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The State of Digital Media: Passion, Goat Rodeos, and Unicorn Exits….

By - August 09, 2012

Earlier in the week I was interviewed by a sharp producer from an Internet-based media company. That company, a relatively well-known startup in industry circles, will be launching a new site soon, and is making a documentary about the process. Our conversation put a fine point on scores of similar meetings and calls I’ve head with major media company execs, content startup CEOs, and product and business leaders at well known online content destinations.

When I call a producer “sharp,” I mean that he asked interesting questions that crystalized some thoughts that have been bouncing around my head recently. The main focus of our discussion was the challenges of launching new media products in the current environment, and afterwards, it struck me I might write a few words on the subject, as it has been much on my mind, and given my history as both an entrepreneur and author in this space, I very much doubt it will ever stop being on my mind. So here are a couple highlights:

* We have a false economy of valuation driving many startups in the content business. Once a year or so, an Internet media site is sold for an extraordinary amount of money, relative to traditional metrics of valuation. Examples include The Huffington Post, which sold for a reported 10X annual revenues, and, just this past week, Bleacher Report, which sold for even more than that ($200million or so on revenues, from what I understand, that were less than $20mm a year).

Such lofty multiples (typical media businesses  – yes, even Internet media businesses – trade at 1.2 to 3X revenues) can make Internet media entrepreneurs starry-eyed. They may have unrealistic expectations of their company’s value, leading to poor decision making about both product and business issues. The truth is, truly passionate media creators don’t get into the media business to make huge gains from spectacular unicorn exits. When it happens, we certainly all cheer (and perhaps secretly hope it happens to us). But the fact is, we make media because we don’t know what else to do with ourselves. It’s how we’re wired, so to speak. (There is another type of media entrepreneur who is far more mercenary in nature, but I’m not speaking of those types now).

Let me explain why HuffPo and Bleacher Report were sold for so much money: They happened to be in the right media segment, at the right time, while growing at the right rate, just as a large media-driven entity was struggling with a strategic problem that threatened a core part of its business. And that particular site happened to solve for that particular problem at that particular time. These major “strategic buys” occur quite rarely (though smaller, less pivotal strategic buys happen all the time – just for far lower multiples).

Media companies don’t like to pay more than their spreadsheets normally dictate. But if word comes from Time Warner’s CEO or its board that “ESPN is kicking our ass in sports” and “do something about it, pronto,” well, that’s when lightening might just strike. As for the Huffington Post, let’s be clear: AOL was a huge media business that faced a massive problem with audience retention, thanks to its declining dial-up business. The HuffPo brought a large and growing audience, not to mention some serious social media and content-platform chops. Right place, right time, right product, right team.

Now, both these businesses were leaders in their fields, they redefined news and sports coverage. And that’s why the acquirer with the major strategic problem bought them – they were the best at what they did. They met a large media company that had lost its way, and magic ensued. I applaud them both.

But if you’re building a content business in the hopes the same lightening is going to strike you, well, I too salute you. But that’s not really a plan for building a lasting media brand. At some point, you’re going to have to come to grips with the reality that making media is what you do for a living.  Making media companies that you hope to sell is not a lot of fun for anyone who cares deeply about making media.

*The current distribution and production landscape for media companies is an utter goat rodeo. Speaking of no fun, man, let’s talk about what we in the media business call “distribution” – IE, how we get our product to you, the consumer of our work. To illustrate what a total mess digital distribution has become, allow me to create a simple chart, based on the medium in which you might choose to create your media product. Note that I whipped this up in the past half hour, so it won’t be complete. But I think it makes my point:

And my point is this: If you are starting a digital media business today, you face a fractured, shifting, messy, business-rule-landmine-laden horrorshow. Your fantasy is that you can make one perfect version of your media product, and deliver it across all those tablets, Kindles, smart phones, PCs, Macs, and so on. The truth is, harmonizing your product (and, even more importantly, your consumer’s experience and your monetization) across all those platforms is currently impossible. Compare that to starting a website in 2002, or launching a magazine in 1992 (that’s when we launched Wired). The business rules were established, and you could focus, in the main, on one thing: producing great content. (Speaking of Wired, it had a great exit, as historians may recall. But again, it was a exit driven by the strategic need of a bigger company: the media business went for a typical multiple, despite how “hot” the brand was. What got the unicorn valuation was Wired’s Hotwired business, specifically, its search share….)

We’re in a messy transition phase right now, where the focus can’t only be on content, it also has to be on the *how* of distribution, production, and business terms. And that’s retarding growth and innovation in media businesses.

But I have hope. There’s a massive business opportunity inside this mess, one that I’m investigating, and I know others are as well. More on that as it develops. Meanwhile, a maxim: Most media businesses fail, always have, and always will. And most folks who make media already know this, which means they are close to batshit crazy anyway. But over and over and over, we keep making content, regardless of how ridiculous the landscape might be. And that, I am sure, will never change.

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Here We Go Again: The Gray Market in Twitter and Facebook

By - August 07, 2012

So, casually reading through this Fast Company story about sexy female Twitter bots, I come across this astounding, unsubstantiated claim:

My goal was to draw a straight line from a Twitter bot to the real, live person whose face the bot had stolen. In the daily bot wars–the one Twitter fights every day, causing constant fluctuations in follower counts even as brands’ followers remain up to 48% bot–these women are the most visible and yet least acknowledged victims…

There it was, tossed in casually, almost as if it was a simple cost of doing business – nearly half of the followers of major brands could well be “bots.”

