Posted by: Andrew | May 4, 2008

Bring it on

The specter of a recession has caused a lot of pundits, gurus and insiders to ponder the near future of Web advertising. The fact that economic troubles are still in the forecast probably won’t make anyone feel any better. Also looming are reports that online ad growth should experience a natural slowdown after years of running on afterburners.

And it may be that trouble lies ahead. But I wonder, could all this uncertainty be a good thing for media companies? I think so.

My reason is simple: challenging times bring out the best in tech companies. As has often been cited, the boom-and-bust cycle of the last growth period taught many Web firms to be thrifty and to focus on building solid businesses rather than on issuing IPOs during their earliest, most unpredictable years.

And the current period should yield similar effects. When faced with the prospect of a slimmer client list, depressed earnings and possible layoffs, online media will be forced to improve. But make no mistake: This is not simply about bracing for an austere economic downturn. It’s about the big picture, about strengthening our businesses to better serve consumers over the long run. Call it adaptation. In advertising, that means developing ads that give marketers what they need: greater ROI, better metrics, more accountability, and content that consumers actually like and respond to.

Thus far, online media have weathered this recessionish event well, and most of the industry bellwethers say they’re optimistic. Strong earnings growth from Google followed by more measured growth from Yahoo imply that, if anything, recent financial and economic instability has already motivated companies to cut some inefficiencies and create more robust product offerings. Of course, the other story is that we will also see many companies merge with others or fold entirely if they don’t have the brains or the chutzpah to stay alive. It’s kind of unnerving and undeniably Darwinian, but when we pass through this period online media should be all the stronger.

Let’s use this as an opportunity to get to know ourselves. We should question our business models as well as the choices we’ve made and figure out how to thrive in a new media marketplace. We need to think about deliverables and results. Most of all, we need to get creative and get to work.

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Posted by: Andrew | May 3, 2008

Your brand is an illusion

There, I said it. Shoot me.

I attended the New Media Tastemakers conference in San Francisco yesterday, in the too-cool-for-school Supper Club south of Market St. (Definitely read up on this place, it was a very intriguing location for a conference).

Among the many interesting and thought-provoking presentations, I particularly enjoyed a short session with Yelp’s Sonia Survanshi McFarland about best-practices for businesses in a Web-centric world. Her key message was simple: businesses need to operate with transparency and authenticity. Makes sense given that consumers have new power to sniff out a phony and sculpt brand images, thanks to online social networking and the collaborative spirit that the Web inspires.

Which got me thinking – are brands essentially dead in Web 2.0? Or, rather, do companies control their brands at all these days?

Sure, companies still guard their brands vigilantly. Apple is a prime example. As Wired notes, Steve Jobs has built an empire by locking consumers into a proprietary digital ecosystem beneath the Apple umbrella. The company has more or less rejected an open-source model of product development and maintained a tight grip over its brand image. iPod commercials, for example, appear to have tremendous influence and recall that not only helps the company sell mp3 players but also iTunes downloads.

And no one at the NMT conference believed that a business should give up trying to propagate an image about its brand. Every company or organization has a stake in its customer’s opinions.

But it comes down to this: It doesn’t matter how much you blow on PR, how sexy your commercials are, how great your promotions are or whether you’ve launched a multi-million-dollar campaign to “go green” in the next fiscal year. At the end of the day, these efforts might prevail – but the consumer still has the final say. If your marketing and branding efforts are paying off, it’s because the crowds have reaffirmed them.

But if consumers perceive your messages and branding to be dishonest, or that you’re covering up shoddy business practices, they will take you to task for it. A business can have a say in shaping its public perception, but this is just one voice in a fragmented, polyvocal media world. As evidence of this, Sonia pointed out that 75% of consumers say they trust the opinions of their friends the most, while brand sponsorships, banner ads and other forms of corporate marketing fell in the 50% or below range. And because the Web has made it easier than ever for consumers to form connections, those recommendations will become increasingly visible and numerous to the entire world. Companies that have spent millions building brand identities have created mere illusions; it is now up to the consumers to construct those identities.

