It was fun to open last week’s event with Robert Stephens, who has grown Geek Squad from 2 people to more than 20,000 in the past 15 years. Highlights include his view of advertising (“a tax for poor products”) and his confirmation that yes, every Best Buy employee will, in fact, get a tablet sometime soon.
I’m a bit late posting this, but the rest of the day is great, so here you go!
On Thursday at Signal Austin, and then again on Friday at SXSWi, I’ll be having an onstage conversation with WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, who continues to be the driver of the WordPress community. WordPress is a unique platform – Matt works for Automattic, a for profit company that owns the rights to the hosted version of WordPress, at wordpress.com. There’s also WordPress.org, which is an open source, not-for-profit foundation that boasts a vibrant community of developers and hackers who merrily create hacks, plugins, and any number of patches to the WordPress code.
When WordPress.com was split off into the for-profit company, many were concerned it would quickly become clogged with ads, but Mullenweg and his partners have been extremely careful in how they’ve introduced marketing into the community. Experiments include FoodPress, EcoPressed, and others in partnership with my company, Federated Media, as well as one-off sponsorships with Microsoft around IE9, and some clever use of Google’s AdWords and other ad networks. Clearly media is a business WordPress will get into more, especially with the traffic and uniques it attracts (see chart at bottom).
Instead of advertising, so far WordPress has focused on tools – including a “freemium” model for key plug ins such as backup, polling, and spam protection. But as the platform has grown, it has taken a considerable amount of investment capital, and those investors will at some point demand a significant return. Furthermore, WordPress has earned the dubious honor of being large enough to become a target for hackers with less than honorable intentions (not to mention ongoing battles with black hat spammers).
I could go on and on – I am fascinated by WordPress, as well as by the publishing platform space it inhabits. The same habitat is populated by a clutch of super interesting companies, including Tumblr, which recently surpassed WordPress in pure number of pageviews (though not engaged uniques) and of course Twitter. It’s my sense these three companies are due to run into each other in the marketplace over time, in particular as the independent web matures into a real media play (more on that another time).
But rather than have me ramble on about WordPress and Automattic, instead let me put the question to you: What would you have me ask Matt at Signal and SXSW? Please leave your questions in comments, or tweet them to me at @johnbattelle with the tag #FMSignal or #SXSW. Thanks!
This is a story of a radio station – you know, those old school, pre-Internet media outlets that folks my age grew up listening to. I’ve always been rather fond of radio, in a nostalgic way, and I’ve had an off again, on again relationship with it over the years. For the past few years, it’s been mostly off – I only listen to AM sports radio (my beloved Giants) and NPR on FM. Whenever I get a new car, I get six months free of Sirius, and I check into Howard Stern, but then the trial period ends, and I just don’t feel like the subscription price is worth it, particularly given it’s not transferrable to any of my other cars.
Now, back in the day, radio really meant something. Remember the FM radio boom? If you’re over 40 or so, you probably do – the peak was the 1970s, where, according to Wikipedia “FM radio experienced a golden age of integrity programming, with disc jockeys playing what they wanted, including album cuts not designated as “singles” and lengthy progressive rock tracks.”
In case you’re wondering, it was this period of time that inspired the name of my company Federated Media, or FM – the explosion of independent voice in radio during the 1970s was quite similar to the explosion of independent voices on the web today….but I’m taking a detour. Back to my story…
So a week or so ago I find myself stuck in my car for longer than my average commute, and both sports radio and NPR were, for various reasons, insufferable (which they both can be quite often). I listen to my own music a lot as I work or work out, so I wasn’t hankering to plug in my own tunes (and it’s impossible to do so while driving if you want to make a call, thanks Audi!).
I was looking for something new – in short, I was in discovery mode.
So what did I do? Well, I reverted back to my 1970s roots, and I started flipping around the FM dial. Nearly everything I landed on was terrible – the same old top-40 pop or lowest-common-denominator format crap that’s infected this increasingly irrelevant industry for more than ten years (I’m looking at you, Alice 97.3!).
Then I landed on 92.3 – KSJO – and out came, of all bands, the Local Natives.
Now the Local Natives aren’t utterly arcane, but they aren’t exactly mainstream either (at least, they weren’t a year ago. I’ve heard their music in commercials recently, but that’s pretty standard these days). In short, it was quite surprising to find them on the radio at all, and the song being played was not one of their better-known ones – it was, in old FM parlance, a “B side.”