The article focuses on finding a pretty woman whose image had been hijacked, sure, but what I found most interesting (but sadly unsurprising) was how it pointed to a site that promises to a thousand  followers to anyone who pays…wait for it…about $17. Yes, the site is real. And no, you shouldn’t be surprised, in the least, that such services exist.

It has always been so.

Back when I was reporting for The Search, I explored the gray market that had sprung up around Google (and still flourishes, despite Google’s disputed attempts to beat it back). Fact is, wherever there is money to be made, and ignorance or desperation exists in some measure, shysters will flourish. And a further fact is this: Marketers, faced with CMO-level directives to “increase my follower/friend counts,” will turn to the gray market. Just as they did back in the early 2000s, when the directive was “make me rank higher in search.”

Earlier this week I got an email from a fellow who has been using Facebook to market his products. He was utterly convinced that nearly all the clicks he’s received on his ad were fake – bots, he thought, that were programmed to make his campaigns look as if they were performing well. He was further convinced that Facebook was running a scam – running bot networks to drive performance metrics. I reminded him that Facebook was a public company run by people I believed were well intentioned, intelligent people who knew that such behavior, if discovered, would ruin both their reputation as well as that of the company.

Instead, I suggested, he might look to third parties he might be working with – or, hell, he might just be the victim of a drive-by shooting – poorly coded bots that just click on ad campaigns, regardless of whose they might be.

In short, I very much doubt Facebook (or Twitter) are actively driving fraudulent behavior on their networks. In fact, they have legions of folks devoted to foiling such efforts.Yet there is absolutely no doubt that an entire, vibrant ecosystem is very much engaged in gaming these services. And just like Google had at the dawn of search marketing, Twitter and Facebook have a very – er – complicated relationship with these fraudsters. On the one hand, the gray hats are undermining the true value of these social networks. But on the other, well, they seem to help important customers hit their Key Performance Indicators, driving very real money into company coffers, either directly or indirectly.

I distinctly recall a conversation with a top Google official in 2005, who – off the record – defended AdSense-splattered domain-squatters as “providing a service to folks who typed the wrong thing into the address bar.” Uh huh.

As long as marketers are obsessed with hollow metrics like follower counts, Likes, and unengaged “plays,” this ecosystem will thrive.

What truly matters, of course, is engagement that can be measured beyond the actions of bots. It is coming. But not before millions of dollars are siphoned off by the opportunists who have always lived on the Internet’s gray edge.

Who’s On First? (A Modest Proposal To Solve The Problem with First- and Third-Party Marketing)

By - July 26, 2012

Early last month I wrote a piece entitled Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat. In it I covered Microsoft’s controversial decision to incorporate a presumptive “opt out of tracking” flag in the next release of its browser, which many in the ad industry see as a major blow to the future of our business.

In the piece, I argued that Microsoft’s move may well force independent publishers (you know, like Searchblog, as well as larger sites like CNN or the New York Times) to engage in a years-overdue dialog with their readers about the value exchange between publisher, reader, and marketer. I laid out a scenario and proposed some language to kick that dialog off, but I gave short shrift to a problematic and critical framing concept. In this post, I hope to lay that concept out and offer, by way of example, a way forward. (Caveat: I am not an expert in policy or tech. I’ll probably get some things wrong, and hope readers will correct me if and when I do.)

The “concept” has to do with the idea of a first-party relationship – a difficult to define phrase that, for purposes of this post, means the direct relationship a publisher or a service has with its consumer.  This matters, a lot, because in the FTC’s recently released privacy framework, “first-party marketing” has been excluded from proposed future regulation around digital privacy and the use of data. However, “third-party” marketing, the framework suggests, will be subject to regulation that could require “consumer choice.”

OK, so in that last sentence alone are three terms, which I’ve put in quotes, that need definition if we are going to understand some pretty important issues. The most important is “first-party marketing,” and it’s damn hard to find a definition of that in the FTC document. But if you go back to the FTC’s *preliminary* report, issued in December of 2010, you can find this:

First-party marketing: Online retailers recommend products and services based upon consumers’ prior purchases on the website.

Later in the report, the term is further defined:

Staff proposes that first-party marketing include only the collection of data from a consumer with whom the company interacts directly for purposes of marketing to that consumer.

And in a footnote:

Staff also believes that online contextual advertising should fall within the “commonly accepted practices” category (Ed. note: Treated as OK, like first party marketing). Contextual advertising involves the delivery of advertisements based upon a consumer’s current visit to a web page or a single search query, without the collection and retention of data about the consumer’s online activities over time. As staff concluded in its 2009 online behavioral advertising report, contextual advertising is more transparent to consumers and presents minimal privacy intrusion as compared to other forms of online advertising. See OBA Report, supra note 37, at 26-27 (where a consumer has a direct interface with a particular company, the consumer is likely to understand, and to be in a position to control, the company’s practice of collecting and using the consumer’s data).

The key issue here for publishers, as far as I can tell, is this: “the delivery of advertisements based upon a consumer’s current visit to a web page or a single search query, without the collection and retention of data about the consumer’s online activities over time…where a consumer has a direct interface with a particular company, the consumer is likely to understand, and to be in a position to control, the company’s practice of collecting and using the consumer’s data.”

