Category Archives: success

Calling your web site a ‘property’ deprives it of something bigger

BBC offered another history of London documentary the other night, a sort of people’s perspective on how the character of the city has changed over time, obviously inspired by Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony at the Olympics.

Some of the sequences were interesting to me particularly as a foreigner – the gentrification of Islington, the anarchist squatters in Camden, the urbanization of the Docklands, etc.  – a running theme of haves vs have-nots.

It’s one of a collection of things inspiring me recently including a book called ‘The Return of the Public‘ by Dan Hind, a sort of extension to the Dewey v Lippman debates, what’s going on with n0tice, such as Sarah Hartley’s adaptation for it called Protest Near You and the dispatch-o-rama hack, and, of course, the Olympics.

I’m becoming reinvigorated and more bullish on where collective action can take us.

At a more macro level these things remind me of the need to challenge the many human constructs and institutions that are reflections of the natural desire to claim things and own them.

Why is it so difficult to embrace a more ‘share and share alike’ attitude?  This is as true for children and their toys as it is for governments and their policies.

The bigger concern for me, of course, is the future of the Internet and how media and journalism thrive and evolve there.

Despite attempts by its founders to shape the Internet so it can’t be owned and controlled, there are many who have tried to change that both intentionally and unwittingly, occasionally with considerable success.

How does this happen?

We’re all complicit.  We buy a domain. We then own it and build a web site on it. That “property” then becomes a thing we use to make money.  We fight to get people there and sell them things when they arrive.  It’s the Internet-as-retailer or Internet-as-distributor view of the world.

That’s how business on the Internet works…or is it?

While many have made that model work for them, it’s my belief that the property model is never going to be as important or meaningful or possibly as lucrative as the platform or service model over time. More specifically, I’m talking about generative media networks.

Here are a few different ways of visualizing this shift in perspective (more):

Even if it works commercially, the property model is always going to be in conflict with the Internet-as-public-utility view of the world.

Much like Britain’s privately owned public spaces issue, many worry that the Internet-as-public-utility will be ruined or, worse, taken from us over time by commercial and government interests.

Playing a zero sum game like that turns everyone and everything into a threat.  Companies can be very effective at fighting and defending their interests even if the people within those companies mean well.

I’m an optimist in this regard.  There may be a pendulum that swings between “own” and “share”, and there are always going to be fights to secure public spaces.  But you can’t put the Internet genie back in the bottle.  And even if you could it would appear somewhere else in another form just as quickly…in some ways it already has.

The smart money, in my mind, is where many interests are joined up regardless of their individual goals, embracing the existence of each other in order to benefit from each other’s successes.

The answer is about cooperation, co-dependency, mutualisation, openness, etc.

We think about this a lot at the Guardian. I recently wrote about how it applies to the recent Twitter issues here. And this presentation by Chris Thorpe below from back in 2009 on how to apply it to the news business is wonderful:

Of course, Alan Rusbridger’s description of a mutualised newspaper in this video is still one of the strongest visions I’ve heard for a collaborative approach to media.

The possibility of collective action at such an incredible scale is what makes the Internet so great.  If we can focus on making collective activities more fruitful for everyone then our problems will become less about haves and have-nots and more about ensuring that everyone participates.

That won’t be an easy thing to tackle, but it would be a great problem to have.

Gatekeepers need to stop calling themselves gatekeepers

Time business columnist Justin Fox questioned the success of the new media methods in a recent post “The reign of the enthusiasts“.

He suggests the algorithms that proudly surface the deep dark corners of the Internet are actually just self-referential popularity contests. When searching for his name Justin found that the articles he’s written that are likely most influential in the real world fail to rank higher than the articles he’s written which attracted the most link love from media-obsessed blogger types, like myself.

“There are web2topians out there–Battelle and my friend Matt McAlister immediately spring to mind–who are convinced that the Googles (and Diggs and del.icio.uses and Amazons and Last.fms) of the future will do a vastly better job of steering people to what they want, such a good job that most of the gatekeepers of the current media universe will prove wholly extraneous.”

