The problem with RSS

RSS logoGoogle shuts down its RSS reader soon, and this has the usual suspects talking about what’s “wrong” with RSS. I’ve written much about the technology, and I’ve always been an enormous fan. Dave Winer basically invented the concept of moving content around the Web sans formatting, and it’s always “worked” for me. I built aggregators in Nashville that were enormously popular among the web crowd, and I’ve supported Dave at every turn. Dave likes news rivers, and I do, too, but I don’t believe that’s the best use of RSS. One of the interesting things about RSS is its versatility, as Dave explains:

…people who believe in mailbox-style RSS readers are in a RDF. If I say “I like a river style of news” they almost explode in passion and sometimes rage. They tell you what they need. At length, in great detail. I never understood why they do this. But I have found the solution. Just say ‘Hey I can have a river and you can have a mailbox and the earth will still revolve around the sun, birds will sing in the morning, people will fall in love and have babies, etc etc.’ My getting what I want won’t effect you getting what you want.”

In my view, RSS is an XML software that stands alone in the distribution of unbundled media. The reason it hasn’t blossomed into what it could be is that the people who make the content that we presumably want to read/watch make their money via THEIR infrastructures, not the content directly. Therefore, they are disincentivized to participate in anything that lessens the need for that infrastructure. This has led to media companies using the “headline and couple sentence” format in their RSS distribution.

Imagine Twitter being handled this way. Instead of 140 characters, everybody sent just 40 characters, with the requirement that the user had to click on the Twitter item in order to read the remaining 100 characters. Obviously, that would be a pain-in-the-ass, and Twitter would soon cease to exist. This is different than tweets that contain links. In my example, access to the link would be beyond the first 40 characters. To me, this has been the misuse of this great piece of technology. I profoundly believe in full-feed RSS. To me, that’s its most powerful product, and until we find a way to play in that environment, RSS will never reach its full potential.

The dawn of so-called “Native Advertising” could bring with it a market for distributing this kind of content via RSS, and that might open the flood gates of revenue for entrepreneurs and those who make the content.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

When advertising enters the stream

Here’s the latest in my on-going series of essays, Local Media in a Postmodern World. I think this may be one of the most important I’ve ever published, so read on.

When Advertising Enters the Stream

Thanks to the Web, the world of digital news and information is moving from static pages to real-time streams, à la Twitter and Facebook. My friend and Harvard geek David Weinberger recently wrote that the Net has altered his personal time scale, and I feel that, too. “The Net can do a hundred years in a gulp,” Weinberger wrote.” Ten thousand years is the new century.” That sense of accelerated time is what’s also contributing to a very old and archaic sense that becomes obvious when consuming various forms of news as a finished product. This is all a work-in-progress, and nobody really knows where it’s all headed.

One thing is certain, however. For this to make any sense, the ad industry is going to have to be a part of it, because content producers won’t contribute to live streams unless they get paid. For the first time, in just the past month, I read an informed article about this, and it prompted an immediate advisory to our clients. This essay expands that thinking and explains why I think it’s time for real action.

New Pew report should open eyes

Today’s new report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reveals some unsurprising but damning information about news websites that we can ill afford to ignore. Here are the key findings:

  • In-House ads, ads selling or promoting a news organizations own products, fill more space across these news websites than any other advertising category.
  • The finance industry is represented far more than any other on the news websites studied.
  • Discount or coupon advertising such as Groupon was fairly limited.
  • Most of the news sites did not feature ads targeted to consumers based on their online behavior.
  • News organizations tend to rely most heavily on static banner ads.
  • Even though search ads don’t appear on most news sites, Google’s advertising presence is still strong there.

What this says to me is that media companies continue to try and force “their” business model into a medium that rejects it. Moreover, I think this is right where Silicon Valley wants us.

Media, in its purest business sense, is an order-taker world. What we have is so scarce and so important that people call us to spend their money with us. In the good old days, regardless of which form of media we’re talking about, the sales force got into a nice rhythm of sitting at desks and counting the money. Oh I know that people will debate this, but a replacement for that rhythm is what we desperately seek today. We need something to replace it, because if we have to work harder to make and sell our audiences, the price of sale (POS) goes way up, and our business model itself collapses.

Searching for this replacement online, however, has been our mistake, because the obvious benefits of mass marketing are utterly disrupted by the Web, and mass marketing is all we know. All we’ve done is waste our time, and the Pew report makes that statement loud and clear.

