TED Talks Online

tedThe TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference has begun placing talks and performances online, with around 100 available now. If you’re unfamiliar with the conference, the organizers describe it as bringing “together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” While I might add, “and some who fancy themselves the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” that would be a bit too cynical.

Despite an occasional speaker who seems to have been invited on the basis of celebrity rather than content, the fact is that placing these talks online has created an incredible treasure chest of good “stuff.” Stuff is not very descriptive, but I don’t know what else to use. The videos range from talks on nature to talks on neurology to amazing performances, and my guess is that nearly every one is worth watching. Take a look, but be prepared to lose some serious time out of your day. As a sample, below is slam poet Rives, telling us what he would do if he were in charge of the Internet.

The Ethical Bandwagon

levisPSFK writes about an apparently lame attempt by Levis to jump on the ethical bandwagon:

The photo shows the mannequins in the NYC Broadway window telling us all to volunteer our time for social good – but why? This all might sound quite worthy but it comes across as patronizing and cheap. Enough said. Too little, too late.

Looking at the picture, it seems hard to argue with that take on the campaign. 

Grant McCracken, meanwhile, writes about a Nike ad he saw in a Sunday New York Times.  It’s written to “ignorance” and deals with the Don Imus/Rutgers basketball team situation.  I’m sure you can guess the gist of the ad, even without reading it.  As McCracken transcribes it:

Thank you, ignorance.
Thank you for starting the conversation.
Thank you for making an entire nation listen to the Rutger’s (sic) team story.
And for making us wonder what other great stories we’ve missed.
Thank you for reminding us to think before we speak.
Thank you for showing us how strong and poised 18 and 20-year-old women can be.
Thank you for reminding us that another basketball tournament goes on in March.
Thank you for showing us that sport includes more than the time spent on the court.
Thank you for unintentionally moving women’s sport forward.
And thank you for making all of us realize that we still have a long way to go.
Next season starts 11.16.07.

McCracken’s attitude about it can be summed up in three words: “Well done, Nike.” 

What am I missing?  How is this different than Levis’ attempt at ethics?  Why does Nike feel they can teach me about ethics?  Why does the company feel the need to preach to me?  I can’t believe this stuff works.  It uses both the Rutgers basketball players and Imus to try to create goodwill for a brand.  How crass is that? 

McCracken goes on to say:

Naturally, this is strategically challenging.  It is not yet clear exactly where this development will “net out.”  So there is an element of risk.

Huh?  The only risk about this ad is whether it made it into the paper before the story died down.  There was absolutely no risk about it, and that is one of the things that makes it so fatuous.  Several years ago Benetton ran an ad campaign that created quite a furor.  It’s 1992 ads included AIDS victims, African guerrillas, and mafia  bombings.  Still motivated by gaining attention for the brand, but no doubt including some actual company held principles, and risky.  Whatever you thought about the motivation behind the ads, they were risky (although they would not be today).  The Nike ad? Pandering, not risky.  Sorry, I just don’t see how this kind of pile-on advertising helps a brand sell more product.

If Nike wanted to take a strong stand for justice for athletes, where were they when the Duke lacrosse players were being persecuted?  Let’s see, those athletes were wealthy, white males, with high-priced attorneys, attending a private university, playing a game viewed as the domain of wealthy, white males, attending private schools.  Hmmmm. 

Too risky. 

Greeting Cards – Competition Everywhere

moonotecardsMOO, that darling of the Digerati (is that still a word?), has launched MOO notecards.  MOO is best known for its mini-cards, which are small versions of business cards with a picture of your choosing on the back and text and an icon of your choosing on the front (or is it the other way around?).  In other words, they are almost totally customizable.

Similarly, MOO notecards will allow you to choose a picture for the front and text and an icon for the inside.  Inside, however, is a bit of a misnomer as the cards are really postcards with a flap that allows them to stand up for display.  Plenty of online card companies allow you to customize cards, but MOO’s format gives the whole thing a twist and makes it a bit  less formal.  Because the customer base for its mini-cards is  probably not the same as online card buyers (just a guess), MOO may also find that it is able to tap into a relatively new market for cards.

