Home > Inspiration, Media > Followup to articles on an old Macworld talk I gave

Followup to articles on an old Macworld talk I gave

September 12th, 2010

Carleen Hawn wrote this piece at Paid Content and Leo Klien followed up with this one commenting on a talk I gave at Macworld Expo.  Now, I really don’t take issue with either commenting with some negativity on a public speech I made and how I answered a question from the floor especially when, as is often the case, my answer included “I don’t know.” (As always, I tried to to offer,  some core advice and provocation for further thought)

Questions about opinion from an audience member at a conference are usually very tough to answer as a speaker because often one is there while either representing an employer or client or, at the least, is bound by the policies of that client or employer. More importantly though for this particular question is that having an opinion of any certainty really needs a lot more facts and exploration than one can get in a ‘once back and forth’ from a podium. That is unless you’re a politician hammering the talking points.

I spoke at Macworld Expo a lot. I probably will again. I truly loved doing it. Great audiences and some very smart questions. Good friends and lots to learn. I’ll be honest, I can’t remember now which session this was but theirs, Carleens and Leo’s, was an interesting response that I couldn’t react to at the time because of how conservatively I chose to interpret editorial policy at my former employer.

Now, of course, absent those issues, if somebody were to ask my opinion of a simpler and more black and white  issue, it wouldn’t be difficult at all for me to pontificate. It comes to me naturally. ;-) This was a much more complicated question than, for example, “IIS or Apache?”.

So, now that I am blessed with the freedom to respond more fully, here goes:

I don’t actually  disagree with the conclusions they drew in a general sense. Leo Klein’s being embodied in his headline: “Follow Your Users (Because they sure as Hell Aren’t Going to Follow You)” and Carleen Hawn’s being “But isn’t the idea of New Media to leverage as many entities as possible?” and also that she believed I meant to say all content should be free.

What I will say is that both reactions lack important nuances. Being fair to both Carleen and Leo, they wrote much shorter pieces than this one and hadn’t the space for nuance. More to the point, I couldn’t give them much to go on either. Perils of the context. I would welcome further dialog.

First, ‘follow your users’.  It’s a great theory and sometimes very good practice. The problem is that’s usually much more complicated than it can seem at first blush. There’s a pervasive belief among those of marketing sensibilities that, for example, YouTube users are an ‘audience’ like the ’7PM Tuesday Nights’ television viewers could be described as an ‘audience’. YouTube’s users are hardly as easy to pin down demographically speaking as 1980′s prime time television viewers are, or even Huffington Post readers are now. You can use whatever metrics research reveals (including that Google are still losing their shirts running YouTube ;-) ) and, now,you can even Google’s metrics reporting on your own videos.  Much harder to get are metrics about how else those views worked for your brand. The internet changed the rules. Media producers can’t deduce socio-economic data from the addresses of their subscribers (they can geo-locate IP addresses but that’s both more and less information than a magazine subscription delivered to a dentist’s office). ‘Television’ producers don’t have day-part, prime time, broadcast area and what shows precede or follow theirs ‘on air. Advertisers have successfully bludgeoned online media producers into accepting a standard of click-thru rate after decades of being able to sell impressions in the form of column inches and spots. Your shows don’t get ‘sold’ into syndication on UHF. Now, success must be measured by how much passion users have for your content and how connected to, or even aware of your your brand they are. If they have a passion, they’ll buy services or products from you. If they are aware of your brand, you can make some sort of case to potential advertisers to pay more than throw-away basic CPM rates.

The tricky part is that, if you’re not a believer in ‘all content should be free’ and you’re not blessed with endless resources and able not to care if you go broke making content, then you need to figure out how to monetize your content.

I’ll pause here and respond to that aspect of Carleen’s article: “I take by this, that he means the point of view that content can and should be free”

I don’t actually believe all content should be free. I do think you need to recognize the changes to the business of media that the web has caused and react and adapt.

I will say, and this may have contributed to her interpretation of what I said at the conference; I  have always believed all Public Broadcasting content should be free. That’s a personal philosophical position driven by a passion for the social importance of independent publicly funded media and the pragmatic view that we, American taxpayers, have already paid for it once. Paid for it, in part, with tax money, that most (all?) public broadcasters are non-profits and tax exempt themselves, that they also receive less obvious public funding sources like spectrum allocation and must carry as well as not-specifically-targeted-for-broadcasting public money like NEA and NSF grants.  I also happen to think, we should pay more for Public Broadcasting with legal carve-outs for rights and ‘full’ public funding to ensure it can again be unfettered by any need (real or imagined) to ’compete’ with commercial media on the same playing field but that’s a topic for another day….

However, most content producers aren’t publicly funded and, the fact is, I don’t believe any force should impose ‘free’ on their hard work the same way as it should on publicly funded material. So….

It is true that while I don’t like, or believe current paywall strategies are or will be successfulFree (as in Beer) content doesn’t have to be free as in “creators can’t make money off it.”

A smart strategy for making money off media is to deliver value you can either sell advertising against, or have added value products you sell using the ‘free’ stuff as a loss-leader. Now, there’s a lot more writing to be done here about what that means and how to do it but for now, I hope it’s clear that there is a divergence in my opinion about what publicly funded media should be and what commercial media should be, and that getting into this whole aspect tangled up in the question at the time wasn’t an option for me while employed by a public broadcaster and speaking at a conference.

So, back to the idea of ‘following your users’. I don’t recall whether the questioner self-identified as a Journalism School teacher but, presumably they did for Carleen to report it. My response, and damn I love the rare occasions when I can manage pithy, was; “When your MySpace page gets more traffic than your company’s website that is a Capital ‘B’ bad thing”.