Exhibit A: Yelp, which boasts over 2.5 million reviews of local businesses across the nation. Within the burgeoning Yelp community, reviewers – who are the site’s sole content contributors – have the last word about a business, not the business owners themselves. Owners can review their own businesses, sure, but they are just one small voice among thousands. Offer lousy service, bad food, shoddy products, and Yelpers will make it known to the entire world, effectively shouting over any advertising, marketing and other messaging you create.

I could cite numerous other examples of consumer dominance today, but one that comes immediately to mind is China’s attempt to quell recent unrest in Tibet. Despite blocking YouTube internally and denying access to reporters in Tibet, China has been unable to control the outflow of images and video from Lhasa, thanks to the speed with which anyone can generate and upload a video of the violence. With the universality of the Web, even the Communist Party can’t maintain complete control over its global brand – although to be sure it’s done a pretty good job of retaining the support of Chinese nationals during the conflict. That much can be expected in a closed-door society without Web neutrality.

What does this mean for companies and organizations? First and foremost, the Web should drive more of them to be honest about their operations – if they’re not, the world will know soon enough. The consequences for lying to consumers are far worse for any institution than being open and forthcoming with them to begin with. Second, I think as more companies come to grips with this fact, they will reform their practices and focus more on social responsibility. At the very least, this should mean better advertising that’s actually interesting and worth a damn. Let’s cut the fat out of this beast and find a way to make all businesses, organizations and governments behave more like citizens, and less like autocracies.

Posted by: Andrew | May 1, 2008

We are the media

Google skipper Eric Schmidt clearly hits a pressure point when he says that social networks need to be more open – in terms of the portability of applications and their exposure to search. I for one am sick of people burning sites like Facebook at the stake over privacy concerns – if you choose to live your life online (as Schmidt eloquently puts it), then how can you justify throwing a fit over access to your personal information? The Web was designed for open communication. When it’s open, people and companies benefit (cases in point: Firefox, Jonathan Schwartz’s Sun Microsystems blog, indie rock artists, anyone looking to score tickets on StubHub). When it’s walled, the Web loses its potential as a social connective tissue. It’s counterintuitive and a step backward for everyone.

But isn’t everyone entitled to at least some modicum of privacy? I can’t claim that my Facebook profile is open for the world to see, or that I don’t keep my photo albums invisible to strangers. Sometimes I enjoy hanging out with my friends at a quiet lounge in a private booth, rather than at a sprawling club shoulder-to-shoulder with a thousand strangers. Isn’t that my right?

I think the rub is that more and more, we are the media we’re consuming. Sure, we still love watching “The Office” on Hulu, but we also love interacting with our friends, watching consumer videos, networking with people who share our interests. So naturally, why not make our data and apps more widely available, since in doing so we can exponentially increase our ability to connect with friends and create/access content that’s most relevant to us and our social graph? Sure, we still have the right to mark certain data as private, and I think this is where Schmidt misses the mark, since clearly no one lives his life entirely online. We’re caught somewhere in the middle of offline and online existence, and we’ll always live on a spectrum between these two extremes.

The openness of the Web isn’t a new development; it’s always been an open medium at heart. But I’m not sure we all realized just how big the Web is, which is why so many of us feel duped. Most of us, after all, still remember a time when we got our media solely through personal TV sets, radio and print subscriptions, where communication occurred in the insular spaces of our living rooms and we were just anonymous figures to whom media companies force-fed information. The reality today is that we aren’t consuming media privately during dinner, but openly in front of the entire world. And more often we are creators as well as the consumers.

So before we skin companies like Facebook and Blockbuster for dipping into our personal data, we need to remember that the Web is open partly because we made it so – because we demanded it. Privacy is a right, but openness is a luxury that only the Internet can furnish. What we need, then, is not more privacy or more openness, but a clearer distinction between the open and closed spaces – the loud, sweaty superclub at the Web’s core, and the lounge off to the side where we can enjoy a good glass of scotch and friendly conversation. Do a better job of identifying the doorway between these spaces, and you’ll assuage the rabble and make the Web a better place for everyone.

UPDATE: A column from L. Gordon Crovitz got me thinking that I left out an important topic – cookies. This needs to be included in the conversation because Web privacy is so much more than controlling how our names are tied to pictures, videos and other content. In reality, a lot of the controversy stems from cookies that have more subtle connections to our online and offline identities.

