Web/Tech

What is the Internet good for, anyway?

This blog post has been rolling around in my head for several weeks now, but it’s been difficult to write. I think some part of me felt that it didn’t “fit” in with the normal content of this blog, but the more I thought about it, the less true (and less important) that seemed.

Over the years, I have tried to use this blog as a place to analyze, decode and remark on online trends and trends in social media. While I don’t feel like I have reached the bottom of that well, I have felt a tug in another direction, one that is more personal and focuses on my own experiences in social media and traditional media games.

There have been times, particularly lately, when I feel a sense of hopelessness about my involvement in two ephemeral businesses: the internet and video production, the two pillars of my livelihood. Hopelessness because I have always had a deep desire to create things that last and my involvement in these two industries would, arguably,  belie that motivation. I sometimes think creating things that last might be tougher to do online than with media production,  but lately I’ve been thinking that perhaps I’ve been wrong.

It is impossible to stay abreast of all the tweets, status updates, blog posts, new apps and services and all the other “here today, gone two seconds from now” inventory which measure the quality of online life. But I think I, and many others, may have it backwards.  What if  the real peculiarity of the internet is  “here today, here tomorrow”?

I  have given more than one speech to both young people and savvy marketers about how there is no delete button on the internet. But it has always been in the context of “measure your words” or “don’t say anything online you wouldn’t say to someone’s face” or “don’t say anything you wouldn’t mind being printed on the front page of the New York Times.” Yet this kind of advice, while solid, gives too much power to negative outcomes and does nothing to honor and acknowledge the “other side” of the internet.

So, what about the flip side? What about using the permanence of the internet to create something that lasts? I feel like this, more positive, side of online is sometimes ignored.

All this navel gazing has given rise to some inspiration. I will soon be rolling out a new offering that will aim to help those wishing to contribute to building an online legacy. I haven’t quite worked out all the kinks, but I am confident that it will be simple to use and easy to understand and, with any luck, a useful tool to help those who wish to use the internet and video to erect a castle built on granite, not on sand.

Back when I played drums, my goal was never to be well known or be out in front of a band. I suppose I would have taken up singing or guitar or sax if that were the goal. No, I always strove to be the first drummer called by my peers. My idea of success was to be known within my industry as the “go-to” drummer. As I write these words, it seems like a very weird aspiration to want to get good referrals, but I guess I was a weird kid. The funny thing is, that never stopped being the goal.

I’m not sure this post readily lends itself to comments, but I would love to hear any you might have.

Read More

The Myth of Online Transparency

A few years ago, an eternity in internet years, there was a lot of chatter about “lifestreaming,” which basically meant providing a non-stop voyeuristic window into the minutiae of your daily life. People could “subscribe” to you and see whatever you were doing. Some folks took it to extremes and even filmed themselves while asleep.

Mercifully, the concept petered out under the weight of its own stupidity, but in some ways it is still with us in the form of twitter, facebook and location-based services. A recent change to facebook enabled users to broadcast the news articles they were reading, the music they were listening to via Spotify and, of course, the places they visited. In my personal facebook stream, I notice that only a few friends are doing this (see how I avoided saying “taking advantage of” just there?) and it got me wondering why.

One of the oft-spouted tenets of social media-dom is the importance of  transparency in all interactions, whether on the personal level or among businesses. For individuals, tending to one’s “personal brand” has become a cottage industry online. But what does that really imply? A brand, as I define it, is what surrounds a sales pitch and differentiates you from the other guy. Companies go to great lengths to define their brands in the minds of consumers using vivid language, imagery and experiences, all in the service of selling you something. Positive attributes are emphasized and negative ones are never even contemplated. Coca Cola might have a tough time squaring the immeasurable enjoyment and life-altering experiences contained inside one of their cans with all that pesky teeth rotting and onset of diabetes.

So, then, the same must be true of one’s personal brand, right? Which, of course, gives the lie to transparency online. Everyone’s streamed online life is full of glamourous trips, sunset photos, magical dinners, songs from obscure Norwegian bands and moments of clarity elucidated in some Paulo Coehlo quote. No arguments with spouses, frustration with the kids’ poor behavior or disappointment at being passed over for that work promotion by the kiss ass who goofs off all day.