Whew. OK. We’re getting somewhere. Now, when that 2010 report came out, many in our industry freaked out, because of the next sentence, one which refers to – wait for it – third party marketing:

If a company shares data with a third party other than a service provider acting on the company’s behalf – including a business affiliate unless the affiliate relationship is clear to consumers through common branding or similar means – the company’s practices would not be considered first-party marketing and thus they would fall outside of “commonly accepted practices” … Similarly, if a website publisher allows a third party, other than a service provider, to collect data about consumers visiting the site, the practice would not be “commonly accepted.”

Now, this was a preliminary report, and the final report, which as I said earlier came out this past Spring, incorporates a lot of input from companies engaged in what the FTC described as “third party” marketing – companies like Google that were very concerned that the FTC was about to wipe out entire swathes of their business. And the fact is, it’s still not clear what’s going to be OK, and what isn’t. For now, my best summary is this: it’s OK for websites that have a “first party” relationship to use data collected on the site to market to consumers. If, however, those sites was to let “third parties” market to consumers, then, at some point soon, the sites need to figure out a way to give “consumers a choice” to opt out. If they don’t, they may be subject to regulation down the road.

Which brings us back to “Do Not Track,” or DNT. Now DNT has been held up as the easiest way to give consumer a choice about this issue – if a consumer has DNT enabled on their browser, then that consumer has very clearly made a choice – they don’t want third-party advertisements or data collection, thank you very much. See how easy that was?

Wrong, wrong, wrong!!! As implemented by Microsoft in IE 10, DNT is an extremely blunt instrument, one that, in fact, does *not* constitute a choice. It’s defaulted to “on,” which means that a consumer is not ever given a choice one way or the other. And once it’s on, it’s the same for every single site – which means you can’t say that you’re fine with third-party ads on a site you love (say, Searchblog, naturally), but not fine with a site you don’t like so much (say, I dunno,  You Got Rick Rolled).

That’s pretty lame. Shouldn’t we, as consumers, be able to chose which sites we trust, and which we don’t? That’s pretty much the point of my post on DNT last month.

Fact is, we don’t really have a way to demonstrate that trust. Many in the industry – including the IAB, where I am a board member – are working to clarify all this with the FTC. The working assumption is that it’s far too much to ask of most publishing sites to give consumers a choice, much less give them access to the data used to “target” them.

Well, I’m not so sure about that.

Check out this screen shot from independent site GigaOm (yes, FM works with GigaOm):

A few other sites are starting to do similar notices – and I applaud them (this is already becoming standard practice in the UK, due to strict regulations around cookies). GigOm is saying, in essence, that by simply continuing to read the site, you agree to their privacy policies. Now, take a look at what GigaOm’s policy has to say about “third party advertising:”

GigaOM may allow third party advertising serving companies, including ad networks (“Advertisers”), to display advertisements or provide other advertising services on GigaOM. These third party Advertisers may use techniques other than HTTP cookies to recognize your computer or device and/or to collect and record demographic and other Information about you, including your activities on or off GigaOM. These techniques may be used directly on GigaOM….Advertisers may use the information collected to display advertisements that are tailored to your interests or background and/or associate such information with your subsequent visits, purchases or other activities on other websites. Advertisers may also share this information with their clients or other third parties.

GigaOM has no responsibility for the technologies, tools or practices of the Advertisers that provide advertising and related services on GigaOM. This Privacy Policy does not cover any collection, use or disclosure of Information by Advertisers who provide advertising and related services on GigaOM. These Advertisers’ information gathering practices, including their policies regarding the use of cookies and other tracking technologies, are governed entirely by their own privacy policies, not this one.

To summarize: By reading GigaOm, you’ve made a choice, and that choice is to let GigaOm use third-party advertising. It’s a nifty move, and one I applaud: GigaOm has just established you as a first party to its content and services just like….

….Facebook, which just announced revenue of more than a billion dollars last quarter. Facebook, of course, has a first-party relationship with 955 million or so of us – we’ve already “opted in” to its service, through the Terms of Service we’ve all agreed to (and probably not read.) We’ve made a choice as consumers, and we’ve chosen to be marketed to on Facebook’s terms.

The same is true of Apple, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, and any number of other large services which require registration and acceptance of Terms of Service in order for us to gain any value from their platforms. Google and Microsoft have been frantically catching up, getting as many of us as they can to register our identity and agree to a unified TOS in some way.

But what about independent publishers? You know, the rest of the web? Well, save folks like GigaOm (and AllThingsD, which warns its audience about cookies), we’ve never really paid attention to this issue. In the past, publishers have avoided doing anything that might get in the way of an audience consuming their content – it’s a death sentence if you’re engaged in the high holy art of Increasing Page Views. And bigger publishers like Time or Conde Nast don’t want to rock the boat, they’ll wait till a consensus forms, and then follow it.

But I like what GigaOm has done. It’s a very clear notice, it goes away after the first visit, and it reappears only if you’ve cleared your cookies (which happens a lot if you run an anti-virus program).

