Posts about wwgd

Podcasts, podcasts, podcasts

I have two podcasts to plug this week:

* The latest Guardian Media Talk USA podcast is up. David Folkenflik, NPR correspondent, and John Temple, ex editor of the Rocky Mountain News and now a damned fine media blogger, and I talk about the AP, the TechCrunch/Twitter affair, and news as charity. I also interview Josh Cohen, product manager of Google News.

* Leo Laporte, Gina Trapani, and I recorded the inaugural edition of This Week in Google (TWiG). You can watch it in video here and listen to the podcast here. We discuss all kinds of things: Apple (AT&T) blocking Google Voice; the importance of Google Wave and the live web; the AP (again); Gmail getting rid of that damned “on behalf of”; Microsoft Office (finally) going into the cloud. Great fun.

I wish I could embed both of them here (hint, hint) but go take a listen and please subscribe.

Guardian column: Micohoo vs. Gulliver

My Guardian column this week on the Microhoo search lashup:

In bringing together their search traffic, Microsoft and Yahoo are fighting an unwinnable war. Worse, they are still fighting the last war. . . .

But while they pound their little fists on Google’s shins, Google remains the unchallenged giant in the arena that really matters: advertising revenue. According to the blog Search Engine Land, Google takes almost a third of all online advertising money – $21bn a year – and it doesn’t rely just on search.

And Google is turning to the next battlefields: mobile, social media, the live web, and online tools. . . .

Yahoo can now jettison the technology resources that went into search. That’s rather sad. After all, 15 years ago, it was Yahoo that first organised the web for us. Its original ambition seems quaintly naive today: human editors cataloguing every site worth visiting and deciding which were the hot ones we should visit. Back then, we, and Yahoo, thought the web was a medium, like TV, that we experienced together. Yahoo never quite broke out of that thinking. It still treats its site as a destination we have to go to with walls around it to keep us in. It just introduced a new homepage to some fanfare. Homepages are so 1999. . . .

So, let Yahoo and Microsoft celebrate their deal. Yahoo doesn’t have as much to celebrate. It turned down acquisition offers and now it gets no cash from Microsoft. And it is surrendering its earliest competence to a competitor. Microsoft has more cause to grin. It got Yahoo’s search traffic for no cash and doesn’t have to manage the rest of the old beast.

And Google? One wonders whether it notices beyond that irritating poking at its shins. It’s too busy trying to conquer what comes next.

The John Henry fight of man v. algorithm

I interviewed Josh Cohen, product manager for Google News, this week for the Guardian MediaTalkUSA podcast (out early next week) and asked him how many clicks to news sources Google News causes. The answer: a billion.

And then I saw this PaidContent report on URL-shortener Bit.ly thinking of offering a breaking news service. That doesn’t seem so crazy when you hear how many clicks it causes a month. The answer: a billion.

It so happens I just wrote this in my Media Guardian column, coming out Monday, about the Microsoft-Yahoo search lashup:

Oh, search still matters. But it is beginning to matter a little less. Venture capitalist Fred Wilson recently pointed out that 14% of traffic to his blog, avc.com, comes from Google, down from 29% the year before. Wilson argues that the difference is Twitter—that is, links from people over algorithms. (Note that Wilson is a Twitter investor.)

Now I’m hardly saying that Google is being overrun by the power of mankind. Nor will I argue that every link Bit.ly sends to is news – except more of it is than news organizations would admit if they were wise enough to expand the definition of news to the hyperspecific, a word a commenter below suggested I start using instead of hyperlocal. Your friend’s concert photos are news to him and you. Note also that Bit.ly isn’t the only source of human-powered live links; there’s the rest of Twitter and its other clients, not to mention Facebook and fresh blogging.

But I do think it’s significant that given the platform to collect the power of links by people, it can quickly match the power of the algorithm. I also think there’s even more power in bringing the two together.

WWGD? brought to life

There’s little I love more these days than seeing people bring the precepts of What Would Google Do? into their realms. I just hope I’m right and don’t lead them astray.