That is the core of the matter. If your efforts to reach out to new audiences accrues to your traffic and your identity online then you’re doing it right. If you are ‘syndicating’ yourself into irrelevance then you haven’t a prayer of monetizing your content. I wrote a piece about how Daring Fireball does some very slick things to keep touch with their audience here and I have Tweet This running here to help my readers post their interest in what I write to Twitter and Facebook. I also have an RSS feed running summaries of the articles. I’ve even piggy-backed on YouTube’s bandwidth to embed videos but linked back to the site of the artist and their iTunes store.  That band hosts a free download of one song on their website and links to their iTunes store. Loss leader.

The reality is there are forces akin to gravity; user expectations, anonymity , ‘piracy’ and ever more easy to use technology that will try to make content ‘free as in beer’ but that doesn’t mean, at all, that creators of quality content can’t or shouldn’t monetize their content.

What’s going wrong for so many content creators is that they so often utterly fail to recognize and work with those forces. An example, ironically, of how they fail is that, because of when the question was asked, the topic was the now fading away  MySpace. Any investment the a content producer made in a presence on MySpace is now of significantly diminished value. If they succeeded in exploiting MySpace and driving traffic to their own canonical presence? Great! If, as is usually the case, they diluted their brand and furthered the fragmentation of their audience, then they not only spent money trying to reach a shrinking audience, they undermined themselves in the process in such a way that they’ll have an even harder time recovering that audience then, not great. The same risks, by the way, apply to investing in Facebook and Twitter, todays ‘growth’ audiences, because something else will be along any minute. MySpace as a gathering space for musicians and music fans is, for example, up against the wall from this: Ping.

A person very dear to me who I have enormous respect for invested a measured amount to promote her brand on MySpace. In this case, it was an old, highly regarded and venerable brand. I told her that promoting the brand on MySpace was like dressing it up in clear high heels. Perhaps a bit harsh I’ll admit but the reality is that for many places one might follow one’s users, establishing a presence there can dilute your brand. Is this a brand that would be enriched by MySpace Ettinger of London? Do you really want your brand and your content everywhere? Are MySpace users really your users? Heck, and this is an even more complicated question, are the people who may be your users, in a mode at MySpace that will feel appropriate for them to see you there? Does the kid discussing the newest release from Lady Gaga really want their friends to see them showing an interest in the the Times’ Best Seller list? Perhaps they want to be in the closet about their inner bookworm when hanging out with the cool kids on MySpace.

So, while there’s a lot more to be said on these issues, and that’s a large portion of the goals of this site, the answer to the question I’d offer that J-School teacher now would be:

‘I think you need to recognize the differences between how your students would use a MySpace and a blog at your official school site. Understand that the social interactions one would have on a personal level on MySpace are and should be different for them as individuals and them as aspiring professionals. Frankly, if I were you, I would encourage those students to keep their personal and social interactions off your official school site to preserve your brand.  I’d encourage them to consider that any articles, columns and opinion pieces they wrote and posted to your official site would accrue to their brand by association with your school. I’d explain that their presence on social networks could, in fact, impact their careers. I’d explain that there was an opportunity for them to be published under a nominal masthead that would benefit their image in the future and, I’d positively kill myself to work with the school’s IT department to make the experience as easy to use for the students, structured, discoverable and accessible and exposed to the public internet for search as possible. Finally, I would implement an editorial policy that established a balance between the need to build a critical mass of quality student work and giving those students the opportunity to express themselves. I’d make sure that whatever rights agreement your school made with the students was fair and reasonable and preserved their rights and the school’s. Hypothetically, license that becomes non-exclusive when they graduate.” Now, that advice is for the J-School professor who, presumably, had the business interests of the school in mind.  More content on their site, managed with a clear editorial policy accrues to their reputation. Being able to more successfully help their students launch their careers accrues to the students’ future ability to donate when the school later hits up the alums to buy a new wing for the dorms.

Now, what would I tell the J-school student who asked me the same question?

“You’re much better off posting your work to the J-School’s site and welcoming their editorial help to improve your work, if you can negotiate fair terms with them, than posting to MySpace. When you have had some success at the school’s site, you can and should host your own blog at your own domain. Oh, and if you’re hoping to be a journalist? Learn to be a Journalist, as in facts and sources, and a lack of personal opinion bias. When you get old, then you can do opinion pieces and you can blog on your own time.”

Carleen asks at the close of her piece: “So what’s wrong with posting everything  [...] on MySpace and YouTube with a link to your home page?”

When you do, you dilute your brand. Your content is monetized by MySpace and YouTube. Your brand is diluted by their brand. Their UI, their video quality. Their technology choices. What content they decide is related to yours. That users can see how your content ‘ranks’ against the content that has been related to yours. What advertisers they sell views of your content to to promote themselves. If it’s a MySpace? The mere association is arguably brand-tarnishing for anything but the teen set. Every dollar you spend promoting your presence on MySpace, Facebook or anywhere but your own ‘home’ is just, well, gone.

In managing your presence online as a content producer, your first goal must always include increasing your audience’s perception of your value. That means, in large measure, your own site’s search engine rank and what other brands your content is associated with (to the limited extent that can be controlled at all) and you must always recognize that aggregators and social networking sites are in business to exploit other people’s content. That’s fine. That’s their business. Your job is to make it symbiotic rather than parasitic. Posting a whole piece with a link to your home page is hardly optimizing the possible value.

- Jon

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