I think it’s time the “rest of the web” follows their lead. We rely on third-party advertising services (like FM) to power our sites. We live in uncertain times as it relates to regulation. And certainly we have direct relationships of trust with our audiences – or you wouldn’t be reading this far down the page. It’s time the independent web declares the value of our first-party relationships with audiences, and show the government – and our readers – that we have nothing to hide.

I plan to look into ways we might make easily available the code and language necessary to enact these policies. I’ll be back with more as I have it….

*Now, the other two terms bear some definition as well. I think it’s fair to say “consumer choice” means “give the consumer the ability to decide if they want their data used, and for what purposes,” and “third party marketing” means the use of data and display of commercial messages on a first party site by third-party companies – companies that are not the owner of the site or service you are using.

On Mayer, Yahoo!, and The (Other) Customer

By - July 18, 2012

Mayer at the Web 2 Summit, San Francisco

(image James Duncan Davidson)

I try to let big news percolate for a few days before weighing in, and it seems even more appropriate to follow that playbook when it came to the scrum around Marissa Mayer joining Yahoo.

Yes, I’ve known both Marissa Mayer (and Ross Levinsohn) professionally, for more than a decade, but so do many other folks, and it seems nearly all of them – Steven Levy and Kara Swisher intelligently among them – have weighed in, multiple times, on what this all means. If you want a rundown, just search for “Marissa Mayer” in Google News.

The coverage has taken its usual course from “Holy Shit!” to “What Will Happen to Ross?” to “Wait, Is Mayer Right for the Job” to “Here’s Our Advice/The Things That Need  to Be Fixed/What Mayer’s Focus Should Be” types of pieces.

This won’t really be any of those. Instead, I find myself thinking about the things I’ve not really seen much coverage of, at least in depth. And true to what I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about, they all come down to the intersection of media and technology, and the role marketing plays in that landscape.

When I spoke to Mayer after she was named CEO, I asked the question, almost as a joke – “So is Yahoo! a media or a technology company?” She was quick to respond that she just does not get the debate – of course it’s both. What matters, she pressed, is creating great products that surprise and delight Yahoo! customers.

I couldn’t agree more, yet there is an important nuance here – just who *are* Yahoo’s customers?

Let me step back here and posit something that might upset more than a few of you: Yahoo has two sets of customers, and of course the “end user” is one of them. But the other is the marketer.  And media companies – or “tech companies driven by media revenues,” or however else one might want to phrase it – sometimes ignore this fact at their peril.

I’ll let those of you who find such a statement anathema go ahead and click away – here’s a nice unicorn chaser if you’d like – or you can flame me in the comments (I do respond to most, as long as they’re in English and don’t employ more than the occasional insult).

But those of you who’ve continued to read probably know that I believe, deeply, that commercial publishing is a conversation between three key parties: The reader (or viewer), the publisher/content creator, and the marketer. And while it’s generally been true that this conversation has been all kinds of broken during much of the web’s history, the truth is, it needn’t be that way. Six years ago (!) I wrote a series of posts describing the rise of conversational media and imploring that marketers learn to join the conversation. I think it’s fair to say that this is happening, at scale.

Beyond the contributions of pioneers like Federated Media (yes, I had to plug us), the rise of “native” advertising formats is proof of this. Twitter’s promoted suite is one growing example, as is Facebook’s Sponsored Stories (and its attendant focus on getting brands to be true publishers on the Facebook platform). Pinterest, WordPress (in partnership with FM), and Tumblr are hard at work on “native” solutions for their services as well. All of these advertising solutions pale, however, in comparison to the original “native” advertising format of the Web: Google AdWords.

Many have pointed out that Mayer’s principle weakness, when compared to Levinsohn, is her lack of traditional media and marketing chops. I can say from very deep experience that the marketing business is very much a relationship business – CMOs and agency leaders live in a world driven by ideas, creative and content – and they want to know the people who they do business with, and trust them in a way that is difficult to model algorithmically. Mayer’s detractors point out that she’s not spent much time wooing Madison Avenue, or dealing with the inevitable headaches born of the complex, people-driven businesses that are agencies, marketing clients, and content partners.

While there is some truth in this criticism, I think it overlooks a few things. First and foremost, Mayer is a very fast study, and she already knows how important the traditional media business is to Yahoo. Hell, a quick overview of the company’s financials bears this out, as does a visit to any of its properties, which are dominated by advertising. Yahoo may have a lot of technology behind the covers, but its products are nearly all media products – content intended to gather an audience and provide a place for marketers to message to that audience. More than half of Yahoo’s revenues come from “display” advertising, most of the rest comes from search, which is also marketer driven.

Secondly, Mayer will be a big draw of talent, and not just engineering talent. She understands that if she can’t retain Levinsohn and/or his recent CRO Michael Barrett (I certainly hope she can), she’ll need to attract top tier media minds to the business. And I think she’ll succeed at doing just that.

But to me, the thing many are missing is that Mayer will bring her fanatical product focus to more than just Yahoo’s consumer-facing media offerings. She’ll also be staring at the company’s advertising products, and asking this simple question: How can we do better?

To answer that question, Mayer will need to do more than study the data (though of course, that will be important). She’ll need to sit down with a wide swath of Yahoo’s marketing customers and ask them what they want from their investment in her platform. She’ll hear an awful lot of conflicting advice, but it’s in the bricollage from all the feedback that the best ideas come out. Mayer can’t afford to immediately tack away from all those boxes and rectangles cluttering up the Yahoo! experience, nor should she – it turns out that display advertising does indeed work for marketers. But the larger question remains: Can we do better?