Beginning with newspapers and continuing with television and other forms of media, we’ve built websites that serve (we think) the business model of mass marketing, and that has been nothing less than suicidal. So far downstream are we in this error that we can’t even imagine anything different for now, so let’s begin with a few basics:

  • Time is the new currency. We don’t care about this in the outside world, where scarcity earns us the right to stomp all over people in the name of “serving” them, but online, this is a crucial, crucial reality. We must conform our online products to this reality.
  • Do what you do best and link to the rest. In a world where infrastructure carries the monetization mechanism, it’s necessary to keep people inside that infrastructure for as long as possible. This doesn’t work forever online, however (think AOL, not Facebook), because the Web is bigger than anybody’s application. One of the oldest Web axioms is “If you send people away, they will come back.” This is a habit unpracticed by media companies, but one we must begin embracing.
  • Create “for” the Web by accepting the following: The Web is not TV. The Web is not newspapers. “The Web is more a social creation than a technical one,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The Web is a three-way form of communication: up/down, down/up and sideways. The Web is real-time flows and streams, not static displays.
  • News content online must be unbundled, so that users in the network can pass it around to meet their needs to inform and share. Our need to drive users to our infrastructure is contrary to this, and we must find the courage and creativity to do something about it.
  • Advertising is content — the only new content that really matters. Advertisers are the new content makers, and we need to be exploiting our strengths as experts in the world of content creation in order to serve this burgeoning market.

There are so many things I could say about what we need to be doing, but that would take all day and then some. The point of this Pew report — and many others like it — is that what we’re doing isn’t working, and that’s being kind.

We’ll never get out of this hole unless we first stop digging.

The power of the personal brand (in a social world)

Kim KardashianIn a recent Nieman Journalism Lab article on the possibility of newspapers making money by selling ads on Twitter, Justin Ellis notes the successful efforts pioneered by celebrities and athletes. The fact is that the reach of certain celebrities far exceeds that of traditional media companies, so why shouldn’t advertisers pay them instead of media companies to get their word out? Besides, there’s that whole illusion of endorsement thing.

Mr. Ellis says much in a tongue-in-cheek reference to a certain reality show “star.”

Not to mention non-news outlets like, um, Kim Kardashian, for whom pay-per-tweet is a long-standing phenomenon.

Kardashian may be a “non-news outlet,” but she is so only in the sense of a traditional view of “news.” Prior to social media, celebrities required the filter of news organizations in order to be promoted, but much of that is now in their own hands. Are they “media companies?” Of course they are. And just as Wal-Mart has a bigger advertising platform than the New York Times and the Washington Post combined, Hollywood and our athletic fields are cranking out new platforms regularly. It’s into this environment that the efforts of newspapers to play copycat look just a little weak in comparison.

In the last few weeks, The Hartford Courant and The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune have experimented with using Twitter as a new advertising channel. At the Courant, they’ve started offering twice-daily deals to local businesses — think Groupon by tweet — to their followers. The Times-Picayune, more controversially, used Twitter to advertise itself — or at least its website, as the online division of its parent company, Advance Publications, paid New Orleans Saints players to tweet about the newspaper’s relaunched Saints site on Nola.com.

Mr. Ellis notes that the hashtag #spon, which appears at the end of some tweets is a “semi-legible indicator of a sponsored tweet.”

A Twitter search for #spon is an enlightening look,” he adds, “into what sorts of companies are paying people to tweet: at the moment, Verizon, Clorox, Pepperidge Farm, and Q-Tips.”

I like what Advance Publications did in employing NFL celebrities to promote its website, but the use of a mass media Twitter news stream is problematic. It’s is a part of what I dubbed “unbundled advertising” in a 2005 essay about how to make money in the unbundled universe of the Web. It was written prior to Twitter.

If unbundled media is where we’re headed, then unbundled advertising must necessarily follow. This is a scary concept, however, for there is no command and control mechanism or manipulable infrastructure in the unbundled world. The upside, though, is that it costs very little to participate. All that’s necessary is the release what I call “ad pieces” into the seeming chaos of the Internet, where other businesses will take those pieces and reassemble them when summoned by customers who are trading their scarcity for information they actually want.

So while I fully support the concept here, we need to go back to the comparison with Kim Kardashian to understand why media companies using this particular application — in their own streams — is suspect strategically. The problem is that Kim Kardashian is a real person; The Hartford Courant is not. Ms. Kardashian’s brand is personal and as transparent as a reality star can be. Followers and fans connect with her on a visceral level. They experience emotions in their vicarious relationship with her. When Ms. Kardashian tweets for a sponsor, there’s an inference that she wouldn’t try to “fool” her fans. The endorsement also benefits her directly, and fans understand, accept and appreciate that. The few seconds it takes to “see” the endorsement isn’t wasted; it supports a real person with whom fans are connected.

Moreover, the purpose of following a celebrity on Twitter is different than the purpose of following a news organization’s stream. For Ms. Kardashian, it’s about the connection. With The Hartford Courant, it’s about the news feed. To the former, therefore, a sponsored tweet is about the person, but to the latter, it’s about noise, an interference. A sponsored tweet in the midst of a stream of news is an interruption. It’s, well, advertising.

