Reading about Glam Media’s “Facebook in a box for content creators” reminded me of Gene Weingarten’s article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago lamenting the deleterious effect of branding on journalism. The Glam tools, of course, exist to help its writers develop and build their own brands. What’s more, Glam believes that authors will have to “create social networks around themselves” to be successful, a notion that would no doubt be anathema to Weingarten.
While confusing pandering for readers with a writer creating a brand, Weingarten suggests that the craft of journalism is being redefined “so it is no longer a calling but a commodity.” A suggestion that implies that somehow news organizations brought this fate on themselves by no longer giving readers “what we thought they needed. Now, in desperation, we give readers what we think they want.” Within the craft of journalism, apparently, there is no greater sin than meeting market demand. What Weingarten seems not to understand is that even in the good old days of newspaper prominence, readers never ate their vegetables if they didn’t like them, they simply turned to the sports page, or the comics. The newspaper, as a package, exists because it has to give readers a lot of what “we think they want” to subsidize what “we think they need.”
Out of all this, Weingarten comes to blame the commoditization of journalism on branding when, in fact, branding is the solution. When faced with commodity prices for its microprocessors, Intel branded them with its Intel Inside campaign. Think of Florida Orange Juice and Chiquita Bananas – successful branding campaigns that rescued products from commoditization. As a collection of blogs and micro-sites, Glam may have a more immediate reason to create writer brands, but it’s a model that can be followed by news organizations. And, except for the fact that in the past only a select few of its writers became brands, it’s a model that is familiar to them. Columnists have always been brands, but brands created by their employer. Today those brands, the newspapers, are declining, and becoming simply a collection of writers. And a collection of unbranded writers is just a heap of “content.”
From The Economist
Tim Wu, the Columbia Law School prof who coined the term “net neutrality” and current senior adviser at the FTC, was profiled in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. He quickly comes off just a bit too cute for his own good, ticking off every box on the hipster checklist – tattoos, vintage Hondas, Burning Man, honeymoon in Antarctica. All this and a Harvard law degree. Clearly this is a guy who thinks big thoughts. Well, yes, and it’s those thoughts that seem so dangerous.
The article tells us that in his book The Master Switch, “Wu warns that ‘an unprecedented potential is building for centralized control over what Americans see and hear.’” Wu then goes on to make a case for that potential to be realized in the federal government. He says “his goal in joining [the FTC] was to help ‘reinvigorate the role of a public counterforce to private power.’” Later, as the article describes a class Wu is teaching at MIT, it says he suggests that “in theory, the government could say, ‘Well, this company has clearly shown it’s corrupt. … So let’s just nationalize their source code.’”
When it comes to advocacy of government power, statements like these speak for themselves. They should also give supporters of net neutrality pause when the concept’s father is seen to be arguing less for an open Internet, and more over just who should control it.
Discussing the Huffington Post in his February 13th Monday Note, Frédéric Filloux states that “original publishers are giving the ‘aggrelooter’ the rope it will use to hang them.” He was prompted to make this statement by a post on HuffPo by a staffer amusingly named Jason Linkins. In his post last week Linkins says:
Is this the rope that will be used to hang original sources of news? Or are these editors and publishers using HuffPo for free distribution – distribution that in
other industries would normally cost money? Can these people really be acting so aggressively against their own interests, or are they rational actors in a new content ecosystem? Surely it’s the latter. While news executives argue about “aggrelooters,” those charged with driving traffic and ad inventory understand that the aggrelooters are really free distributors.
The press release for Deloitte’s “State of the Media Democracy” survey contains three pretty amazing paragraphs about the state of print magazines. First this:
Seems pretty simple – formats matter. It’s lazy thinking to believe that simply because the same information may be available in a new format, the old format is dead. Nor is there reason to believe that a print publication’s web site must be a direct replacement. There is no law of physics that requires all content in a print product to be available in it’s digital version. They’re two different products and meet different needs for their audiences.
Another interesting result:
For all the promise of targeted advertising in digital formats, it seems that print ads do a pretty good job of reaching their target audience. I wonder if a majority of people would say the same about online ads. Seems unlikely, doesn’t it? There are no “network” ads running in the pages of a print magazine hawking solutions to belly fat, only ads that are intended for that publication. And they’re not all measured as direct response ads no matter the creative. In fact, tablet advertising seems to have so much potential precisely because tablets are a platform that allows ads to build off of and extend what’s right with magazine ads.
Enthusiasm for a legacy product is a good thing, even as you plot it’s destruction.