The answer lies in executing the subtle and ongoing iterative work of true digital publisher – improving the core product experience both sets of customers – consumers of the media experience, as well as marketers looking to be part of that experience in a more native fashion. And again, from a quick study of Yahoo’s products, there’s plenty of improvements to be made.

An important and related part of the work ahead for Mayer and her team will be deciding what role ad tech and search will play in Yahoo’s future. Despite purchasing Right Media back in 2007, Yahoo has never been seen as a leader in ad tech, and word on the street in the weeks prior to Mayer’s ascension was that Yahoo was about to outsource its ad technology platform to market leader Google. Of course, such a move is fraught with regulatory and business implications. And Mayer may well decide it’s in Yahoo’s best interest to invest in own its own destiny when it comes to the machine-driven world of ad serving and programmatic audience buying. But trust me, what Yahoo does here will be an extremely important directional indicator.

Which brings us to search. It’s been widely reported that Yahoo’s 2009 deal to outsource core search to Microsoft hasn’t worked out as well as either party wished it would. Given how important search is to Yahoo overall, and how deeply knowledgeable Mayer is in this particular field, I’d expect big changes in Yahoo Search. The company recently unveiled a new search product called “Axis,” which seems like a neat idea but feels a bit too complicated for most consumers to really grok. Mayer will likely take Occam’s Razor to search, and I expect the results will be quite positive.

But it’s the other side of Yahoo’s revenue equation – the branded display market – where Mayer will face her greatest challenges, and find her biggest opportunities. Yahoo isn’t a startup like Pinterest, Tumblr,  or even Twitter, where founders can leverage massive user growth to raise enough capital to “figure out how best to implement appropriate native marketing solutions.” Yahoo is nearly 20 years old, and it’s got a very deep, tangled, and somewhat tarnished brand in the minds of its best advertising customers. It’s true that creating world-beating consumer-facing products will go a long way toward fixing that brand. But those products must be informed by – and even created for – both sets of customers – the consumers of content, as well as those who pay for them to be created in the first place.

The Nexus 7 and The Cloud Commit Conundrum: Google Wins (For Now)

By - July 13, 2012

Google was kind enough to send me a Nexus 7 tablet to play with last month, and over the past week or so I’ve had the chance to actually put it to use. Even though I own an iPad, I have serious reservations about the constraints of Apple’s iOS ecosystem (more on that below), so I was eager to see how Google’s alternative performed.

Now, before I get into details, I want to state what I think really matters here: The Nexus device – and others like it – represent a play for something extremely valuable: a hard-wired digital portal to our hearts, minds, and wallets. As I’ve written elsewhere, there are five major companies deeply engaged in this play – Amazon, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. All of these companies want us to commit to their services as the basis of our digital lives – how we consume media and entertainment, how we manage our work and personal lives, where we store our most important information (including our money), and of course, how we declare who we are and what we believe (our identity). The more these companies can get us to upload our music, videos, photos, identities, purchases, browsing behaviors, etc. etc. etc. into their nebulae, the more they’ve locked us into a lifetime relationship of revenue and profit.

Put in that frame, your choice of tablet or phone is about much more than feeds and speeds or features and prices (for all that, see this Engadget review). It becomes a choice about what kind of a company you want as a partner in your digital life. Will the company let you export your data easily to other services? Will it be transparent about how your data is used? Will it have the guts to stand up to bad actors, whether they be governments or other corporations? Will the company create dashboards where you can see, edit, delete, and contest how your data is displayed?

In short, will the company be a good partner in your digital life? If you’re going to upload your digital doppelganger into this company’s servers, can you trust it? I call this choice the “Cloud Commit Conundrum,” and I’ll be writing about it more in the coming months.

For now, I’ll just say this: while Google is far from perfect on any number of fronts, it comes far closer than any other in embracing a philosophy that I feel I can trust when it comes to the cloud commitment conundrum. To wit: The Google Transparency Report. Further: The Data Liberation Front. And further, the open (and yes, messy) nature of Android. Lastly, I believe Google’s founding DNA is as a product of the open web, and its founders have a deep commitment to that idea, even as we enter a rather cloudy era of closed, non-generative systems and walled gardens.

But up till now, Google hadn’t really “wowed” me with a product that I felt I could really get behind.

No more. I’m not a hardcore tablet user, but I might become one thanks to this device. I found the iPad to be too large and heavy to use comfortably in casual situations (like reading in bed, for example), and too limited to use as a replacement for my laptop. By comparison, the Nexus 7 is just the right size for use anywhere – it’s very similar in size to my daughter’s Kindle Fire, but lighter.

But what I like about the Nexus is how good it is for all those lightweight web-connected tasks I want to execute on the run. I find web browsing, checking multiple email accounts, and Google mapping rather tiresome on an iPhone – the iPhone’s native interface, for all its supposed perfection, has all kinds of wrong baked in – and the screen is just far too small. The Nexus 7 is about the same size as a Moleskin notebook, and  it just *feels* like the right form factor for doing all those things you want to do on a smart phone, but can’t quite do in the right way.  It’s not too big, and not too small – just right.

