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.

UPDATE: Independent Contractors for Media

I’ve been writing about the inevitability of media companies moving to independent contractors for over a decade, and the signs continue to point in that direction. As revenues slow, cost-cutting becomes the only way to maintain margins, and the one-to-many need to wrap employees into one super brand will become less important in the profit-driven minds of managers. Besides, the Net — which is where everything’s going — is more receptive to personal brands than those of industry. So-called “social” media is where you’ll find the people formerly known as the audience, and big brands don’t belong there.

INSEAD’s Knowledge blog uses the Dutch model to make the statement: The Future for Labour Is Self-Employment, validating the ideas expressed in an essay that I published five years ago.

nonemployerIn 2005, we crossed a milestone in this country when the number of people self-employed went over 20 million. Data from the Small Business Administration put that figure over 21 million in the latest year for which the information was reported, 2008. By now, we expect that number is approaching 23 million, as more and more people — especially older people — set up eBay stores or find other ways to support themselves and their families online. These people are well-educated in the ways of the Web and don’t spend their marketing money in traditional ways. This figure bears watching, for while they live and work in our communities and neighborhoods, the money they earn comes from everywhere. They are a part of a new subset of our economy, and…it’s actually growing.

The economy is better than it was in 2008, and much of that has been due to the continued rise of self-employment. A Business Week article in 2011 put the number at 40 million and offered the advice that “To boost the economy, help the self-employed.” As an optimist, I believe this is an issue that Congress will have to address sooner than later. The article notes “By 2019, the self-employed will account for 40 percent of all American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” How can such a staggering number not include reporters, photographers and other practitioners of “the news” downstream?

Another Bureau of Labor Statistics article  published last year offers the below graph. Note that writers and photographers are already two careers with high self-employment rates.

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.18.49 AM

Social Media’s Antisocial Behavior

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

Social Media’s Antisocial Behavior

My old friend David Johnson calls advertising on Facebook “antisocial,” and I have to agree with him. It’s part of a much bigger argument about the nature of advertising in general on the Web, but for social media companies, it’s even more acute, because, well, they’re supposed to be “social.” Most advertising assumes a mass audience, as if presenting from a stage. However, advertising in a social environment is more like being at a party, and it’s very tricky, because nobody’s there to see a show. On the other hand, Facebook is experimenting with forms of content that are really ads, and I think this has great downstream possibilities for all media online. One thing is certain, changes in online advertising are accelerating, and we all need to be aware.

Holy Twitter

preacher at the pulpitA New York Times article on religious broadcasters and Twitter misses a fairly big point while offering insight to “Twitter Dynamos, Offering Word of God’s Love.”

Joyce Meyer, Max Lucado and Andy Stanley were not well known inside Twitter’s offices. But they had all built loyal ranks of followers well beyond their social networks — they were evangelical Christian leaders whose inspirational messages of God’s love perform about 30 times as well as Twitter messages from pop culture powerhouses like Lady Gaga.

This may be a bulletin to the Times and the good folks at Twitter, but it shouldn’t be a surprise whatsoever to anybody.

Evangelical Christians have long been at the forefront of any technological means that furthers their evangelical ends. Two of the twelve transponders on RCA’s first (Satcom 1) satellite were owned by religious groups, including Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. The Christian Church is the penultimate one-to-many institution, whether it’s inside the worship hall or via the airwaves. Nobody “gets” mass marketing or the art of fundraising like these people do; it is their stock and trade.

This is the church.
This is the steeple,
Open it up
And see all the people.

When hologram transmission becomes a reality later this century, mark my words: Evangelicals will be right there.

The point that I want to note is that people who view Twitter or any form of social media completely as one-to-many miss its “social” reality. This is true of media, celebrities, politicos, athletes or, yes, the Evangelicals. It’s one thing to use it as a form of mass media, but the smart innovators know that who you follow is more important than who follows you. This is not, nor will it ever be what Evangelicals want or use Twitter for. It’s all about promoting their own ministries through blessing their followers with inspirational quotes.

“Pastors tell me, Twitter is just made for the Bible,” (Twitter’s) Ms. Díaz-Ortiz said.

It’s close. On average, verses in the King James Version are about 100 characters long, leaving room to slip in a #bible hashtag and still come in under the 140-character limit.

And proverbs are powerful draws on Twitter.

Religion, like every other institution in the West is being challenged by young (and older) people with a much more postmodern view than their parents’ generation practiced. Top-down or one-to-many fits Modernist thinking, which includes a God-to-us-through-the-church perspective. Postmodernists prefer the concept of God among us, the Holy Spirit. The term “postmodern” is often substituted as “postChristian,” and this is a part of the same cultural disruption that everyone is facing.

I’ve always been a fan of the question “What would Jesus do?” because the answers are rarely what the coiners of the phrase intended. Since Jesus’ ministry was in and among the suffering, the poor and the afflicted, one must ask whether the ministry of “blessing the saints” is what Twitter could or even should represent to Christians. Perhaps one day the New York Times will write about a new ministry that monitors Twitter for signs of distress or suffering among the people of the world — and then rushes in to provide relief.