While hardly earth-shattering, this product launch is simply more evidence that the world is passing traditional card companies by.  If you open up the greeting card market to include substitutes (as you must), you find yourself in the “social expressions” market.  Now you realize that text messages, emails, blog comments, video cards, and Facebook “Wall” postings are all competition for greeting cards.  Like so many businesses, card companies are faced with some tough choices – become a true social expressions company and broaden into technology based tools as well as paper, stay with paper but move into customizable cards online, or stay with traditional, non-customizable paper cards.  The first choice is dangerous because you’re moving into unknown territory, while the last two mean you have to accept a shrinking market (rapidly shrinking in the latter case) and enter new businesses to make up the lost revenue.  Sourcing low cost cards from China will only get you so far.

Time Warner Rethinks Cable

timewarnerJust as I published yesterday’s post which partly talked about the need for media companies to understand what they are, comes this article in the Wall Street Journal saying that Time Warner is considering reducing its investment in cable systems.  As I was writing “For traditional media companies that believe their mission is to deliver news, not print newspapers; deliver entertainment, not broadcast over the airwaves; the future can be bright.  But it can’t be the same as the past,” (I didn’t catch the article before the post) Time Warner executives were apparently discussing whether their mission is to deliver entertainment or lay cable.

Cable has been a core part of the company and its precursors for decades and is now the biggest contributor to profits. But the long-term future of cable, as the Internet emerges as a viable venue for watching TV, is murky. Some within Time Warner wonder whether the company wouldn’t be better off if it were to get out of cable and double down on the Web — where it already owns AOL — by buying another major Internet company, just as News Corp.acquired MySpace and GoogleInc. bought YouTube.

Then comes something obvious to Time Warner, but maybe not to the general public:

Getting rid of a big chunk of its cable holdings would transform the nature of Time Warner, making it more reliant on its role as a provider of filmed entertainment and print and Web content.

This would be a transforming move for Time Warner, but one that may very well be necessary for its content business to thrive.  Two more points are made:

One argument in favor of getting out of cable is that it would free up resources for more investment in the Web.

[...]

Some also believe Time Warner should exit cable because the dynamics of that business are fundamentally different from those of Time Warner’s content operations, which include Warner Bros., Turner Broadcasting and Time Inc. Most significantly, cable requires substantial capital investment that the other businesses do not.

The parallel to newspapers and printing presses is inescapable.  Oddly, though, the story goes on to say:

One of the downsides of getting out of cable, though, is that it would leave Time Warner much more dependent on slow-growing content businesses of film, television and print. Indeed, exiting from cable would seem to increase the possibility that Time Warner would eventually dispose of its publishing operations, where growth has nearly come to a halt.

Wouldn’t the point of getting out of cable be that TW could then jump start its content growth, including its “publishing” business?  The difference in point of view is made obvious when the writer refers to “film, television, and print” businesses.  Those businesses may be in trouble, but producing information and entertainment is not.  If you chain yourself to a means of delivery, you have problems, but if you open yourself up to many, you grow.

Advertising and the New World

Last month, Bob Garfield published an article (4th in a series) in Ad Age that created some buzz among media bloggers.  Written more as a warning to ad agencies, it has obvious relevance to media companies as well.  Although in many ways typical of the doomsday genre, it also has some twists.

A lot of time is spent chronicling the decline of traditional media, as well as some denial statements by media company leaders.  At this point, I would think the dead horse no longer needs to be beaten, but perhaps it does.  As critics write as if traditional media is already dead, and some proponents talk as if it is only getting stronger, the truth, we know, is somewhere in between.  More importantly, accepting the truth means understanding that the decline has begun and that new models must be found.  But these new models don’t have to replace the old models wholesale, they become part of a portfolio that includes both.  That, however, is a mouthful.  Imagine the change required of a newspaper company to view the newspaper as a portfolio product rather than as the heart and soul of the organization.  Or the same change in attitude at a television network.