It’s also very responsive, and has plentiful access to apps and content (Google is a bit aggressive in how it promotes its Play store – but it’s very easy to remove the Play clutter and customize your own experience). So far, it doesn’t have cellular service, but I expect that will come soon. The wifi works great, and I barely missed a beat this week in New York – seems there was open wifi just about anywhere I went.

I think Google has a winner on its hands here – and the $200 price point makes the Nexus a clear competitor to not only Amazon’s more limited $200 Fire, but to the more expensive and clunkier iPad.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and predict Apple will ship a 7-inch version of its iPad soon, at a similar price point. If it does, I’m sure it’ll be a strong competitor to the Nexus 7. But for me, the tiebreaker comes down to the cloud commit conundrum. And the winner there, so far anyway, is clearly Google.

Anyone in the market for a slightly used iPad 2?

(cloud image via Shutterstock)

Will Our Industry Ever Innovate Like Morse? Probably Not.

By - July 10, 2012

Last month I finished a compelling biography of Samuel Morse: Lightning Man: The Accursed Life Of Samuel F.B. Morse, by Pulitzer-prize winning author Kenneth Silverman. If you’re a fan of great biographies, or just want to learn more about the history of both our industry and of the United States during a seminal and innovative period, I certainly recommend this book.

If you had no idea that Morse was an acclaimed painter – possibly one of the top US artists of his era – well you’re in good company. I had no idea either. Born just a few years after the Constitutional convention, Morse grew up as one of the first native expressions of the new country that was America. A gifted painter, Morse never quite found his voice – his failure to create a masterpiece, in fact, drove his obsession with making his name as an inventor.

It was on a return trip from Europe in 1832, where he was studying art in Italy, that Morse came upon the idea for the telegraph. He was hardly alone, but his version of the idea turned out to be the most efficient and useful of many devised during the mid 1800s. Morse doggedly pursued his invention, convinced it was world changing. He was right, of course – but what I found most extraordinary about his story was how long Morse fought to get anyone to pay attention to his work, and, once proven, how hard he had to fight to keep claim to what was rightfully his.

Morse worked on perfecting his telegraph for nearly 15 years, and once he finally managed to demonstrate its efficacy, he endured several decades of lawsuits, public defamation, and endless commercial battles to maintain both his place in history as well as some claim to the fortunes created by his invention. In short, Morse’s life was pretty damn hellish for someone who laid the foundation for all that came after – including the modern Internet.

I can only imagine what Morse might think of the mayfly-like successes of “inventions” like Instagram, or Pinterest, or even Facebook and Google, compared with the ridicule, infamy, and commercial skullduggery he had to endure to finally see his contributions recognized, late in his life, after nearly four decades of struggle.

And it makes me wonder if our industry, for all its innovation, will ever be capable of the kind of breakthroughs that Morse represents – the man was past 50 years old when he first demonstrated his invention, and just past 80 when the world finally celebrated him as the “Father of the Telegraph.”  Imagine that – someone in the Internet industry, today, a founder with his or her first product who works on a prototype for 15 years, then introduces it at age 50?!

Of course, times are quite different today, and far faster to boot. Morse lived in a time when most of Europe was regularly at war with itself, when Britain invaded the United States, and he lived to watch the horrors of the Civil War unfold. His life spanned from America’s early, agrarian beginnings to the full bloom of the industrial age. And his invention had much to do with that shift: the telegraph shrank time and space to nearly nothing – allowing, for the first time, information to be communicated “as if by lightning.” Combined with the other great innovation of the day – the railroad – the telegraph allowed America to conquer its vast space and resources, and rise to become the most important power in the world.

When I think of the work Morse did, and the time it took him to do it, only a few people – and the companies they built – come to mind. One is Google, and the tinkering and invention Larry Page and Sergey Brin are encouraging through Google X. Another is Microsoft, which continues to drive innovation outside of its core revenue base through Microsoft Research. And another is IBM. But as much as I’d like to think that a lone inventor, obsessed to the point of near bankruptcy, might one day invent something that will forever change our world, I’m not sure that’s even possible anymore. It feels like an era that’s well over. Perhaps I’m wrong, but ….

I’ll get more into the impact of the telegraph in a review of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers, by Tom Standage (a must read for anyone in our industry, I’d wager). I finished that book a few weeks ago – and yes, I’m very far behind in my reviews here. Forgive me, I’ve been a bit distracted with family and work!

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 by Larry Lessig (review)

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage) by Jaron Lanier (review)

WikiLeaks and the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry (review)

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Year Zero: This Is What the Beach Was Made For

By -

It’s summertime, and if you’re not already lying on a beach somewhere, I’ve got a good reason for you to go: My friend Rob Reid’s new novel is out today, and it’s absolutely tailor made for beach reading. It’s called Year Zero, and it’s a hilarious send up of the music industry, mixed, naturally, with a ripping yarn about aliens, romance, and intergalatic politics.

Rob let me read an early-ish draft of the book, and I loved it. It’s his first novel, years in the making, and it’s a masterstroke.

Given all the headlines just this week about the music industry’s endless self-inflicted woes, Rob’s timing couldn’t be better. Here are just two, ripped from my favorite aggregator Media ReDEFined just this week:

How Big Music Threatened Startups and Killed Innovation

Are There Too Many Music Streaming Services?