The next song was of a similar mindset, something by The National I think, or maybe it was Band of Horses or Morning Benders. After that was a deep Broken Bells track. Every one of these bands I have gone to see live, at a festival like Bonnaroo or Austin City Limits, or at a music hall like The Independent in San Francisco. This was music I really connected with, one song after another.
Experiencing what felt like *my* music being played on the radio was a total shock – it had been nearly 30 years since a radio station was a community I wanted to be part of – a badge I’d wear, so to speak. And anyone who reads this site knows that my definition of a truly successful “publication” is one that has a voice and point of view which draws a community together.
Here I had found a real publication of a radio station. What a novelty!
Over the past few days I’ve been actually listening to KSJO because the music is good – I know nearly all of it, and that which I don’t know is interesting – I wanted to know more. Oddly, the format of the station is “DJ-less” – there’s no one telling me the names of the bands – in fact, I’ve never even heard the station break for an advertisement (a red flag, to my mind – clearly this couldn’t last).
The only break between songs is an ongoing, pre-recorded “campaign” called “Save Alternative,” voiced in a rather irritating manner by a young woman trying to be a bit too cool for school. Given that the “save alternative” stuff was pretty minimal, it didn’t drive me off the station, I was digging the music and I was intrigued by this new entrant on the dial. At some point the woman’s voice mentioned “savealternative.com” so of course, I decided to check it out online. Clearly, whoever had just bought the station was working up some kind of promotion around this, and I figured they must be starting it commercial free.
Here’s where the story goes south.
On the site, there’s nothing but a page imploring visitors to join “SALT”, the “Save ALTernative Cult”. “Justice is coming” the site promises. Ick. Maybe I’m not in the demo, but honestly, all this “us vs. the man” stuff is pretty cliche. Justice for whom? Folks tired of shitty radio? OK, but really, do I need to join a cult for this?
But even though the voice was off putting, I signed up to be on their email list, because the music was just that good. In other words, the product was great, even though the marketing, so far, was way off key.
The marketing only got worse, at least in practice. In fact, it’s rather a case study of what NOT to do if you have a product so good, people actually do work to tell you more about themselves.
Here I was, a fan of the product who converted from an on air listener to taking action on the web – I actually filled out an online form. As any marketer knows, that makes me one of the most valuable potential customers that station could ever have – in particular as I was an early adopter. It turns out, the station was sold on Feb 28, 2011 to a new owner, and this format was barely a week old by the time I filled out the form. And while I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, I think I’d qualify as an influencer – I’ve got a few hundred thousand followers of my RSS and Twitter feeds. I wanted to tell people about the new station, but…well, while the product was great, the marketing was now in the way. I wasn’t sure I wanted to send folks to savealternative.com. It was a bit too…cheesy. I couldn’t endorse it. (I didn’t even want to “Like” it on Facebook.)
So I gave them my email address and other info, including some of the bands I liked, and that was that. The homepage promised I’d find out about local bands and other promotions, and that sounded good. There’s literally nothing else on the site, not even a playlist (which was the main reason I went to the site in the first place).
I was still curious about the station, and wanted to know the playlist, and I figured the “regular station” must have a site as well. A bit of Googling landed me at a very odd place – it had some of the playlist info I was looking for, but it also had a slide show with pictures of the Kim Kardashian in a tiny swimsuit and a bunch of other random, corporate rock crap – not exactly consistent with the product which drew me in the first place.
In short, I was utterly confused. Today, as I wrote this post, I tried to find that site again, and for now anyway, the site is offline (there’s another one related to the sale here, again, with nothing on it). I probably saw a site in transition as the ownership was being transferred. But first impressions are critical to growing a viral and evangelistic audience, and so far, the new owners were blowing it.
I’m not trying to pile on here, but it does get worse. It’s been a week since I gave “savealternative.com” my email address, and so far, it’s been crickets. I didn’t even get a confirmation email thanking me for joining up. I want to connect, I want to become part of the community implied by this fresh new voice on the radio, but…whoever’s running marketing there is fumbling around in the dark.
I for one hope they find the light switch. And for any of you planning digital marketing campaigns, keep this case study in mind. If you’ve got a great product, make sure your marketing and comms pay it off online. Your early evangelizers are the spark that amplify your brand. Don’t snuff it out before it has a chance to catch fire.