 Garfield goes on to make the point that while previously we assumed that ad spending shifted among media but did not shrink in total, he believes that now it will shrink.  As producers gain the ability to directly reach finely targeted consumer segments, brand advertising, and certainly mass brand advertising, becomes less relevant. 

Mass advertising flourished in the world of mass media. Not because it was part of God’s Natural Order but because the two were mutually sustaining. You’ve read the Ten Commandments; not one of them is “Thou shalt finance hourlong dramas” — nor is there a word in there about scale. So why assume that either must transition to the new model? Not only is it economically nonsensical, it squanders the very nature of the digital universe, the ability to speak with — not to, but with — the narrowest communities and individuals themselves.

Garfield also lists five reasons the online world will largely displace traditional advertising:

  1. People don’t like ads
  2. But they crave information
  3. The consumer is in control. No, really
  4. Diversion of ad budgets
  5. Pay-per-view

The discussion of each one of these is definitely worth reading, although I tend to see a half full glass in each, not half empty.  We know people don’t like ads, but they do like consumer products, so there is a tremendous advantage waiting to be gained by the organization that figures out how to tell them about consumer products without annoying them with advertising (advertising is in the mind of the beholder, isn’t it?).  Obvious, but often ignored, is the fact that people crave information.  Good news if you’re an information provider.  Point three includes a great quote from media economist, Bruce Owen:

I guess the most important thing that I would be asking myself is: How can I make advertising something that people are not only willing to put up with but actually have positive willingness to take?

 I’d be asking myself the same thing.  As ad budgets get diverted to exploit the Internet’s ability to target, it’s more good news for media companies that own targeted audiences, or can target audiences.  Everyone, right?  Finally, Garfield worries that pay-per-view content “would eliminate advertising from the equation.”  Well, if you’re a content producer this scenario is probably good for you, but I’m not sure I follow the logic in any case.  I once worked for a company that made a substantial amount of revenue through pay-per-view advertising.  That may have been some years ago, but the point is the same – there must be some mechanism by which consumers are made aware of the content.

Although the piece was written for ad agencies, I think the point for traditional media companies is not that they’re doomed, but that they must change.  Not exactly a novel idea.  For many, traditional media companies are assumed to be stocked with Luddites, unable to see the future much less act upon it.  Talking about the online market’s ability to absorb ad budgets moving from traditional media, Garfield says:

A collapsing old model. An unconstructed new model. Paralyzed marketers. Disenchanted consumers. It’s all so … chaotic.

Chaos, yes, but also opportunity.  For traditional media companies that believe their mission is to deliver news, not print newspapers; deliver entertainment, not broadcast over the airwaves; the future can be bright.  But it can’t be the same as the past.

General Mills Tries an Innovation Network

generalmillslogoMarketing Daily has an article about General Mills’ launch of a “Worldwide Innovation Network.”  At first blush, this seems to be the sort of open innovation embraced by, among others, P&G, Peugot, and Nokia.  Really, though it looks like GM has simply opened itself up to acquiring new products through licensing and maybe acquisitions.  Not that this is a bad thing.  It all started two years ago when General Mills R&D formed an open innovation team.  This team “has traveled the globe, going to food trade and technology shows looking for technologies and ready-to-go products that could fit in to existing product lines.”  Doesn’t this beg the question of What was R&D doing before that? 

General Mills expects to gain speed to market through this program since presumably any product the company licenses or acquires will have already started down the development pipeline.  What this initiative does not seem to do, however, is tap into consumers for new ideas.  GM may already be doing this in other ways, but figuring out how to bring consumers into the innovation process may be the real Holy Grail.  It’s not clear, however, that the best model for that kind of open innovation has yet been developed.  At this point, the days of consumers offering good ideas for free are over, so some sort of reward or financial participation is a requirement.  Also needed is a way to sort the wheat from the chaff, and I have to believe there would be a lot of chaff.  The jury is still out on just how workable and sustainable such a process would be, but it certainly seems worth a try while marketplace enthusiasm is still high.