Not to mention, of course, the ongoing Kim Dotcom/Pirate Bay drama.

You guys know I don’t often recommend fiction – but despite the fact that Rob and I are drinking buddies, I must say, this is one book I can tell you to go buy, now!

Below is the Year Zero “trailer,” an idea I plan to steal for my book when it comes out next year!


Halfway Through The Year: How’re The Predictions Doing?

By - July 02, 2012

It’s time to review how my Predictions 2012 are faring, now that half the year has slipped by (that was fast, no?).

One thing that stands out is the timing wrt Twitter – my first two predictions were about the company, and now that I think about it, given the news just this week (and the attendant debate), I should have realized how the two could be in direct conflict with each other. It all makes for some interesting chin stroking, which I’m busy doing while on vacation – fishing the Rio Blanco up above Meeker in Colorado. Yes, you may now give me shit for writing that.

But to the review: I’ll take them one at a time:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Twitter will become a force as a media company, not just a platform for others’ media.

Well, we’re only six months in, but I’d say this is happening, full force. From expanded tweets to hosting photos and videos to creating brand pages to major deals with entertainment companies, Twitter is certainly becoming a major media company. I predicted it will improve its Discover feature (it continues to – this is and has been critical to its success with Promoted Tweets, esp. in mobile), and that it’d roll out something like Flipboard. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’d wager it’s coming….

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Every major player on the Internet will have to do a deal with Twitter, and Twitter will emerge as a Swiss like, open, neutral player in the battle for the consumer web.

Hmmm. I am not sure if this is happening quite as I might have predicted. Just this past week, Twitter cut LinkedIn off, but that doesn’t mean a new deal isn’t in the works, or that the way the old deal was going made anyone at either company – or their customers – happy. On other fronts, Twitter is flowing through search results at Bing, but no renewed deal with Google yet. Twitter is on stronger footing with Facebook than it was before – with a reciprocal deal finally in place. But its moves in media might mean it begins to act in a protective, domain-specific way over the next six months. I hope not. In other news, this move – the Twitter Transparency Report – is sure welcome news. I wrote about this just a few weeks ago….and suggested Twitter might be next. See: Google’s Transparency Report: A Good And Troubling Thing

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Facebook will launch a web-wide competitor to AdSense.

Well, it’s certainly looking like this is coming true. Not only has Facebook begun the process by allowing its ads to be shown on Zynga.com, it also has offered its own inventory up for third-party exchanges. Both moves augur a next step: a web-wide competitor to AdSense. I’m still a bit nervous this won’t happen this year, but I’d wager it’s going to come at some point soon.

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Despite doing well overall, Google will fumble one big play this year. 

Well, early in the year, the Search Plus Your World fracas seemed quite a fumble, but that tempest has cooled, at least for now. However, the company is the target of several government probes, and it remains to be seen how its perceived early missteps might play out.

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

2012 may well be the biggest year of all for Internet M&A.

OK, I mentioned Instagram as a probable candidate, but it’s not like that wasn’t pretty damn obvious if you were paying attention. I don’t have all the numbers in, but man, it’s been a huge year so far for M&A in our space. We’ll see by the end of the year if it’s a record.

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark

We’ll all start to question what role the corporation plays in our society and culture.

This one is fuzzy to begin with – it’s hard to prove such a zeitgeisty prediction. A challenge to Citizens v. United failed to get the court’s attention, had it been reviewed, we’d certainly be talking about this issue a lot more. I’d wager I might be a bit early on this one.

Predictions 2012 #7: Shooting From The Hip

In which I cover ten or so other rapid fire predictions. In turn:

- Obama will win the 2012 election, thanks in part to the tech community rallying behind him due to issues like SOPA, visas, and free speech.

Can’t call this one yet!

- Both Apple and Amazon will make billion-dollar acquisitions. More interestingly, so will Facebook.

One down, two to go….

- Android will be brought to heel by Google, eliciting both massive complaints and cheers, depending on where you sit.

 Seems to be happening, from accounts I’ve read.

 – Microsoft Windows Phone will become the Bing of mobile (IE, move into double digit market share).

 The phone is clearly a win for Microsoft so far, we’ll have to wait for version 8 to see if it maintains double digit share.

 – Microsoft Xbox will integrate meaningfully with the web (Kinect is key), and start to compete in social across the digital spectrum

This is happening in some ways (an ecosystem is developing) but I’m not sure yet about social…

- IBM will emerge as a key player in the consumer Internet.

 Not yet. But it is an emerging player in marketing IT, which drives much of the consumer Internet.

 – China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.

It’s happening, but we haven’t yet had the spectacular news (like the Google hack last year) that folks can then ignore.

- A heads up display for the web will launch that actually is worth using, but most likely in limited use cases.

Thanks, Google Glass!

All in all, not so bad for six months in. There’s still a lot of time to either prove me a fool, or of Nostradamus’ lineage.

Related:

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

 

 

 

 

Google’s “Mute” Button: Why Didn’t I Think Of That? Oh, Wait…

By - June 30, 2012

One of my pet peeves about our industry is how slowly we change – I understand it takes a long time to gather consensus (it took three years to get AdChoices rolled out, for example) – but man, why don’t the big players, like Google, innovate a bit more when it comes to display advertising?