NB: I’ve been thinking a lot about local and location-based marketing in advance of FM’s Austin Signal event this week. If any brand is location-based, it’s a local radio station…hence the long post…
A couple of days ago I was speaking with Reuters reporter Connie Loizos, who’s been covering the Internet space since the days of the Industry Standard (she worked at the Red Herring). She was working on a story questioning whether there was a new bubble brewing in our space, a question that many have asked in the past few months, in particular as it relates to private financings of startups. You can find that story here, on PEHub.
As readers of this site know, I don’t believe we’re in a real bubble, at least not the kind that popped in late 2000 (or the housing bubble, which seems still to be popping). But that’s not the interesting part of our conversation. Connie asked if I thought the press was in part culpable for our collective obsession with sky-high private company valuations, “hot new startups,” and the like.
Of course the answer is yes – there’s an “interest bubble” of sorts – but the answer is nuanced. And nuance is something I’ve found in short supply throughout the Internet ecosystem – at least in what we’ve come to call “the press.”
So let’s break it down. First off, what is “the press”? If you define it as “responsible journalists working diligently at their craft” then I’d submit we no longer have an information ecosystem dominated by “the press.” Indeed, we have a ton of great reporters doing their jobs – probably far more now than we had even at the height of the first boom. But the overall conversation is no longer dominated by their work. Instead, we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties. As it relates to the Internet industry, that means VCs and entrepreneurs promoting or angling for investments or promotion (or souring a deal they didn’t get a part of), bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets.
The tweets, conference utterances, and blog posts of these sources are instantly turned into “news stories” by the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative that was once the province of first-generation Internet magazines like the Industry Standard (that’s the prototype of the first Standard above). And of course, I celebrate this explosion – Federated Media has been central to the business model of most of these second-generation sites, either as former partners (Ars Technica, TechCrunch, Digg, Reddit and soon Mashable) or current (Business Insider, Read Write Web, The Next Web, VentureBeat, GigaOm and scores of others just in the tech space alone).
But while I love the role these publications play in our information processing, it seems we’re failing to evolve past the first few stages in that process. Sources hint or brag or dish, then those tidbits are quickly worked into stories. But where’s the bigger picture? Where’s the hold-on-a-minute-let’s-think-this-through-and make-a-few-phone-calls-and-see-how-it-develops approach? Where’s the conceptual scoop? The second-day (or even second week) analysis?
To be fair, every single publication covering this space does wonderful analysis, from time to time, but their bread and butter is chasing what Connie called “the echo chamber.” Lately, that chamber has gotten very, very large – millions upon millions of people visit these tech news sites, because the narrative they chronicle is more important than it’s ever been. Our industry impacts a huge swatch of society and culture, and increasingly is understood to be the core driver of pretty much all of business today.
I’m extremely proud that this story has gotten to the point of so much interest and so much coverage. But are we paying attention to the right things? I’m not sure we always are. I sense a big opportunity to create a new kind of publication, one that has at the center of its brand a thoughtful and deeply informed point of view. I’m not sure how such a site might become profitable in this current era of page-view driven publishing, but I’m relatively certain that could be figured out. I for one want to read this publication, and I wish it existed.
I’m one of the four hosts of this year’s IAB conference, and kicking off the event is a keynote from Google’s Eric Schmidt. I’ll be updating this post as he speaks, so stay tuned….
Eric is wearing a vneck sweater and looks quite dapper. Executive Chairmanship agrees with him (not that I know anything about that…).
Eric starts by hitting “Morning Joe” who said that computers are “cold companions.” Eric says he’s wrong. “Computers do what computers do best, humans do what humans do best.” A “net win for humanity.”
Turns attention to advertising. Avg. American spends about a third of their media time online. Kids will be always online. Media will mean digital media. Smart phones surpassed PCs two weeks ago. “Mobile first.” Build first for them, then worry about web.
(So far, this is stuff we’ve heard from Eric before…)
Here’s something new: Mobile searches spiked 200% for Chrysler during Sbowl, only 48% on PCs. Interesting. Union of mobile devices and advertising is big…”especially display.” Current size ad market $26billion, 9 of which is online display (US). Eric says he thinks display can be $200bb globally.
It’s too complicated to get a campaign up, that’s limiting growth to that $200bb number…we can automate this.