This isn’t the first time someone has accused me of being a Web 2.0 blogger. Coincidentally, the same day Justin posted this, I was mocked by a local construction worker waiting for the bus with his buddies as I passed on my way to the office. He shouted to nobody in particular,

“Man, you know what I hate? Dotcommers.” He watched me walk by stonefaced and waited for a response. The guys standing around him turned to look. Unsure still, he blurted out, “Architects, too. Hate all of them.” He got the laugh he was looking for.

Jeez, am I that boring? Or that obvious and annoying? (Please don’t say anything. I think I know the answer.)

Anyhow, Justin’s question is top-of-mind for a lot of people in the media business. Where I disagree with him and the wisdom of the media industry crowd is on the notion of “gatekeepers” or rather the need for them at all.

Perhaps the most important part of being successful in media is distribution, and the reason we’re asking what the role of the gatekeeper is today is because the Internet has disintermediated the media distribution models that helped them become gatekeepers in the first place.

Online search changed the way people access relevant information, and those who once thought of themselves as gatekeepers suddenly found themselves at the mercy of the link police, the new gatekeepers, the search engines.

Yet, Justin’s explanation of the weakness of Google’s algorithm is exactly what I think many people who get mocked for their trendy glasses, old man sport coats, carefully orchestrated facial hair events, designer shoes and man purses (I don’t have a man purse) all see improving with the introduction of explicit and implicit human data into the media distribution model. The act of hyperlinking to a web page is not a strong enough currency to hold together a market of information as big as the Internet has become in recent years. It’s a false economy.

But the link currency opened the door to the idea of using behavior to help people find things. I love Last.fm not just for the music it recommends to me but because it proves this to be true. The Internet is made of people, people with a wide range of knowledge, tastes, and interests.

Now, there will always be a role for experts, and there are many cases where being an expert is not just subjective. Experts are hugely influential on the Internet as they are in other media. But I don’t see that a gatekeeper is an expert by definition.

There will also always be a role for enablers. Good enablers are often community builders who understand the rhythms of human psychology and emotion. Henry Luce was such a man, and I think he might have been a very successful web2topian today.

If those who call themselves “gatekeepers” want to share their expertise in valuable ways, then they will need to understand how the role of human data helps with distribution of that expertise. If those who aim to be enablers of communities want to be relevant, they will find ways to do that in many of the social technologies that have proven successful in this new world.

Similarly, if the people Justin affectionately refers to as web2topians appear smug, glib or arrogant when talking about media, then they are only doing themselves and everyone in the business a disservice. Gatekeepers know better than anyone that expertise does not by definition make you important. That’s a lesson the Internet generation will learn the hard way when someday they become irrelevant, too, I’m sure.

Online media revenues breathe life into print-centric thinking

Media executives are admitting publicly that the print publishing model doesn’t appear to have a happy ending to the heavy beating it keeps taking. Folio ran a story this week titled “The Revenue Tipping Point“. It refers to the point at which online revenue gains outpace the print revenue losses at a magazine publishing company.


Photo: therese flanagan

“While online revenue is still dwarfed by print revenue for most publishers, many are starting to see real revenue growth online exceed the real revenue loss in print on a quarterly basis. That’s a huge justification for publishers investing online; a final warning shot for publishers resisting (and yes, there are still plenty of them out there) online investment.”

The business magazine master himself, Pat McGovern, confirmed the trend:

“At the American Business Media Spring Meeting in May, IDG Communications chairman Pat McGovern, head of a company that has been criticized for not committing sooner to the Web, spoke of how the company is now making more money online than it is losing in print.”

Agencies and marketers have been telling publishers that they were shifting budgets away from print to online media for several years. Circulation has been flat or falling across the print world. Readerhsip time spent figures have all been pointing online.