While there’s no denying the fact that online content producers must develop revenue legs other than advertising, there’s also no denying that advertising is not holding up it’s end of the bargain. The reasons are myriad from advertisers who measure branding advertising with direct response metrics to publishers who consign ads to web page “ad ghettos,” but while publishers continue to inflate the potential of digital subscriptions, it’s really advertising that must be fixed.
Despite the ascendance of search advertising and click-throughs, brand advertising is not going away, and publishers and brands must work together to create and deliver new ad formats and methods to rejuvenate it. Thankfully we see signs of this happening from iPad iAds to AOL’s Project Devil. Yet whenever a publisher comes out with a new ad unit that they sell for a premium, marketers want to determine its worth using the same old measures – mainly click-throughs – that have been so unsuccessful in the past at measuring branding value. It’s short-sighted because, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that current ad formats are awful and people who click on them are usually poor targets. New effectiveness metrics then, although much more difficult than new ad formats, are also vital.
While not a new ad format, social media advertising (and I don’t just mean simply advertising on social media sites) is now leading the way in brand advertising. Social media gives marketers the ability for their brands to display more personality, better target, and more fully engage resulting in a more robust experience for consumers, and content producers need to learn how to play in that arena. There may be no better evidence of this than the current willingness to use social media marketing despite many companies’ inability to measure its effectiveness. Instead of pretending they know which 0.1% of their advertising works, marketers are back to wondering which 50% works. And that, sad to say, is progress.
Word came a few days ago that Crispin Porter + Bogusky is partnering with Bonnier for new tablet ad formats. I can’t imagine why it’s taken this long to focus on new ad formats, but surely it has to do with the content industry’s focus on subscription revenue. Tablet subscriptions have long been mistakenly seen as the Holy Grail of the magazine industry, and the quest for those revenues have subsumed all other initiatives. While subscription revenues shouldn’t be overlooked, the real promise of the tablet format is advertising. Advertising that truly engages consumers, that builds brands, that isn’t measured using direct response metrics. Advertising isn’t dead, it’s just stale, and now Bonnier just may lead the industry into its next evolution.
Update: Some evidence from eMarketer that tablet ads really do offer a better consumer experience.
At least some readers are upset at the high prices magazine publishers are charging for iPad versions of their publications, while the publishers try to “see what the market will bear.” An AdAge article backs this up and goes on to state other reasons for the high prices:
Meanwhile, some good arguments have been made about why that price will be a lot lower.
So in my view, there are three main reasons we see the pricing we do:
I’ll call the first reason price experimentation. It’s a good thing to do, as long as you don’t ruin your market by going too high, which we must be close to. I don’t know for certain that the third point is true, but reports would suggest that. The Wired app weighed in at 500 MB, perhaps largely because it’s a bunch of images. This is not sustainable. Publishers will have to create flexible templates that can be reused because otherwise yes, it’s going to cost a lot for each issue.
It’s the second point, though, where I think publishers are selling themselves, and the device, short. On the iPad, ads are exciting and glamorous again which also means they are way more effective than online. They can contain beautiful video and graphics, allow e-commerce in the ad, and provide an experience only dreamed of in print, much less online. The ABC has begun counting publishers’ apps as part of their print circulation, meaning that app ads are being priced like print ads – a very good thing. Ultimately, quality publishing is more dependent on advertising (or some other brand revenue source) than subscriptions. As I’ve said before, subscriptions are no silver bullet and while I think publishers should experiment with charging, they’d be better off spending most of their time redefining the advertising model.
All the talk about newspapers and other publishers charging for digital content is growing ever more tiresome. We’re left breathlessly waiting for the implementation of pay walls, as if their success means salvation for the content industry. Only it doesn’t. If these publications can retain a substantial portion of their audience (a big if), it may mean some incremental revenue, but anyone who has ever modeled a subscription scenario knows that’s the best to hope for. Survival will depend on what it always has – connecting businesses with consumers. Whether transactional or branding, we call it advertising. The paywall discussion is one we need to have, but how to make advertising pay is the key question for online content.
A Google spokesman responded with some stats about the growth of mobile search, none of which really addressed the point. Intuitively Jobs seems to be correct so, if he is, what are the implications?
In the last website redesign I did, we were keenly aware that Google had become the web’s homepage and that users dipped into the interior of our site for a story and then backed out to a search results page. This means that we could no longer count on our audience entering the site from our homepage and had to try to keep search engine visitors by some means found on interior pages. Search engines are now homepages and site homepages are becoming increasingly marginalized.
Now look at mobile. People don’t use search engines the same way. On a smart phone they go to an app that will solve their current problem. Many of these apps, of course, are search based, but that search is typically controlled within the app. Some examples are Yelp, Siri, Fandango, and Shazam – very useful search based apps, but controlled. On mobile devices, and now the iPad, product and brand are regaining the value they once had, but which was stripped away by search engines. For many pundits, this is cause for great consternation, but they forget one important thing – people want to be led.