Here‘s a post by Arild Nybø Førde, a Norwegian entrepreneur who wonders whether he’s better off being transparent about his business idea, weighing the input he’d get against the risk of someone taking is idea:

Why keep secrets?”, Jarvis asks, and he rephrases: “Why keep more secrets than you have to?” The most common answer is of course that we don’t want our potential competitors to steal the ideas. That would also be my answer.

But is the risk of being lifted for ideas greater than the risk of failing by not being transparent? If asked myself this question, and after some consideration my answer is “No”. . . .

OK, so having great ideas is not my biggest challenge right now. It’s the ability to evaluate them, and then realize them, which will be my greatest struggle in the months and years to come.

So, how can being transparent help the ability to realize the ideas? . . .

Right now I’m alone with my ideas. I don’t have any employees yet. . . .

Therefore, I guess, the best way to get my ideas analyzed and criticized, is to let them out in the open. And what is more open than the World Wide Web?

In addition to getting feedback to my ideas, through blogs and social media, laying them out publically will also kick my butt. As long as I write in my blog, or state in an interview, that I’m going to do this and that, I make a commitment to my readers. . . . And if I don’t fulfill my commitments, I can’t be trusted, and my business will fail.

That’s why I’ll risk it. From now on I’ll be transparent and reveal more and more of my strategy in this blog.

And then there’s this exec, writing under the name Oz, talking about how cable should be run today:

If I were running the cable company I would do pricing and product offering differently. Transparency and simplification will be a core objective. Reducing the barrier to taking on new clients/customer will be at the fore of every decision and Internet copy that is produced. Borrowing from Jeff Jarvis in What Would Google Do? Simplify or die. This should be a pillar of running any business in the age of the web. Firms should no longer seek to profit from cordoning off a section of the market hoping that the black box of disinformation which they have built will not be found out and exposed.

I am sure some analysts will be quick to suggest that this disinformation that I speak of is a cash cow. Meaning that this firms make money from their ability to coax new clients into paying more than they usually should. To me, this is an old world way of thinking, information wants to and will be free, any business model built on erecting barriers to information will eventually fail. This idea may have served the firms well in the past but with many more firms, channels and platforms competing for my attention, it is a strategy headed for disaster.
Competition will blindside these firms. Any firm with a good enough service that chooses to be transparent and simple will win. I would be the first to line up at their door.

PS: This applies to all firms in all industries.

Yesterday, I had lunch with a reporter-friend who can’t advise companies because he’s a reporter; he can only soak in, and not bounce back. But I said that I’ve learned so much talking with companies – in person or on this blog – to learn their problems and their opportunities as they try to reinvent themselves – as the good ones are – for our new reality. It gives me the chance to test my ideas and observations against their reality and there’s nothing more valuable than that. As Arild said above, transparency and interaction are what enable analysis, criticism, challenges, and improvements.

The death of snail mail & Sunday papers

The Washington Post reports that “in the past year alone, the Postal Service has seen the single largest drop-off in mail volume in its 234-year history…. That downward trend is only accelerating. The Postal Service projects a decline of about 10 billion pieces of mail in each of the next two years, going from a high of 213 billion pieces of mail in 2006 to 170 billion projected for 2010.”

No, physical delivery won’t ever die. (Like a good newspaperman, I lie in headlines to get attention.) Indeed, we’ll get more ever deliveries of more stuff that used to be on store shelves but are now ordered online. That’s what UPS’ and FedEx’ businesses are built for. But, as the Post says, we’re sending fewer messages to each other; we have much better means to do that now. And companies are trying hard to reduce their cost of dealing with us – billing, bank statements – by taking that online.

There is still a business to be had in distributing coupons and circulars (aka junk mail); this is why newspapers are holding onto delivery a day or two a week. But that’s transitional; it won’t last forever.