Nevertheless, it’s good strategic thinking, because it gets us into the world of unbundling, where aggregation is the real value proposition. We’d do much better, however, if we would take up the challenge of developing the personal brands of our news people and helping them create the relational types of connections with fans enjoyed by others with celebrity. This would directly conflict with the core value proposition of mass media — the maintenance of a sterile stage from which to place advertisements — so it’s not likely a concept that media companies will enthusiastically embrace. Moreover, media companies think of employees as “theirs,” so the idea of trumpeting a brand that might one day quit and go elsewhere seems counterintuitive. This is, however, precisely the kind of thinking we need to employ, for today’s media is increasingly unbundled and social, and people follow people, not institutions.

But Mr. Ellis nails the real problem. “Newspapers,” he wrote, “are trying to insert themselves as a middleman in a medium that doesn’t require one.” He’s right. With the possible exception of aggregators, there’s just no market for middlemen online. Advertising is the new content king, because they can place that content directly in front of people in the same way we can. The people formerly known as the advertisers are now competing with us for the same eyeballs.

It’s a battle we’ll lose, because they have the money.

Driving traffic (that doesn’t want the ride)

Nobody wants to be drivenThe new Pew study revealing that media companies use Twitter almost exclusively for spreading links to their own content comes as no surprise.

…mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.

Back when Twitter first came along, I predicted that media companies would immediately become big users, because they could easily see it’s one-to-many functionality. It’s what we know and what we practice. The strategy became:

  1. Get a lot of followers
  2. Feed them breaking news and weather
  3. Feed them promotional content
  4. Feed them stories, many stories
  5. Put a link in everything

Twitter is a terrific notification system, so it’s hard to blame media companies for this practice, but it points to a serious weakness that media has today: its mission can’t help but come across as hypocritical. What appears to be one of disseminating information and being society’s watchdog is actually a commercial mission to make money. There’s nothing inherently evil about that, but think about it. If influencing public life is the goal, then readership is what matters, and there are many ways to efficiently deliver unbundled content via the Web. When forcing people to read our content within our infrastructure, then it’s clear that monetizing that content is more important than anything else.

Using Twitter this way is easy, but it’s also lazy and sells short a tool for newsgathering and news dissemination. When I talk to clients about Twitter, the stumbling block question is always “How many people do YOU follow?” The answer is simple — none or very few. This means that Twitter is to them, in fact, nothing more than a notification system.

However, some individual employees of news organizations use Twitter in a myriad of ways, including to participate in its unique discussions. These employees seem aware of the new reality that their personal brands are everything in the world that’s ahead, so they participate in social media. These smart people may include links to their work as well, but that isn’t necessarily the sole purpose of their accounts. It gets very tricky for some media companies when they try to control the personal accounts of employees, because they cling to the notification system paradigm and the ethical (and profitable) mechanism of an opinion-less stage.

Twitter is also very useful on mobile device, so the practice of only spreading links — that then lead to a fully-packed website and not an HTML5 landing page — is ultimately self-defeating. This is a different playing field with different rules, and we risk our own relevancy by insisting that it’s best used to drive traffic to our advertiser-fed websites.

And nobody ever asked to be driven to such a place in the first place.

My personal viewing space

YouTubeI find that after I get caught up with my reading, I’m increasingly spending Sunday mornings with YouTube, just aimlessly drifting but finding myself genuinely satisfied. The place is amazing, and if you’ve never done so, just start a search and let the site guide you on a serendipitous path of discovery.

In so doing, I’ve discovered something about “lean back” TV versus “lean forward” TV: the former can be done with a group, but the latter is most certainly a singular experience. This is why I wonder about mixing the two and whether that will ever be the success that some hope it will.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a strong believer in unbundled TV, but I do think it’s much more something you do by yourself, because we all have different tastes. My Sunday morning journey through unbundled video is likely not to be the same as yours. It’s more than, “Honey, what do you want to watch;” it’s more like, “I want to watch this clip or that one. Go find your own.” If I want to share, I can use Twitter, or I can send a link to my wife across the room. The point is that the new serendipity can’t be planned by some programmer; it has to come from one’s own curiosity. The best that media can do is make everything available and put it in a place where it can be discovered.

Up to a point, Hulu’s the same way, but the variety’s simply not there. Plus, there’s that pay thing. This morning, John Hagel turned me on to Bridget Bardot, the French actress who awakened those adult thoughts in this adolescent boy. I then searched for James Brown’s Superbad, because I’d been hearing the thing during the NBA Finals. Then to the Blues Brothers. Finally, thanks to Eric Deggans, the drum solos from Letterman last week. I’m not sure that any of that could have been shared in the same room with my family. They would’ve just looked at me funny.

In this environment, the marketers of the world need something different to reach me, for unbundled clips aren’t conducive to 15-second TV ads. We’ve simply got to find something that moves the serendipitous adventure along, because if I see Geico, I’m bailing — immediately.

Although I did watch a bunch of Dos Equuis ads (that I chose for myself). YouTube’s like that.