I think again, we need to define what constitutes proper use of our Web history and activity. I think cookies have a purpose and can actually help consumers in the long run by improving their Web experience. The potential to make ads more targeted and relevant will make the online experience better for everyone. Frankly, I’m less worried about cookies themselves and more concerned about how our elected official uses them. And to that end, I don’t think our problem is the technology, but the lack of trustworthiness of our government.

For starters, we need to put more technologists and media visionaries in government, particularly the FCC. We must continue to enforce the ground rules that companies can never access our names along with our data. And we need to elect a President who understands the importance of net neutrality and the perils of using the Web to aid extralegal domestic spying programs. Reign in the PATRIOT Act, and I bet a lot of the stink over cookies would go away. Finally, I agree with Crovitz that the public needs to gain a better understanding of what cookies are and why there’s little reason to fear them. Again, this goes back to what I said earlier: do a better job of defining what’s open and closed on the Web, and you’ll make a lot of people happier. Essentially, this boils down to better education about cookies and the like. Teach the people and you build their trust in you. Then, many consumers will realize that it’s in their interests to keep the Web an open space.

Posted by: Andrew | May 1, 2008

Twitterberry?

As the entire tech world speculates how Twitter will make money, has anyone ever considered the possibility of a Twitter-branded or Twitterfied smartphone? It could be the next evolution of email on your blackberry, but more tightly networked with less spam and a greater ease to check up on your followers, be they friends, family, co-workers, clients, etc. I know Twitter is already available for phones, but a more thorough integration is needed. And for the upstart Crackberry user on the go, doesn’t Twitter’s 140-character limit epitomize efficiency, speed and utility?

Of course, Twitter isn’t exactly mainstream yet despite its explosive growth, but maybe a move like this is just what the company needs to become the next must-use tool, instead of the quasi-geeky fetish it is now.

That Twitter is so hot right now.

UPDATE: I’ve realized that out of all the ways to consume online news, Twitter perhaps brings the most pleasure (or perhaps the fewest headaches, I’m not sure which). For the record, I love RSS feeds, sites packed with rich-media, and the ability to get any news I want anywhere I happen to be. But it’s easy to drown in the virtual sea of online content. Twitter eases the pain by forcing content providers to boil their headlines down to pithy phrases and simple links. The updates are fed to you chronologically, allowing you a more lean-back news experience in which you can choose to receive content passively, rather than actively filter through my feed subscriptions or a thousand stories on Digg, Current, etc.

Come to think of it, in this way Twitter is very much a new turn on a tried-and-true model in which the consumer grants the content provider at least some control over the media experience. My tweets from The New York Times, for example, are fed to me one by one through my Thwirl app every few minutes or so, as if the Times were programming a Twitter-based news channel for me. So in this respect, Twitter lets me entrust my news experience to the Times, which can be liberating since it frees my mind up to do other things. Choice is the shining promise of the Web, but occasionally too much choice in content can feel asphyxiating.

At the same time, Twitter leaves content and conversation largely within the hands of its users, and in that regard it is a very savvy, New Media tool. After all, I choose whom I’m following and when and where I read my tweets. And then there is the whole community aspect of Twitter that lets anyone (not just the Times) have their say and push relevant information out to the group.

In other news, I just started following The Wall Street Journal and have come away with a mixture of disappointment and perturbation. Like the Times, WSJ tweets links to its top stories. But when you click on these links, you’ll still get cock-blocked by the subscription gateway (that is, unless you’re a subscriber, of course). Now, on the one hand I can imagine that this could be an effective marketing device that will result in several new subscriptions to the WSJ. On the other hand, it seems to go against the whole spirit of Twitter — the community aspect, like I said. Twitter is about connecting with people and organizations that interest you; it’s highly personal. So you can imagine why I’d feel somewhat snubbed when the Journal returns the favor by giving me the proverbial digital finger when I try to read a story it directed me to on Twitter.