Well, yesterday Google did just that, announcing a “mute this ad” feature that it will roll out across its network over the next few months. The feature does what you might expect it to do – it stops a particular ad from “following” you around the web. It will look like this:

 

As you can see, the “mute this ad” is right next to the AdChoice icon, adding a bit more clutter to the creative, but also, more control for consumers, in particular those who find the practice of “retargeting” irritating.

All I can say is, it’s about time. Back in August of 2010, I wrote about my own experience: On Retargeting: Fix The Conversation. In the post, I suggested:

…as I’ve said a million times, marketing is a conversation. And retargeted ads are part of that conversation. I’d like to suggest that retargeted ads acknowledge, with a simple graphic in a consistent place, that they are in fact a retargeted ad, and offer the consumer a chance to tell the advertiser “Thanks, but for now I’m not interested.” Then the ad goes away, and a new one would show up.

Well, it looks like Google has gotten with the program. Of course, Facebook already has that “X” on all of its display ads, but so far, retargeting hasn’t come to Facebook – yet. Watch that space, because I gotta believe it will soon.

Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat

By - June 10, 2012

This past week’s industry tempest centered around Microsoft’s decision to implement “Do Not Track” (known as “DNT”) as a default on Internet Explorer 10, a browser update timed to roll out with the company’s long-anticipated Windows 8 release.

Microsoft’s decision caught much of the marketing and media industry by surprise – after all, Microsoft itself is a major player in the advertising business, and in that role has been a strong proponent of the current self-regulatory regime, which includes, at least until Microsoft tossed its grenade into the marketplace, a commitment to implementation of DNT as an opt-in technology, rather than as a default.*

For most readers I don’t need to explain why this matters, but in case you’re new to the debate, when enabled, DNT sets a “flag” telling websites that you don’t want data about your visit to be used for purposes of creating a profile of your browsing history (or for any other reason). Whether we like it or not, such profiles have driven a very large business in display advertising over the past 15 years. Were a majority of consumers to implement DNT, the infrastructure that currently drives wide swathes of the web’s  monetization ecosystem would crumble, taking a lot of quality content along with it.

Once released, it’s estimated that IE 10 could quickly grab as much as 25-30% of browser market share. The idea that the online advertising industry could lose almost a third of its value due to the actions of one rogue player is certainly cause for alarm. Last week’s press were full of conspiracy theories about why Microsoft was making such a move. The company claims it just wants to protect users’ privacy, which strikes me as disingenuous – it’s far more likely that Microsoft is willing to spike its relatively small advertising business in exchange for striking a lethal blow to Google’s core business model, both in advertising and in browser share.

I’m quite certain the Windows 8 team is preparing to market IE 10 – and by extension, Windows 8 – as the safe, privacy-enhancing choice, capitalizing on Google’s many government woes and consumers’ overall unease with the search giant’s power. I’m also quite certain that Microsoft, like many others, suffers from a case of extreme Apple envy, and wishes it had a pristine, closed-loop environment like iOS that it could completely control. In order to create such an environment, Microsoft needs to gain consumer’s trust. Seen from that point of view, implementing DNT as a default just makes sense.

But the more I think through it, the more I’m somewhat unperturbed by the whole affair. In fact, I’m rather excited by it.

First off, it’s not clear that IE10’s approach to DNT will matter. When it comes to whether or not a site has to comply with browser flags such as DNT, websites and third party look to the standard settings body knows as the WC3. That organization’s proposed draft specification on DNT is quite clear: It says no company may enforce a default DNT setting for a user, one way or the other. In other words, this whole thing could be a tempest in a teapot. Wired recently argued that Microsoft will be forced to back down and change its policy.

But I’m kind of hoping Microsoft will keep DNT in place. I know, that’s a pretty crazy thing for a guy who started an advertising-run business to say, but in this supposed threat I see a major opportunity.

Imagine a scenario, beginning sometime next year, when website owners start noticing significant numbers of visitors with IE10 browsers swinging by their sites. Imagine further that Microsoft has stuck to its guns, an all those IE10 browsers have their flags set to “DNT.”

To me, this presents a huge opportunity for the owner of a site to engage with its readers, and explain quite clearly the fact that good content on the Internet is paid for by good marketing on the Internet. And good marketing often needs to use “tracking” data so as to present quality advertising in context. (The same really can and should be said of content on the web – but I’ll just stick to advertising for now).

Advertising and content have always been bound together – in print, on television, and on the web. Sure, you can skip the ad – just flip the page, or press “ffwd” on your DVR. But great advertising, as I’ve long argued, adds value to the content ecosystem, and has as much a right to be in the conversation as does the publisher and the consumer.

Do Not Track provides our industry with a rare opportunity to speak out and explain this fact, and while the dialog box I’ve ginned up at the top of this post is fake, I’d love to see a day when they are popping up all over the web, reminding consumers that not only does quality content need to be supported, in fact, the marketers supporting it actually deserve our attention as well.

At present, the conversation between content creator, content consumer, and marketer is poorly instrumented and rife with mistrust. Our industry’s “ad choices” self regulatory regime – those little triangle icons you see all over display ads these days – is a good start. But we’ve a long way to go. Perhaps unwittingly, Microsoft may be pushing us that much faster toward a better future.

*I am on the board of the IAB, one of the major industry trade groups which promotes self-regulation. The opinions here are my own, as usual.