As volume decreases, costs to users will increase as deliverers try to cover fixed costs that just can’t be cut anymore. Newspapers like to think they, too, have fixed costs and that’s why they keep whining that readers “should” pay their bills. But they don’t; for their core business – content and advertising – papers have new efficiencies online that the Postal Service doesn’t have. Except for those trucks and presses. They are fixed costs and that puts them in the same sinking ship as the mail.

At some point soon, the couponers will desert both the Postal Service and newspapers because they’ll be just too expensive. But consumers still want coupons; they have real value. (I often tell the story of coming back from a strike when I was Sunday editor of the New York Daily News. We didn’t have coupons because our new owner, Robert Maxwell, was feuding with Rupert Murdoch, who controls coupons – aka FSIs or free-standing inserts – in the U.S. When we got them back, circulation went up more than 100,000. Those readers weren’t buying news. They were buying ads.) Coupons are creeping online but it’s still a pain to deal with them digitally. Mobile devices may be the solution, but they’re not there yet.

So physical coupons and circulars are still great business – if you can get them into consumers’ hands. And it occurs to me that someone will craigslist – that is, undercut – both newspapers and the Postal Service in the delivery business. It’s in the interests of Murdoch’s coupon empire to do so and work with large retailers that produce circulars to come up with an alternative. Or an entrepreneur could establish a network to make it happen. I see the return of the paperboy (oops, the world has changed since then; pardon me: the paperyoungperson): networks of small agents who can deliver this material, which isn’t wildly timely (get it there this week) without the cost structure needed for individualized delivery – the Postal Service – or with a time wrapper of expensive content – the newspaper. Again, it’s transitional, but it’s a nice business for some years.

Here’s what happens then: The cost of mailing an old-fashioned letter will become prohibitive as the Postal Service covers its fixed costs for a system we won’t kill.

And the economic benefit of distributing a Sunday newspaper will all but disappear and news organizations – the ones still standing – will have no reason to hold onto the presses and trucks.

How to handle an ass (like me)

I want to love my cable company – honestly, I do. They bring me things I love and depend upon. I love TV. I really, really love the internet. (The phone? Well, I love that, too – but unfortunately for the cable company, it’s my iPhone I adore.)

So why don’t I love my cable company? We all know why: because it’s a marriage as ruined as the one in War of the Roses. It’s a relationship built entirely on aggression and passive aggression, on each party trying not to give the other one what it wants, on stonewalling or fighting. So how do you change that? I speculated in What Would Google Do? about what a cable or phone company run by Google (GT&T) would be like, but that’s only wishful thinking.

After my contretemps with Cablevision this week – and the ensuing lively discussion about it in the comments here, on other blogs, and in Twitter – I’ve been trying to think about it how this relationship can be rebuilt. Because I don’t like the relationship and I don’t like the way I am in it.

When my internet didn’t work. I called the company and its employee read off a script: ‘Sorry to hear that sir, let’s try this. Oh, that doesn’t work. We’ll see you in three days.’ I then operate off my script: ‘That’s unacceptable. I pay for the service. I want it fixed ASAP.’ Them: ‘No.’ Me: Get me a supervisor.’ Them, after much argument – because it always takes argument: ‘OK, tomorrow, but you have to wait home all day.’ Me: ‘That’s unacceptable. I have a life.’

I pay for the service to work and want it to work. They want to maximize customer service efficiency (is that a sufficiently nice way to say it?). We end up in a standoff that, in my experience, can be broken only by outlasting them and being angry. It’s still a script. But I don’t like the role I play. I don’t like myself. I’m an ass. Because it works. I end up victorious – the internet I paid for is working again – but sullied and embarrassed by what I had to say to get the service I need. How to break that cycle?

There are a few new factors in the cable business in recent times.

First, cable companies have competitors (yay!) – well, at least one competitor: the phone company. In Twitter, it took no time at all – less time, indeed, than it took Cablevision to respond – for Verizon people to smell the carrion of a dead marriage and to seduce me.

Second, we have Twitter (and blogs and YouTube). As I said in the comments on the post below, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have because your message can spread and so the smart company has to respond. The people formerly known as consumers are now media.