For that matter, why don’t newspapers realize how much more they can do with Twitter than simply post URLs to stories? That’s just them talking at us, rather than with us. Why don’t they bring editors or reporters into the mix by letting them interact with readers and acknowledge retweets? Ask followers for help gathering news and let them be in on the story. There’s no better place to do it than Twitter, where everyone’s footprint is identical, there are no featured accounts or banner ads or “editor’s picks”, etc. Give your presence a soul and a voice! I mean, I’m assuming there’s a real live person Twitterring at the Times, and not a robot. Twitter is about connections – so let’s connect, damn it! Treat me more like a follower instead of a subscriber or a customer, and I might just become even more engaged in your brand.

Posted by: Andrew | May 1, 2008

Poets of the world, unite!

Came across this cool site on an NPR podcast today. From the Fishouse hosts hundreds of mp3 files featuring up-and-coming poets reading their own work. I like its ambition, to use the Web to give voices to emerging artists, to bring them beyond the page and into the realm of recitation (which, arguably, is poetry’s proper place). But there is something about this site that reminds me more of the Internet’s early days. Here are some things I’d do to enrich this spectacular site and help it make some cash:

1. As a non-profit podcast, this company should raise money by collecting the best into a book and selling it. Teach new media an old trick. Look at it as a premium service.

2. How do poets get featured on the site? Why not open it up to all poets, letting them upload files directly? Clearly everyone has Webcams, so naturally everyone and their grandmother has an audio hookup.

3. Let poets set up profiles so they contact one another, start workshops, writing groups, share some of their favorite poems that have inspired them, etc. Host online “residencies” for some star poets who’ve made it big and can give aspiring writers some friendly advice and take questions.

4. With all these features, Fishouse can build a niche in the Web community. The targeted demographics would be attractive to advertisers that could add a revenue stream to this business, making Fishouse less dependent on PayPal donations.

Posted by: Andrew | April 30, 2008

The Web: artists made here

At the San Francisco International Film Festival this week, I had the pleasure of viewing 1,000 Journals, a film directed by Andrea Kreuzhage about an artist who frees a thousand blank journals into the world as an inspired community arts project.

During a Q&A after the film the artist, who goes by the alias Someguy, admitted that the project never would have reached its scope without the Internet as a medium for people to trade and view colorful scans of journals.

One of the most appealing aspects of the piece was seeing the diversity and flamboyance of the many journals the film’s subjects had populated with collage, prose and verse, photographs, drawings and paintings. Just as striking is the lasting impression the film has left on thousands of people across the world, who have now launched their own project, dubbed 1,001 journals, to continue what Someguy began. In sum, they formed an online artistic community. This is one of the finest examples of a social network I can recall seeing, as it hatched from necessity: the circles that have grown up around each journal are often wide, its members separated by thousands of miles. Only through the Web could the timeless art form of journaling have swelled to such a scale over a very brief period of time. The marriage of classic art forms and digital communication validates the Web 2.0 network we have created.

It also got me thinking: Why do ancient modes such as poetry, narrative and visual expression endure? Anti-utopian visions of human development have always portrayed the future as cold, sterile, and devoid of beauty and techné (although brimming with technology, to be sure). But over the past decade the Web has enabled a wider swathe of the community to access and create art, be it visual, musical, lyrical, etc. Remember the state of the music scene in 1999? That period to me is awash in corporatized megapop about as artful as a can of Pepsi (am I summoning the ghost of past sponsorships?) But thanks to the Web, bands that never would have gained 100 listeners can now build small armis of adoring fans through the long-tail distribution and online marketing tactics (think MySpace, iMeem, RCRDLBL, Mog and last.fm). It might mean fewer artists hit it big with multi-million dollar deals and appearances on MTV Cribs, but it also means that more people than before will be able to eke out a healthy income from their art. All in all, the Web has crated a more equitable distribution of wealth throughout the artistic community, fostering the kinds of connections between people that give artists broader exposure and more direct access to their audience. But it doesn’t stop there: as Someguy says, “This is an experiment and you are part of it.” The Web hasn’t just closed the gap between artist and audience, it has create artists out of all of us, even the ones who never would have considered themselves artists. Would the journalists of Someguy’s film have found their creative notes without the power of the Web? My guess is, probably not. The Web creates a collaborative atmosphere of ideas, with bits of knowledge flying across a void that once seemed so much larger.

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