No, wait. Along with a giant, corporate groan among all these folks, I also hear faint sounds of, cough-cough, well Terry, cough-cough, that’s just not my ministry.

This bubble stuff feels eerily familiar

Celebrating after the AOL Time Warner mergerI was sitting in a conference room at the hi-tech incubator BizTech in Huntsville, Alabama with hopeful eyes fixed on the TV. It was January 10, 2000, and on the screen was the press conference during which the AOL and Time Warner merger was announced. I remember it like it was yesterday. Here I was trying to raise a million dollars for my own start-up, ANSIR (A New Style In Relating), and these guys were talking about a merger valued at $350 billion. AOL itself was valued for the deal at $165 billion. It was then and remains the biggest merger in business history.

I remember the excitement and the wonder of it all. Little did we know it was all just part of a big market bubble, and I remember especially this provocative line from Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, a very sane, important and knowledgeable businessman at the time.

“I accept that something profound is happening in the Internet space; I believe that. The new media stock-market valuations are real — not in every case, of course. But what AOL has done is get first position in this new world. Its valuation is real, and I am attesting to that.”

Levin’s attestation would later be proven wrong, and he would be forced out as the merged company shriveled under the blended brand. It is now a case study in why what Levin said is a bad reason to take such an enormous gamble. Walt Disney built his empire with what he called “the plausible impossible,” and I suspect that was at work here. Logic is great, the old saying goes, unless you begin at the wrong spot. Believing the valuations was what grew the bubble. Turns out that if it seems unbelievable, it probably is.

I’m recalling this today, because I’m feeling the same vibe as Facebook is about to approach Wall Street with an IPO valued at $100 billion, a valuation that’s roughly 100 times its earnings from last year. It sounds and feels oh so familiar.

So are we in a bubble? The always astute Mathew Ingram has a nice overview of the subject today that’s worth a read, although his conclusion tends to support those who feel we’re not.

So while some venture funds may be doing their best to inflate expectations and cash in on high valuations, that appears to be causing problems only at the small end of the startup pool — for now. Without any obvious signs of a public-stock mania that puts individual shareholders at risk, it’s hard to argue that we are in a 1990s-style bubble yet (although some critics fear that the new crowdfunding bill could accelerate the problem). Whether Facebook’s IPO triggers a broader inflationary atmosphere remains to be seen.

Dave Winer says we’re “definitely” in a bubble, and I believe him. I mean, look at the evidence. AOL’s model was based on a pre-Internet business model, one we know of as mass marketing. They could make tons of money, if they could just keep people inside their walls, a “walled garden” as many would later call it. When the fickle public disagreed, a new garden called MySpace sprang up. This social network could make money the same way, and for awhile, things looked good, until a young guy named Mark Zuckerberg took over with his Facebook. So here we are again, and the whole thing still hinges on the same value proposition, that Facebook can somehow keep those people within its walls. Old school media value, after all, is about controlling the infrastructure for content, whether its made by the New York Times, Zuckerberg or Joe Blow.

And for the last few weeks, we’ve been treated to justification and rationalization that Facebook is somehow different than its predecessors. The company paid a billion dollars for Instagram in what most (myself included) feel was an overpriced grab at real estate Facebook needed to be inside its wall instead of outside. But is Facebook substantially different that previous walled-garden approaches? Get real. It may have a few more bells and whistles and connections, but the core competency is the same. Web research and consulting firm BIA/Kelsey is hosting a webinar on the topic this week to probe this specific issue:

…questions continue to swirl about its (Facebook’s) actual worth and whether any company can justify becoming public at such a high value. The prevailing question: How will Facebook support this valuation…?

I don’t believe it can be justified, although lots of smart people who’ve doubtless done their homework will try to explain that it is entirely justified.

I’m sure Mr. Levin had done his homework when he made that infamous statement back in January of 2000, but at some point in a gamble, you must consider that you could be wrong, partly or as the AOL Time Warner deal proved, utterly and completely. So in addition to homework, what say we also consider common sense. We could also ask a few teenagers.

“Everybody’s switching to Twitter,” a 17-year old family member told me. She used to be a pretty regular user of social media, but her activity has been shrinking for the last year or so. She doesn’t need Facebook anymore, and besides, “it’s pretty lame.” Think about that for a minute. It’s AOL all over again.

“To everything is a season,” we’re taught. I wouldn’t bet on Facebook’s future if you gave me the money with which to do it.

Social TV and Second Screens: To What End?

Here’s the latest in the ongoing series of essays, “Local Media in a Postmodern World:”

Social TV and Second Screens: To What End?

This one is for broadcasters and broadcast companies. An awkward situation is brewing for broadcasters in the world of social media. As advertisers continue to spend money on themselves that used to go to advertising, they’re discovering the value of so-called “second screen” experiences and, in some cases, tailoring their TV ads to jump start the process. The problem is that the TV industry is doing the same thing, and in so doing, competing with the people who pay the bills. This is doubly problematic, because we already know that this “second screen” activity can and does take place during the very commercial breaks that pay those bills. If you haven’t explored the world of unintended consequences in this area, I urge you to read this essay – all the way through.