We live in a start-up culture where we put on our sales face all the time since we never know who might be watching. Woe to he who slips up and posts the drunken rant. There is no delete button on the internet, as we all know. Those of us who choose to live some portion of our lives online are all selling ourselves to some unknown potential client. All of which, I suppose, reinforces the point I have been making on this blog and in public speaking events since I got into this game: there is about an eye dropper’s amount of difference between our online lives and our offline ones.

I recently asked someone I have never actually met, but “know” on Facebook, (another weird by-product of the internet, but maybe just an updated version of the pen pal) what had motivated her to stream her Spotify selections. She confessed to me that she self-edits and doesn’t share EVERYTHING she’s listening to in her news feed. She leaves out songs that might be seen as offensive or “trashy.” Of course she does. No one will ADMIT to listening to Air Supply. (I have no idea if she does or not, but it was the lamest thing that occurred to me as I write this. Hey, I know what you’re thinking but I don’t listen to Air Supply, either.)

I hear many rail against the TMI culture of the internet using the tired argument that no one really cares about every detail of your life. I might argue that the REAL problem is not too much candor, but not enough.

Would love to hear what you think. Please post your thoughts in the comments section.

Read More

Can online video survive?

The comparisons between traditional TV and online video never stop. Some common comparisons are:

 

Online will disrupt and eventually kill TV.

 

TV will never die because of viewer habits, the user experience and their entrenched business model.

 

Blah blah blah…on it goes. Who cares? Not the point of this post.

 

 It seems to me that a major handicap for the long term financial viability of online video is that shows cannot easily be syndicated.

 

What is syndication? In a nutshell, it is where the real money is in TV. As a general rule, when a half-hour show produces 100 episodes, roughly 5 seasons, it can then be sold into syndication and shown off-network.

 

For example, Seinfeld aired as a first run show on NBC. Now it airs off network on hundreds of local stations around the country. That’s an example of syndication. But Seinfeld was always popular and made a lot of people associated with it extremely rich. A better example of the money-making power of syndication success might be a show like Star Trek, which only aired for 3 seasons in the mid-1960s and was not all that popular at the time. Nearly 50 years later, however, we’re still following the same bold voyages of the starship Enterprise.

 

Star Trek might be the original example of the “long tail.”

 

All this occurred to me when I read about the demise of “Diggnation.” Online video is often about immediacy and is often unscripted. (I am generalizing to make a larger point.) Online video shows also seldom adhere to a strict 30-minute length. Yet at its peak in around 2006, Diggnation was arguably the most popular show online and as of this writing, they have produced over 300 episodes. (They will cease production in December 2011.)

 

So, what happens to all that inventory? Who is going to go back and watch an episode from 2007 speculating on the launch of this new device called an iPhone? From a business standpoint, these episodes have no more value than a CNN half hour about a snowstorm in Tennessee in 1987. Archival? Sure. Revenue generating? Nope.

 

When I think about the long term viability and the business model for online video, this strikes me as a major issue that needs to be sorted out. If the “real” money in television is in syndication, where will it come from in online video? I don’t have the answer, but I also don’t really hear the question being asked.

 

What do you think? Is this an insurmountable block for online video producers and other content creators?

Read More

Facebook, Foursquare, Groupon and… Joni Mitchell???

In the world of social networking, Facebook continues to be the dominant player, but two things happened rather quietly last week that show that the media coverage surrounding online is remarkably similar to the hysterical media that covers politics.

The advent of 24-hour television news has created a gaping maw that must be filled. Whether it gets filled by accurate information is not always a primary consideration. The competition for attention, and ratings, is vicious and the press that covers online and social media trends is no different. The clamor to be first can sometimes trump the responsibility to be right or, in this case, trump any inclination for trend analysis.

 

So, what am I talking about? About a year ago, Facebook went head-to-head with foursquare in the location-based  “check-in” space. The media spin was that foursquare, the scrappy start-up, would be eaten alive by the Facebook monster, especially considering fb had a gargantuan user base of 600 million subscribers. Funny thing- it didn’t happen that way. Facebook has scrapped the “Check in” feed from its mobile apps and interface.

 

Man bites dog.

 

Groupon, and other daily deals services that continue to pollute the Internet, was also in the crosshairs of the Facebook assassin when they rolled out “Facebook Deals” a little over four months ago in a few select cities. The media take was the same, and so was the outcome. “After testing Deals for four months, we’ve decided to end our Deals product in the coming weeks,” quoth the unnamed Facebook spokesperson.