But the company also has Twitter. Witness what Frank Eliason (aka @comcastcares) has done to respond to customers and to humanize his company. Oh, Comcast still has problems – Eliason will confess that – but the fact that I got better service on my Cablevision account from a Comcast employee speaks volumes. It says there’s a lesson to be learned there.

At the end of my Dell contretemps, I wrote an open letter to Michael Dell with what I sincerely hoped would be helpful advice. They didn’t change their ways because of what I said. But what they did end up doing what I suggested and I’ve since written about that in BusinessWeek and in my book.

So I’ve been trying to think of advice for Cablevision.

First, throw out the script. Give employees the ability to take responsibility, to deal with us honestly, and to get things fixed. That’s one of the things Dell did and it made a huge difference.

Second, become human. Comcast’s Frank Eliason is a person. He’s not a bot with standard answers. We wouldn’t stand for that; as the Cluetrain Manifesto teaches, markets are conversations and we recognize when they are being held by man vs. machine. Microsoft, Dell, Sun, Comcast have all been enriched by enabling their people to talk with us as people. Not every employee will be capable of that; it’s the ones who are you want working and speaking for you.

Third, I’d invest in customer service as the best form of advertising possible. Zappos learned that lesson and it just earned them $900 million.

Fourth, create a service level agreement (SLA) so customers know what to expect when they call and so they can hold the company to it. That’s the real problem. We come loaded for bear because we know what’s going to happen, we know the script: the cable company is going to push us off as far as possible and we’re going to demand as soon as possible. The agreement becomes an assurance (natural disasters aside) we can count on and we know the consequences.

Fifth, you’re not going to believe that I’m saying this, but charge for better service. Yes, I would complain about that. But here’s the way I think it would play out: The cable company charges for a good SLA; its competitor, the phone company, sees the competitive advantage of advertising that you get that included with them; the cable company is then forced to meet the challenge. And we end up with the SLA. If we don’t, I predict that local governments and the FCC and FTC may impose them. So I suggest you figure out the way to get there on your own.

Sixth, make it a goal to have delighted customers. Yes, I know, that sound silly: fodder for needlepoint. But go back to the beginning: I want to love my cable company. If – surprise, surprise, surprise – I do, I’m going to talk about that. In the age of Twitter, that’s the best advertising you can get. This is how the investment in customer service will pay off: with advertising that’s better than anything you put in TV or newspapers … and it’s free. And it keeps customers from leaving for Verizon. That’s how a company takes advantage of the free economy.

This attitude also might motivate cable companies to change other policies that irk, like bundling in dozens of channels I have to pay that I never watch. But the issue that bothers most people about their cable companies is dealing with them for installation and service. That’s what I’d concentrate on first. Service isn’t a favor you do for customers, as various employees implied with me. It’s how you live up to your deal and delight customers.

You see, I’m not an ass. I only play one on the phone to get what I think I deserve in a business deal in which I have no power other than that. And, cable guys, I know you’re not lazy slugs trying to rip me off; that’s just the script they make you read from the policies they set in the front office. Can’t we all get along?

When news people lose sense

Later note: Please see Howard Weaver in the comments, who says I got wrong what he was saying.

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber predicted that “almost all” news organizations will be charging in a year just because they need to. Meanwhile, former McClatchy news exec Howard Weaver thinks that news orgs should get, oh, say, 10 percent of Google et al’s revenue because they, oh, should.

Amazing how news people lose their sense when they talk about news.

Let’s substitute GM for newspapers in this discussion.

Would Barber ever suggest that GM would charge more just because it needs to, with no consideration of the market forces and its competition? Would Weaver ever suggest that GM should get 10 percent of Toyota’s or Zipcar’s revenue just because, oh, it should?

I just spent two good days at Best Buy headquarters in Minneapolis talking about What Would Google So? and it was so refreshing to be in the company of a company facing the future bravely without whining like newspaper people do. One executive quizzed me, puzzled about why newspapers are so resistant to change. We talked about their sense of entitlement.

