at the personal level are what product manufacturers need to buy, but that’s merely wishful thinking from the hammer known as Madison Avenue. I don’t have a map with the route from here to there charted, but the laws of attraction will be more useful than the laws of promotion.