 

Not exactly steamrolling the competition.

 

I have seen similar media hyperventilating over Google Plus in recent weeks, with the obligatory “Facebook killer” headlines all over the place. I am willing to bet that if you asked 100 non-tech people what Google Plus is, 99 of them would stare back at you blankly.

 

This post is not to critique facebook’s marketing choices or whether Google Plus will make Facebook look like Friendster in a few months (but their marketing sucks and Google Plus won’t). No, my real point is to counsel temperance when every shiny new things comes along. The online world is fueled by innovation and there are winners and losers, but it takes some time to shake out.

 

I’m reminded of the lyrics to “Black Crow” by Joni Mitchell:

 ”Diving down to pick up on every shiny thing

Just like that black crow flying in a blue sky.”

Read More

How Your Business Can Succeed in Latin America- 5 Quick Tips

For roughly the past 20 years, I have worked in the media business (first radio, then the music business, followed by TV and now online) and much of that time has been spent focused on the Latin American market. In that time, I have observed American companies make similar mistakes when attempting to reach this large, and growing, consumer base. Some of the errors I see are cultural ones, some are language-based but most seem to come from companies simply not doing their homework.

Consider this a cheat sheet on the five major pitfalls that I have seen hinder a successful business launch.

 

1. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE

 

First, some background: According to comScore, the Internet population of Latin America grew 15% during 2010 to 112 million people. Venezuela and Colombia showed the highest growth, while Brazil led the region in having the most engaged users.

 

I want to stop here, at the risk of offending some readers, to point out error number one that I have seen: Brazilians speak Portuguese and the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish. As shocking as it may seem, I have worked with plenty of American executives who did not realize this and plowed ahead with their Spanish-language marketing plan for the entire territory. Brazil is home to nearly 200 million people, 40 million of whom are online, but they don’t speak Spanish. This fatal error falls into both the “cultural” and “language” categories I mentioned at the outset. In any setting, it is critical to know your audience. Part of knowing your audience means knowing what language they speak. (More on Brazil in a moment.)

 

2. “IF IT WORKED HERE, IT WILL WORK OVER THERE”

 

The second error I see time and again is when US or other English-language companies repurpose their content or service assuming that “if it worked here, it will work there.” You might be able to get away with that attitude in the music business since the fact remains that even in our multicultural global village, American and British music continues to dominate the worldwide music scene. Other forms of content and web-based services or apps do not necessarily translate as well and market research is a must. Latins know a lot about Americans, but the reverse is not true so we’re back to  ”know your audience” again. Latin American Internet users have been bitten just as hard by the social networking bug and twitter has some of its highest market penetration rates, with Chile and Argentina ranking 11th and 13th globally, so the engagement is there. Now it becomes a question of finding your market sweet spot.

 

3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK FIRST

 

The third most common error I see is naiveté or, dare I say, arrogance. This can sometime spell the demise of a great idea, product or service, too. Just because you may already have great name recognition and a good reputation, charging US prices for your app, conference, product or service might not be the best way to go. One must also take note of variances in population and numbers of people connected to the Internet from country to country, and adjust your expectations accordingly. Mexico is not the same size as Venezuela, for example, but Venezuela had a 27% growth rate in 2010, the highest in the region. Internet companies are taking hold in Latin America, from Google data centers to online pay systems. The economy is rebounding faster than the US, the middle class is booming and technology infrastructure is superior in some cases to that of the US. This is a pattern I see repeating from my days in the cable TV business. Many countries, like Argentina for example, never laid the cable TV infrastructure that we spent so much money on here. Instead, they jumped right to fiberoptic cable and were therefore able to offer sophisticated digital tiering before that was the norm here in the United States. Similar technology “leapfrogging” is taking place throughout the territory.

 

The torrid economic growth is Brazil is expected to level off at around 4-5% per year, which would even make China green with envy. The government is committed to upgrading its dilapidated infrastructure, and many analysts see big expansions of consumer markets as people join the middle class in increasing numbers.

 

4. FIND A LOCAL PARTNER

 

I might even go one step further and say, depending on your business and your goals, find several local partners. Mexico is not Colombia. Colombia is not Venezuela. Venezuela is not Argentina. And there is only one Brazil. Don’t paint all of Latin America with the same broad brush. Historical, cultural and, yes, even language differences among Spanish-speaking countries need to be deftly navigated and you need someone on the ground to help things go smoothly.

