Posts about geeks

It’s not about content: Part I

Brands (read: advertisers) are following media down the wrong path, deciding that they, too, are media now and that they, too, should make content to draw customers to their messages (thereby, by the way, getting rid of that middleman, media).

I’ve been arguing that media should build their futures around relationships, using content as a tool to that end. I’d say that is even more true of brands.

Yesterday, Samir Arora, CEO of Glam (where — full disclosure — I’ve been an adviser), tweeted a link to Marc Andreessen arguing that Ning, the company he cofounded and sold to Glam, is about to come into its own as it is remade for brands. That got me thinking about brands’ direction.

Whatever platform they use — Ning, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, blogs or all of the above — is less the issue than the culture that enables its brands and its employees — every one — to talk with and build relationships of value and trust with customers.

We’ve all seen this happen on Twitter when we get pissed off at some unfair or unrighteous action by a company; we appeal to sanity; an employee — sometimes the official tweeter, sometimes just a decent soul — rescues us; our relationship with the company is redeemed.

That is the model for brands online. I thought we’d learned that years go. Apparently not quite. Today not only are brands making content in their own domains but they now want to make content in media’s space; we used to call that an advertorial but now that is apparently called — in jargon that appeared from nowhere — “native advertising.” WTF does that mean?

Mind you, brands should indeed create content and make it available — about their products so we can find every question we have answered. But that’s utility. That’s not what brands talk about when they become media. They make this:

Screenshot 2013-03-12 at 11.24.24 AM

Huh? How is that really any different from slapping a banner onto content? Oh, yes, it’s supposed to make us associate the Droid Razr Maxx HD with exotic locales and long battery life. But Motorola would do better to finally produce a decent phone, in which case, we the users would advertise it. I do hope that’s a lesson Google teaches them. Google understands the value of building relationships with individuals and using knowledge about them to deliver relevance and value. Isn’t that the wise future of media … and marketing?

Voluntary media

Two important but too-unsung women in media — performer Amanda Palmer and Google ad exec Susan Wojcicki — met at an idea this week: that media and advertising are becoming voluntary.

They also touch on ideas I’ve been trying to write about: that media should be in the relationship business, not just the content business. In other words, media’s value isn’t necessarily intrinsic in content — as in, “you should pay for this product because the work to create it has value” — but can be realized in the relationships that form around content.

First, the amazing Amanda: She gave a rousingly received TED talk that has been seen almost half a million times already in which she argues that artists should not be afraid to ask for support, a lesson she learned as a street and stage performer and on Kickstarter. The nut of it via BoingBoing: “By asking people, you connect with them, and by connecting with them, they want to help you. ‘When we really see each other, we want to help each other. People have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is, How do we make people pay for music? What if we started asking, How do we let people pay for music?'”

Value comes to Amanda through relationships. Given the opportunity, people want to support her. In a very good post today, Reuters’ Felix Salmon contrasts her model with Andrew Sullivan’s. His purposefully mimics big media’s — from The New York Times to The Times of London: building a pay wall around content because content is valuable, damnit.

I’ve been arguing to media that relationships are more valuable. Knowing people because you have their trust and give them value builds a rich and deep relationship — builds data about that relationship — that can be far more valuable for far longer than a mere transaction.

The problem in media is that we are not built for that. We are built to serve the masses. Hell, we made the masses. Our manufacturing and investment and technology and business models have all been aimed at serving people in bulk, never as individuals because that wouldn’t scale, not in the age of presses and broadcast towers.

But now relationships do scale. See: Google. Now serving individuals scales even better and is even more valuable than mass media. Enter Susan Wojcicki, senior VP of advertising at Google, who wrote an important post on Google+ about the future of advertising. The nut of it: “In years to come, most ad views will effectively become voluntary.” Or as she also put it, choice shifts to the user in both content and advertising.

Just as it becomes difficult — in an abundance-based media world — to force people to pay for content, which is no longer scarce, it also becomes impossible to force them to see advertising, which may become more scarce (and perhaps more valuable). That means it won’t be advertising. It will be something no one — including Google — has invented yet. But Wojcicki’s thinking about what that can be. I’d bet on her finding it over a legacy media company just as I’d bet on Palmer finding a new model faster than a record company can.

The argument about paywalls — and copyright and the value of content — is the wrong argument. It’s an argument about trying to preserve old, industrial media model in a very different technological reality. I get accused of trying to kill paywalls or free content. I’m not. I’m just arguing that we need to recognize new opportunities because if we don’t, someone else will. Read: Google. Read: a street performer.

The discussion we should be having is how better to build valuable relationships of trust with people as people, not masses, and then how to exploit that value to support the work they want us to do. We can’t force them to do what we want anymore. For now, media are voluntary.

Atomizing the article

The Washington Post did good reporting under the headline above on the state of negotiations on the so-called fiscal cliff. But the report is long because it carries all the equipment an article carries — the background paragraph (the sixth paragraph), atmospherics (seventh paragraph), quotes (eighth, ninth paragraphs), play-by-play (paragraphs 10-22), getting to some key details on the third screen.

Compare and contrast that with Henry Blodget’s summary under this headline. Now some will say that Henry — like a anthropologist with a camera in a remote village that has never seen one — stole the soul of the Post’s article. But I say he performed a service: He pulled out just the key facts of what’s new in five cogent bullets plus two additional paragraphs, giving us facts the Post didn’t get to until paragraphs 25-28. He read all that so we don’t have to.