 (Via Endless Innovation)

Personalized Race Results

In its most recent newsletter, PODi reports on RocketDog Racing’s use of personalized follow-up after the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon and the Door County Triathlon.  It featured a personalized postcard mailer and a customized Web site:

The postcard for the marathon featured an over-sized image of the runner’s bib number on the front. The back of the card included copy that thanked them for participating in the race and a Personalized URL for the runner. The URL led the participant to a personalized Web site that listed their race results. When the participant visited their personalized Web site, they were greeted by their name, their official finish time, and a finish line photo (and link to a gallery of their photos at the event photographer’s site.) They were also presented with a table outlining their mile and pace split times.

cgbmlogo.JPGDecades ago photographers began taking and selling pictures of competitors in all kinds of races.  (How can Mom not buy that picture of junior racing down the river in the Head of the Charles?)  Bib numbers provided the perfect means to identify participants.  Now, with the use of RFID tags, a large amount of data can be generated on each competitor, limited only by the cost of placing receivers along the course.  RocketDog’s mailer and Web site is a nice use of some of this data.  Athletes can be data obsessives, at least when it comes to their performance, and a web site with split times and pace plays right into this need.  The company reports that over 30% of participants visited the triathlon Web site.  Honestly, that seems low to me; I’d be on that site the moment I received the mailer.  It may be a bit more obvious here, but  this still serves as a reminder that customization and personalization affects every single business.

The Complaint Box in Your Home

roadrepairsSpringwise reports on Neighborhood Fix-It, a UK Web site that allows residents throughout the country to report local problems that need action. 

 After entering a postcode or location, users are presented with a map of the area. They can view issues that have already been reported, or add something they’ve just spotted, simply by clicking on the map. The site is free to use and run by mySociety, a charity that also created civic-action websites like TheyWorkForYou.com and PledgeBank.com. In a quiet beta test prior to Neighbourhood Fix-It’s launch, several hundred problems were reported. Local councils fixed paving slabs, got rid of redundant estate agent signs, filled pot holes and removed graffiti.

It’s crowdsourcing for government and something that you would think local governments would want to encourage.  But beyond local governments, what about newspapers?  As far as I’m concerned, whenever I hear the word “local” used to describe a Web site or service, it screams “newspapers.”  This is no different.  While readers devour that hyperlocal section of their newspaper’s Web site, why not allow them to submit items for action?  Local governments are happy because they have an efficient way to learn about issues, readers have an efficient way to report them, and newspapers have another way to bring readers to their site.  This is just another form of crowdsourced local information that newspapers should own, from traffic conditions, to restaurant reviews, to sports scores.

G-Men in Second Life

2lifegamblingReuters has interesting news about Second Life – the FBI is investigating gambling.  With hundreds of casinos and the Linden dollar freely transferable into US dollars, it seems pretty clear that there is gambling in the traditional sense of the word. 

‘We have invited the FBI several times to take a look around in Second Life and raise any concerns they would like, and we know of at least one instance that Federal agents did look around in a virtual casino,’said Ginsu Yoon, until recently Linden Lab’s general counsel and currently vice president for business affairs. ‘We have specifically requested that a US Attorney give us guidance on virtual gaming activity in SL, but this hasn’t resulted in clear rules yet.’

Yoon goes on to say, “It’s not always clear to us whether a 3D simulation of a casino is the same thing as a casino, legally speaking – and it’s not clear to the law enforcement authorities we have asked.”  I fail to see how it can be considered anything but the same, although that’s different than believing it should be outlawed.

hgunWhether the virtual casinos are a simulation, or actual gambling, I love the idea of the FBI investigating.  I wonder if the agents are undercover?  Are they armed?  Wired?  Do they have informants?  How many Linden dollars is a juicy piece of information worth?  The questions are endless.  Of course, one way to look at this is to view the FBI as just another business trying to set up shop in Second Life.  They can do some marketing, have an outreach program, maybe a gun exchange.  If we’re lucky, perhaps we’ll see Smith & Wesson opening a shop and creating virtual handguns for the agents.