In what other industry do companies feel entitled to revenue just because they used to have it or they think they deserve it because of who they are?

But newspapers think that companies that served their customers better – Google or craigslist – owe them money because they lost those customers for serving them badly and ripping them off for years. They think that government owes them protection via copyright law (shall we look up how those papers editorialized about protectionist tariffs?).

It makes me look at the FT’s coverage of other industries in a different light. A dim one.

: SEE ALSO: John Temple tells newspaper people to stop blaming Google. Mark Potts tells Barber why he’s wrong.

: LATER: Like Temple, Chris Tolles does a better job than I do answering Weaver.

The failure system

Brian Frank riffs on yesterday’s post on the license to fail and argues that our standard for success should not be perfection but instead “generativity”:

. . . instead of evaluating things on how well they accord with preconceived models and assumptions, let’s evaluate things by looking at how many unexpected new opportunities they generate.

Failure breaks things open and allows us to remix the pieces in different ways. If we don’t do this from time-to-time — if we just keep accumulating more mass onto the same framework — eventually it gets too bulky and falls on our heads.

There are lots of interesting nuggets of ideas in his rambling on the idea. Frank illustrates his point talking about the progression of scientific theory from Newton to quantum and Einstein: “But now it’s becoming more difficult to stand on Newton’s shoulders. His ideas aren’t as generative anymore; they perpetuate more than they generate.” I don’t know enough there to agree or disagree; I see Frank searching for a metaphor for what I’ve been calling beta-think or what I’ve been arguing with newspaper people about finding opportunities wherever they see problems:

Much of the new science — like the new economy — is not about layering subsequent successes on top of each other, but they are generative in the sense that they open up new fields to explore. They are adventures that could very likely fail to prove their original hypotheses but can’t fail to generate new ideas and insights.

Next Frank tries his worldview on human psychology as he also challenges perfection as the goal:

Even looking at the people who hold perfection in high esteem, it isn’t perfection itself that motivates them, it’s the challenge of pursuing it — and the sneaking uncertainty that they can’t attain it: it’s a dare….

If you take the uncertainty and randomness and genuine risk out of life (as in, risking oneself, not just other people’s money) you take the life out of life…

So why would we perpetuate organizations, rules, and systems that are based on the fundamental assumption that randomness and uncertainty can be mechanized and ordered into a irrelevance?

He and I agree that this effort at order comes out of the industrial age: the need and drive to mechanize and systematize everything to do because that’s what the means of mass production and distribution demanded. In WWGD?, I argue that we are leaving that age and entering an economy and society built on abundance and knowledge (which, to return to Frank’s point, comes when you expand past old assumptions: when you generate new ideas). He concludes:

The society that embraces uncertainty, nurtures a love for it (i.e. a love of learning) and develops institutions that thrive because of randomness rather than despite it, will eventually have the most success, generation-by-generation.

: Howard Weaver also responds to my post, riffing on failure and perfection in cultures, industries, and economies:

In private life – business and commerce, the academy, creative endeavors – Jeff’s point is fundamentally applicable. I was lucky enough to be taught as a young editor periodically to ask the folks I worked with, “When was the last time you made a good mistake?”

I’d stress, of course, that a “good mistake” didn’t involve coming in drunk and misspelling all the names. A good mistake was one where we learned something we couldn’t have learned otherwise, where we were better off afterward for what we learned, where we had a clearer vision of what to try next.

Weaver agrees with Craig Newmark on British failurephobia and that makes me finally come up with a theory for what I’ve observed from my Guardian colleagues in political and media news in the U.K.: I call it the off-with-their-heads reflex that comes whenever a TV exec or a government minister or someone under them messes up. We see moments of that in America, of course. But we need to focus less on the mistake – the fall from perfection – and more on the question of whether the mistake is fixed and the lesson learned; if so, then the experience and the person may be valuable; if not, fine, behead them.

: LATER: There’s an interesting discussion about the beta life at the Business Innovation Factory.