 

5. THE AMERICAN WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

 

Yes, the US has the world’s biggest economy and we know how to make money. But long term relationship building is critical when doing business in Latin America. It takes time to build trust and understanding so take the time to learn how and WHY business is done in country. If you come in with guns blazing with the attitude “we’re gonna show these guys how business gets done,” you’re going to run into some serious problems. Listening and learning will go a lot further than pushing your way of doing business. As my grandfather used to tell me, “No one ever learned anything while they were talking.” (I guess I would correct him and say, “Except maybe  a foreign language.” But you get the idea.)

 

To recap- do your homework before jumping in. Remember that in every way, Spanish speaking Latin America and Portuguese- speaking Brazil are NOT the same market. (Market, cultural and social conditions vary greatly within Spanish speaking countries, but I said this was a cheat sheet, not a 1000-page textbook.) Make sure your product and message translates, and I don’t just mean that in terms of language. And, remember, a little humility can mean the difference between success or failure. Working with someone who knows that lay of the land(s) can help maximize your investment.

The comments are yours.

 

Read More

The iPad 2 and why I’ll never cancel my NY Times subscription

I finally got around to getting an iPad2 about a month ago and it has replaced my laptop, for all intents and purposes. My workflow is centered around my desktop, and the laptop had become a big, clunky travel workstation that I realized I was mostly using for email and reading.

Ahhh, reading.

As many have already written about at length, the iPad is a wonderful consumption device, maybe not so much for content creation. For someone who travels a lot, it’s a great thing to not have to lug a bunch of different books around, or perhaps make an impulse buy based on a conversation or a quick browse through a Hudson News.

But how about newspapers?

Reading the morning newspaper is lifelong habit critical to my sanity. No matter where I travel, I will always read the NY Times as well as a copy of, as my father used to call it, the local blat. To their credit, the Times has worked as hard, if not harder, than any other old media outlet to try and keep their offering current, relevant and, above all, profitable to a new generation of readers or an old generation, like me, who might consume the paper in a different way.

Lots of virtual ink has been spilled over whether the Times app is any good or whether their paywall idea is sustainable or not. I don’t review apps and I don’t know if the paywall gag will work or not. For me, I don’t use the app for two simple reasons:

1- Holding an actual newspaper in your hands is not incidental to the absorption of its contents and,

2- I simply cannot shake the nagging feeling that I am missing something when I read the paper via the app versus the actual paper. And after a side-by-side comparison, it turns out I think I’m right.

Taking the above points in order: With any web interface, so much development time is devoted to UI and UX (user interface and user experience). You may have a great product, but if one or both of those elements are lacking, you’re kind of dead in the water. I have never ONCE heard anyone talk about the UI or UX of a newspaper, so let me be the first. Well laid out newspapers, like the Times, Washington Post or WSJ, will guide the readers’ eyes to the most important stories. Over time, you “learn how to read” a newspaper, and you figure out the best way to scan the content. But perhaps more importantly, during this process of scanning, every once in awhile you will come across something that you might not ordinarily have read. The physical act of holding a paper, however, offers the reader the chance to see the paper in its totality, something apps cannot really match. I cannot prove this, but I believe that being exposed to two facing pages of text and photos has an affect on the way readers take in the information. To me, it’s like the difference between information and knowledge.

With regard to point 2 above, I spent four days in Boston last week reading the Times app in bed upon waking up, and then buying a copy and reading it over coffee. I don’t know if its for editorial reasons or for reasons of space, but there is a lot missing from the app that you can find in the paper. Despite the categories that attempt to mirror the analog reading experience (Top News, Opinion, Sports, Arts, etc.), the app takes some getting used to, particularly the way a story from yesterday’s paper might hang around in the app for two days or more. While it is indisputable that a printed paper has no chance keeping up with fast moving events in other time zones like the Middle East revolutions, there is a sense with the app that I have only experienced with certain cable channels: “Is this new, or is this just new to me?” It seems like a hedge for a news app to tout its immediacy, but also keep old bananas on the shelf.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am no Luddite. But I’m keeping my newspaper subscriptions for as long as they’re still around.

What do you think? Are apps just as good as the printed paper or magazine? Am I just being stubborn?

 

Read More