Hotel Branding – Or is it Customization?

hotelbrandsBrandchannel.com has an interesting article on the proliferation of hotel brands.  Noting how difficult it is for a consumer to differentiate among all of these brands, the article states:

This is just one aspect of the branding problem. The larger hotel companies seem to spawn brands whenever the mood strikes. And the problem is getting worse. “The hotel industry has launched several new brands in the past 18 months,” says Jeff Weinstein, editor-in-chief of HOTELS magazine. “Not only is it hard to create the critical mass necessary to make these brands relevant, but these new hotel brands have to create a very distinct identity and then deliver the matching experience to have any chance of resonating in the mind of the consumer. Creating that identity, making sure there is enough demand, and then actually delivering the goods is not at all easy.”

It’s hard to argue with the notion that hotel brands aren’t what they used to be.  The days of a few major hotel chains (e.g. Marriott, Hilton, Ramada) with clearly differentiated value propositions, seem to be gone.  Now, if you consider a reservation at a Hilton, for example, you have to find out if it’s a good Hilton or a crummy Hilton (or Marriott, Ramada, etc.).  Crummy Hilton!  The very statement would seem an oxymoron 30 years ago, but now it’s possible.  With so many brands trying to reach so many segments, consistency has become a problem along with differentiation.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the article’s contention that “the hotel industry seems to be moving in the direction of very customized offerings.”  In this view, brand proliferation is seen as the industry’s attempt to customize.  Customization is a long-term consumer trend that’s been impacting all sorts of businesses for some time now, and it seems smart for hoteliers to try to capitalize on it.  As with so many things, it’s all about the execution.  If you don’t know what a brand stands for, it’s hard to see it as customized for you.  Maybe the winning formula is a customizable brand – a hotel chain that allows guests to customize their rooms.  Or maybe a brand that offers different characteristics at different locations (e.g. green, long-term, business traveler, etc.), but with a clear, overarching value proposition (e.g. customer service, family friendly, luxury, etc.).  It’s an interesting challenge, but one that doesn’t seem to be met with the current over-branding approach.

It’s All About the Experience

roughtradeThe Independent (via Influx) has a story about Rough Trade’s intention to open a 5,000 square foot music shop in London. This move by Rough Trade, the label that launched the Smiths, is a bet on a counter trend if ever there was one. With stories of declining CD sales in the press seemingly every day, punctuated by music store closings (e.g. Tower Records), a large physical store selling CDs seems to be a Sisyphean adventure. It’s more than a counter trend bet, however, as the shop will have live entertainment and try to become a hub for a vibrant independent music scene. This aspect of the project fits squarely into a relatively recent but already stable trend – shopping as an experience. We hear so much about creating a community online, but there is no community like flesh and blood community, and that is just what Rough Trade hopes to facilitate. If indie music lovers (and all other music lovers, for that matter) find like minded souls as customers, entertainers, and employees in the shop, they’ll come back for more and be happy to purchase physical CDs rather than download (legal or illegal) digital songs. Influx notes that Amoeba Music in San Francisco is the model for the new store. If that’s true, I hope it’s just the start of the plan because Amoeba isn’t quite the kind of experience I think Rough Trade will need to create. It’s harshly lit, jammed with CDs, but otherwise not particularly welcoming (just my opinion).

Creating experiences for consumers has been seen in many businesses now, initially manifesting itself in Nike Town stores which drew consumers in for the experience as much as for the products. A while back I wrote about Living Room Theaters, a Portland cinema that tried to create the experience of watching a movie in your living room. Service and luxury are the experience. Think of another supposedly dying business – high-end stationary. When you walk into a Papyrus or Kate’s Paperie, shopping for stationary becomes an experience. You’re with like-minded people, talking with clerks who love fine paper, surrounded by creative examples of how to do more with what you are about to purchase.

Online companies, too, create this experience. Amazon was an early example as they introduced Recommendations, Wish Lists, and reviews. eBay also played the experience card as the company not only found an efficient way to buy and sell, but provided a fun auction experience. Finally, what could be more boring than a corporate Web site, right? Well, take a look at Dyson’s, but only if you’re ready to spend several hundred dollars for one of their vacuums, because that’s what you’ll want to do after your visit. Visiting that Web site is an experience.