People want to be led for a variety of reasons – lack of expertise, time prioritization, timidity, ignorance – but we all sooner or later reach the point where we think, “Good heavens, just get me to the good stuff!” We’ve been through the phase where to avoid being told, “You just don’t get it,” everyone had to praise the chaos of crowd sourced news, RSS readers, and open source everything. In each of these cases, and many others, companies emerged to make sense of the chaos and bring people products and information they didn’t have to create or curate themselves. To lead users to the good stuff. Crowd sourced information and design, user generated content, and open source software will continue to be critically important components of our world, but there is also room for products that do more of the work for us. For any given product or service, most users don’t have the desire or skills to be creators, leaving the largest market open to those brands who are able to lead people to the good stuff. People who want this leadership aren’t losers who “don’t get it,” they simply have different priorities. Maybe the guy who works all day on open source code just can’t be bothered to cull the web for his favorite RSS feeds so he just goes to NYT.com for his news.
So back to mobile. Apple understands that people want to be led. Their closed systems bother me, but I still buy their products, and so do a lot of people so it’s awfully hard to criticize their strategy. For the rest of us, this is an opportunity to create and leverage brands in the digital world. With that comes the necessity of building a great product, but the potential is there. To be sure, this isn’t a reversion to some glorious time in the past, it’s simply another evolution of our world. We don’t know exactly how it will play out, and we know it will continue to evolve, but right now, there is an opportunity to be seized.
As consumers (and publishers) salivate over the coming launch of the iPad, it has been hailed as the savior of traditional publishers and criticized as a confusing consumer gadget looking for a way to fit in. I think there are two key points to be made:
Just as the buzz surrounding “content engines” seemed to suggest all was lost for well-written, intelligent, long-form content, the evolving e-reader platform may be just what is needed for a resurrection.
Last month I participated in a virtual book party for the E-Voter Institute’s latest book, About Face: The Dramatic Impact of the Internet on Politics and Advocacy. Six fellow chapter authors and I discussed the new face of political and advocacy campaigns, trends to watch for in 2010 and 2012, and reaching the loyal base as well as swing and Independent voters. We had a great time and even said some interesting things!
You can find the podcast here.
The E-Voter Institute recently published About Face: The Dramatic Impact of the Internet on Politics and Advocacy. The book brings together the contributions of 20 industry insiders, including me, who cover best practices, case studies, and research that can help political strategists more clearly see the Internet options for reaching and persuading voters. I had the pleasure of contributing the chapter on the Flow of Information.
The presidential campaign of 2008 broke new ground in the candidates’ use of the Internet and social media for message delivery, organizing, and fundraising, and this book explores not only how it was done then, but how it will be done in the future. As Michael Bassik of Air America says on the cover, it’s the “…de facto bible for candidates, consultants and just about anyone interested in the Internet-driven, citizen-powered politics…”
The book is available online at Powell’s Books.
Crowdsourcing news from citizen journalists is so old-hat now that talking about it is boring. It’s still not easy to do, or efficiently done, but it’s been discussed so often that it’s become a cliche. Mother Jones, though, is crowdsourcing with a twist – the publication is using professional journalists. MoJo has decided that “climate change is the most important story of our time,” but is being covered “piecemeal” and therefore ineffectively. To rectify that problem, it’s “forging a collaboration with a range of news organizationsâ€”magazines, online news sites, nonprofit reporting shops, multimedia operationsâ€”because we each have different strengths, but working together we can cover this story better than any of us could on our own.” This initiative has resulted in some good press about this new kind of crowdsourcing. But I think focusing on professional crowdsourcing misses the really interesting aspect of the move – it’s more evidence of the rise of advocacy journalism.
Mother Jones is known for advocacy journalism, but it’s partners in this effort (with more, presumably, to come) really aren’t. Editor Clara Jeffery stated in the Ad Age story that participants “will likely include Slate, Grist, The Atlantic, Wired, Pro Publica, the Center for Investigative Reporting, MoJo of course, and maybe one or two others.” The audience for news seems to be clamoring for this kind of journalism, as evidenced by high viewership for Fox News and MSNBC, while ratings for CNN and the broadcast nets, the ostensibly unbiased networks, decline. It’s beginning to look more and more like this notion of an unbiased press, foisted on the public in the 1920′s, is crumbling. The press treats this as a bad thing, but why? A press with a mission isn’t the problem, as long as it has integrity. The problem is a press that lies about or omits facts. I’ll take a news organization that’s honest and tells me it’s political philosophy over an “unbiased” one any day.