Need to address measurement (no sh*t!) and give more choice/control to all parties (indeed)
Three bets: 1. Everything is changing. Our intuition about future is linear, but IT grows exponentially. The new online advertising model is real time, iterative, not press the button and see what happens in the week, it occurs live.
He notes Chrome is growing as fast as Twitter, and Android has beaten iPhone “and it looks like that will continue.”
Eric is now promoting ad networks (adsense) as good for publishers. And onepass, payment for content…
We’ve never fundamentally solved the problem of “mass engagement” in this medium. Need to … does not go into really how.
Now talking about hyperlocal…phones and tablets are perfect for this. Ex: RadioShack does this with mobile…pushing NFC as solution for closed loop. Agree this is a big deal.
Now Eric is pretty much talking “The Gap Scenario” … we’ve spent 20 years getting there and we’re nearly there now…
Eric is now talking near future world scenario: Computers are very good at remembering things, they remember you don’t…you’re never lost. You can predict where you might want to go. And with statistical translation, it’s good for the world.
“The computer can help me.” You’re never lonely, you’re never bored….computers can connect you to others….you’re never out of ideas, always something new to learn…
“What I like most about this future is the biz of information has always been the biz of elites….but our vision covers everyone…”
End of main speech, now to Q&A
QA time. Martin N. of NYT asks about “native apps” closed v. open – Eric does not like “closed apps” (IE Apple..) No kidding…Closed has worked because it’s simple, works well, easier to work with. But ultimately the world wants more choice and more openness. Ultimately scale wins. Apps should be able to know what container they are in and then optimize to that container…sounds like Java then Flash, no?!
Question about DSPs which I admit I missed….but had to do with Google’s position as both a DSP and an ad exchange/network. Eric said he was not going to become a monopoly.
Question: From Dave M. Simulmedia: What about TV? What about TV? Eric talks about ads product (tvads) and Google TV, which he said is “controversial”. Said that TV industry is mad that Google is taking “dumb TV and making it smart”. Indeed….
Q: privacy…”industry has to get our act together fast.” Goog working on this. Concerned abt early govt. reg. b4 innov. plays out
Q: M&A: We have been acquiring a lot of small companies very quickly.
Q: How long till we get to $200bb in display online? Eric says it’s going to be faster than we think…5-10 years
And he’s off…
Google’s timing isn’t coincidental:
Google announces “Google One Pass” – “a payment system that enables publishers to set the terms for access to their digital content.”
Google doesn’t have the iPad/Phone monoculture, but it’s got reach, it’s got Android, and it’s got a better deal for media companies.
More on this shortly.
Yesterday Google unveiled “Google Weddings,” a site that ostensibly competes with what insiders in the media business understand to be a particularly lucrative niche: Bridal publications.
Magazines and websites such as Brides.com are cash cows for the likes of Conde Nast, Hearst, and others, and usually top the lists of publications with the most ad pages on an annual basis.
So when Google teams up with a major wedding planner, organizes apps and content around weddings, and even throws in a publication-style sweepstakes, I’d imagine more than a few panties got in a twist over at Conde.
I’d tell them not to worry. While it’d be fun to declare that this is the start of Google becoming a full fledged niche publisher (next up, Automotive, then Home, then Beauty!), I think the truth is, this is a marketing campaign for Google Apps – a smart way to show off the power of Google’s tools. By this time next year, I’ll wager the site will be cobwebbed, if it’s up at all.
I’ve interviewed will.i.am before, but this conversation at Signal LA earlier in the week was my favorite of the day. will.i.am is a remarkable thinker and as you can see from our conversation, he’s much, much more than “just a musician.”
I’ve noticed that the number of folks who are networking with me via LinkeIn has really increased lately. Anyone else noticed this? Might it be related to the publicity around LinkedIn’s recent IPO filing?
The company today announced “Skills” – a way to find people with certain skillsets. It’s been on a tear recently in terms of new features – Swarms, a visualization of search terms, InMaps, a visualization of your network, OpenGroups, a new groups feature, and Signal, more sophisticated search in general. I’m sure I’ve missed something.
Meanwhile, I’ve also noticed an increase in social graph communications coming at me via Linked In – responses to Tweets, for example (I’ve connected my Twitter account to Linked In). Makes me wonder, perhaps in the future, might LinkedIn pivot, and add a consumer-driven side to the business? Stranger things have happened…