CDs, movie theaters, paper – all products or services that are presumed to be in trouble. Creating an experience around the product or service is how some forward looking businesses are fighting back. Unfortunately there are solid long-term trends beating these businesses down, trends that won’t be reversed simply by creating product experiences. These actions can, however, slow the decline of, or even temporarily grow, the market. You want to have a portfolio of products that cover where you’ve been as well as where you’re going. Just because a certain product type or segment seems to be in decline, doesn’t mean it’s no longer worth addressing.

How Would You Like To Be In The Music Business?

PSFK posted an extract from a Bob Lefsetz article arguing that not only is the old music industry model dead, but the price of music will soon be zero.  From Lefsetz:

YOU need to pay the mortgage. YOU need to go on vacation to the Caribbean. But the new musicians? They’re willing to sleep on the floor and eat ramen. Hell, they’re in their twenties, they’re not on the corporate track, they’ve got different ambitions!

…You say kids can’t make it giving their music away for free because YOU can’t make it. But they can outlast you, starve for years all in pursuit of their art. They don’t want an expensive video, never mind a stylist. They don’t want to play the game. And, if you don’t play the game, I hate to tell you, it just doesn’t cost that much.

If you’re a music consumer, this is great stuff, if you’re a record label executive, this is scary stuff.  While this is all true, you can never, ever discount the profit motive.  You know when fans get upset because their favorite band just sold out by lending their music to a car commercial?  What happened is that the members of the band realized that THEY need to pay a mortgage and THEY need to go on vacation to the Caribbean.  For sure, new bands can now bypass the old labels, but sooner or later music for the love of music gets old, and it becomes music for the love of money.  Just read about altruism’s current poster boy Bono’s efforts to avoid taxes and you’ll see what I mean.

The point, then, is not that the music business is dead because all music will forever be free (although it may be in certain modes of delivery), but that the business has changed and anyone who hopes to make a living in it needs to play by the new rules.  A large part of MySpace’s value comes from it’s ability to give new and independent musicians a forum and a delivery channel.  MySpace is trying to play by the new rules (or at least, was).  There is money to be made and some of it will be made by helping new artists avoid the old labels.  If the labels are smart, they’ll begin to develop products and services that have the potential to destroy their traditional business (and current cash cow).  How many companies do you know that  have the guts to do that?

Electricity From Air

Business 2.0 has a story about Powercast, a company that has developed the technology to broadcast electricity from a power source to a small receiver.

A transmitter plugs into the wall, and a dime-size receiver (the real Powercastinnovation, costing about $5 to make) can be embedded into any low-voltage device. The receiver turns radio waves into DC electricity, recharging the device’s battery at a distance of up to 3 feet.

Picture your cell phone charging up the second you sit down at your desk, and you start to get a sense of the opportunity. How big can it get? “The sky’s the limit,” says John Shearer, Powercast’s founder and CEO. He estimates shipping “many millions of units” by the end of 2008.

The article implies that there is some excitement about this technology and it’s easy to see why.  Interest in this technology also illustrates a prime principle – humans progress from less freedom to more freedom.  This is true whether in society, government, or products.  The line of progression is never straight, of course, but if you develop a product that gives consumers more freedom where there is currently less, chances are you have a winner.

It’s interesting to consider two industries struggling with this principle right now – cable and newspapers.  Cable is the ultimate tether, and it would seem that sattelite would deal it a knockout blow.  This hasn’t happened, however, and there are some technological, cost, and business issues holding back adoption.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine we’ll stay cable-happy as we continue to suffer from those maddening tether related service interruptions that seem to occur for no reason.

Newspapers, on the other hand, actually provide more freedom than on screen delivery of the news, yet paper is dying while screen is growing.  This fact had helped blind some newspaper executives to the online threat, thinking that people will never choose to get their news on a screen over  paper.  You won’t carry a computer onto the train.  They missed, of course, all of the other superior qualities of online news delivery that makes it more desirable than paper.  Digital news delivery, however, is becoming more mobile and news organizations must be able to follow that move if  they want to succeed.