Colin Crawford also of IDG added his thoughts (and warnings) on the trend:

“Every year our print ad market contracts in terms of total advertisers and total pages and revenue and our print circulations fall. There is nothing on the horizon that indicates any sort of reversal of this trend…Transformation involves a deep cultural shift in attitude to put online first and stop over protecting print.”

The signals are everywhere, crystalized for the shortsighted in big red figures on the balance sheets.

But until only recently the investment and tradition behind print publishing and the print brands have made it very difficult for executives to tell their own staff not to mention the press that print magazine models are failing.

Why is it ok to open the kimono now? Because there’s now a story to match the strategic direction. As online revenue builds, investment will shift away from print at a reasonable pace. “We won’t have to close shop afterall,” Mr. Publisher says. “We’ll make up the losses with online revenues. Everyone just calm down and get back to what you were doing before.”

It’s a step in the right direction, but I find this story a little bit dangerous. This strategy implies that the print model has enough life left in it to make the transition only a matter of shifting money from one pocket to the other. I think many publishers will interpret this strategy as a way to hold onto their jobs while they wait for the combined print and online revenues to match pre dotcom bust earnings. It’s then that they plan to release a big sigh and head back to the golf course.

But the competition for online ad budgets is heating up, too. Unfortunately for the old school print sales guys out there, the online ad model doesn’t look the same as the print model. Banners are not the same as print pages, and, it turns out, there are several other effective and often more profitable methods for marketing online than standard banners. Many of them don’t require the overhead of a sales team. And many of them are based on totally new content production models, in case the editorial staff bought the rhetoric, too.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that spending time thinking about this tipping point is merely the first step in admitting you have a problem. But the race is on, and no doubt a bunch of publishers are going to get crushed both in print and online if they don’t actually really make the investment to turn their online businesses into valuable media vehicles.

Idealizing media business models

Jon Udell notes that WSJ’s landlocked articles may in fact help them drive revenue but at what expense:

“PaidContent.org reminded me that WSJ.com is considered a major success not only in the realm of paid online circulation, but also in comparison to newspapers…This may be a successful model of publishing, but it seems to me a curious definition of success.”


Photo: niznoz

How do you measure the opportunity cost of gating your content? The most obvious way is to estimate the number of page views an article would get outside a gated wall and then extrapolate revenue off CPMs.

However, this equation has a fundamental flaw that is not so easy to calculate. It’s the core question of every media company. How do you measure success? Do you exist to make money or do you exist to connect people?

It’s easy to say that media companies have to be both. But which powerpoint slide are you going to show your board of directors first? One of those will ultimately drive every decision at the company.

But even those two metrics fail to measure success in media as I’d like to see it. I’d like to see media brands measuring success based on the quality of the relationships they are able to catalyze. And I don’t see why that’s not possible…it might be hard, but it should be doable.

For example, it’s not how many people read an article that matters, necessarily. It’s how deeply did a story help a person. It’s not how many ad impressions were served, nor is it how many clicks or even the number of sales that result from an ad on a media property. It’s about the types of ways the media property improved the relationship between a vendor and that vendor’s customers.

Imagine how much easier strategic decisions would be if you could look at a report each morning that showed how many of your site visitors were getting promoted in their jobs or referring their friends to particular vendors that advertise on your site.

Imagine going into the board room each quarter and showing that as a direct result of the activity at your web site the average visitor income level increased or productivity in the industry improved or something more substantial like the number of homicides in the area decreased or more people voted in the last election.


Photo: infomaniac

Imagine telling an advertiser that working with your media brand meant that their customer retention metrics would improve or that people would be talking about their products more or even that they could drive up shareholder value. Imagine the rates they would pay to work with you for those benefits.

And imagine the types of people that would want to work at this kind of company and the amazing products that would come out of it as a result of these measures of success.

Yeah, pipe dream, I know. At the end of the day, most of us just want to get paid for their work and live a simple life. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I certainly fit in that camp a lot of the time.

The question in my mind is: Are qualitative success metrics like these measurable and attainable? If they’re not, why not? And if they are, why would you pursue anything else?