Now I’m not criticizing the Post here. It did the reporting. I’m criticizing the form. I’m also not criticizing the Post for following that form; that’s what print dictates: a one-size-fits-all, one-stop-shop for this story.

This is a wonderful example of how online provides journalists the opportunity to atomize the article into its component assets. Blodget gave us the what’s-new part. Someone else could create the background, play-by-play (from the middle of the Post article), players, timeline, quotes, and so on.

Now I know the argument we’ll hear: Blodget took value from the Post. But I say he added value for readers, for I’m sure many of us are sick of reading the same old stuff, we just want to know *what’s new* — that is, the *news*. That’s what the Post and newspapers should be paying attention to here: where is the value for the market?

We can quickly tie ourselves in knots discussing business models. Maybe the Post should run Blodget’s summary as value-added for its readers, giving him a share of the ad revenue. Does Henry pay the Post for the value of its reporting? Or is his link payment? That depends on how the links perform (I’ve been wanting to perform tests of that for research).

My point here is simply that, of course, reporting has value but that the full-blown, kitchen-sink article is not always the best way to convey that value. Here’s just one example.

Journalism as service: Lessons from Sandy

I was badly informed in the aftermath of Sandy. I blame the news. After all, isn’t that its job: to assure we’re informed? Shouldn’t news organizations be judged by that standard?

The other day, I argued that news should be seen as a service, not a product, and that journalists should measure their success not by column inches or by page views but by results: whether we, the public, know what we want and need to know. Sandy provides a good test-bed for this idea of outcomes-based journalism.

After Sandy, what journalists provided was mostly articles when what I wanted was specifics that those articles only summarized. Don’t give me stories. Give me lists.

I wanted lists of what streets were closed. I wanted lists of what streets the power company was finally working on. Oh, the utility, JCP&L, gave my town, Bernards Township, lists of streets, but they were bald-faced lies (I know because my street was on that list but their crews weren’t on my street). The town and our local media outlets only passed on these lists as fact without verifying. I wanted journalists to add value to those lists, going out to verify whether there were crews working on those streets. In a word: report.

I wanted media organizations or technology platforms to enable the people who knew the facts — my fellow townspeople — to share what they knew. Someone should have created a wiki that would let anyone in town annotate those lists of streets without power and streets — if any — where power crews were working. Someone should have created a map (Google Maps would do; Ushahidi would be deluxe) that we could have annotated not only with our notes and reports of what we knew but also with pictures. I’d have loved to have seen images of every street blocked by trees, not just for the sake of empathy but also so I could figure out how to get around town … and how likely it was that we’d be getting power back and how likely it would be that buses would be able to get through the streets so schools could re-open.

But instead, we got mostly articles. For that’s what journalists do, isn’t it? We write articles. We are storytellers! But not everything should be a story. Stories aren’t always the best vehicle for conveying information, for informing the public. Sometimes lists, data bases, photos, maps, wikis, and other new tools can do a better job.

My local weekly paper was as useful as always. Not. It gave me articles days after the fact that told me nothing I hadn’t already ferreted out. In my town, Patch* blew it. Here was its opportunity to be *the* hyperlocal resource for my town. Even though it had no newspaper to fill, it still insisted on giving me articles. When I couldn’t reliably find out about where power work was occurring from the town or Patch or the paper, I did use Patch to post an open letter to the town complaining about officials passing on JCP&L’s bogus lists and I learned more from the comments there than from those articles. NJ.com* gave me articles but also did give me some lists, constantly updated, which I hung on to find out the latest on roads and transit — and so I could decide whether I had any hope of getting into New York and work. Those lists were great but, a statewide paper being what it is, they couldn’t tell me about my neighborhood.

That’s where the need and opportunity remain: in very local information. No one has cracked the geographic nut well — not big papers, not big networks of sites, not Twitter. Desperate to find open gas stations, we gathered around the #njgas hashtag but it wasn’t terribly useful learning that a station 50 miles away just opened up. I needed someone to add value to that list of posts about stations by putting them on a map.

After my neighbors and I got out our chainsaws and cut through probably three dozen trees to free us from our blocked streets and driveways, I went to Nextdoor.com, a platform that enables neighbors with verified identities and addresses to create private networks.

In a neat bit of functionality, I was able to delineate my own neighborhood — which is valuable information to a site, knowing what someone considers a neighborhood to be. But Nextdoor scolded me and said I didn’t have enough neighbors, forcing me to include people who live 2.5 miles away I’ll never meet — because Nextdoor thinks it knows better. Its mapping data sucked and many of my neighbors couldn’t join but Nextdoor wouldn’t let us fix the addresses — even though we know better. We wanted to talk about power and buying generators and trees still lying over our streets and more but Nextdoor gave us a tab to talk about “crime and safety” because they think they know what we want. No. You’re a platform only if and when your users take over what you’ve built and use it in ways you never imagined because they find it that useful.

What I want from news and technology companies is a platform that enables us in the community to share our knowledge. I want them to provide an opportunity for — or shame — shame town officials, utility companies, transit officials, as well as local businesses — even gas stations — into using such a platform to share the data they have and invite residents to add to and improve that knowledge. I do not expect the journalists to be able to gather all that information. In the words of Emily Bell, Clay Shirky, and Chris Anderson in their new tome, Post-Industrial Journalism, I expect the journalist to move up the value chain. Or in my words, I want the journalist to add value, to ask and answer the questions that aren’t already known. Do what you do best and link to — or build a platform for — the rest.

* Disclosures: Patch has long listed me as an advisor though I am not one. I am, however, an adviser to NJ.com and helped start the service back in the day. I have no relationship with Nextdoor.