Two results for December already!

Having written about how I was going to work flat out in December, it’s nice to be able to share a couple of examples of it working already.

Firstly – I’m pleased to say that a recent pitch has been successful, and I’ve now got a couple of new clients to work with. Happily news of my availability appears to be resulting in a steady growth in demand for my services – which is brilliant news both for me and my bank manager. And a big part of that has been down to the fantastic response by a group of wonderful people I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with over the years – your assistance continues to be invaluable, and without naming you individually, I just wanted to say a big thank you for all your support and more!

While I’m thanking people – every blog comment, link to my sites, reweet, like on Facebook, @ message, DM, recommendation to a social bookmarking site etc – these are hugely appreciated and they all have an effect on me personally as well as helping to improve everything I’m doing – so thanks to everyone reading this, whether it’s on the site, via RSS, a social network….

Secondly – I’ve been thinking a lot about the potential concerns clients may have, and finding solutions for them. One potential concern might be that by hiring what is essentially me on my lonesome, they might encounter some risks if I get abducted by aliens, or that I might not be able to offer the range of services that a larger, full-service operation might be able to provide.

So, I’m pleased to say I’ve been speaking to a small number of the very best people I know in various areas. That means that I’m not only able to plug-in respected experts to cover in the event of an emergency, but I can also offer project-managed delivery of various additional services, whether it’s a design for a social media profile, or a complete website or mobile application build.  So you really can go from nothing to a complete website, social media presence, and have content supplied whilst only ever dealing with one person!

Not a bad start for the month!

Into digital? In Peterborough? Fancy a pint?

Ages ago I started to realise how many people worked in the digital industries in Peterborough, and how cool it might be to get together with some of them. In addition to bigger companies like Bauer Media, or the large number of digital people commuting to that London place everyday, I keep discovering more and more freelancers, entrepreneurs and damn interesting people who call this part of East Anglia home.

So, months after originally suggesting to someone that we should arrange some meetups, I’ve finally put the minimal amount of effort into actually doing something.

So, the first ever Digital People in Peterborough (DPiP) meeting in the pub is set for Thursday October 28th in the Brewery Tap in Peterborough from 7.30pm.

Whether you’re a web developer, designer, blogger, marketer, journalist, database specialist, seo specialist, or entrepreneur you’re welcome to come and have a couple of beers and chat to other people in digital, mobile and general tech geekery.

And you don’t have to be in the city limits to join in – surrounding towns and villages are welcome – the name is more to limit which venues we choose!

If people are interested, I’ll sort out more focused events in the future, but the first one is mainly to see how many people can actually make it to the pub on a school night, put faces to usernames, and see what happens.

I’ve even set up a quick community site for anyone interested, which will have more details on this and future events – it’s at http://dpip.spruz.com/

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Could the internet make us all nicer people?

Social networks, blogs and online identities have given rise to a lot of discussion and concerns on the best way to manage how you’re seen by other people (I’m trying to avoid using the words ‘personal brand’). And you’ll regularly see examples of people failing to realise that what they do online could get them fired, for example.

But is this carrying over to the offline world?

I commute every day on busy trains, and quite often encounter people who, for whatever reason, appear to be rude and inconsiderate, and sometimes selfish or offensive.

And 10 years ago, the only option was to either ignore it or confront them.

But with the rise of mobile phones and mobile computing, I end up hearing some of their conversations, and can end up accidentally catching a glimpse of their details if they’re sat next to me.

Now I’m not alone in this – so I’m wondering how long before we see more people being regularly embarrassed by photos, video and reports being uploaded? And how long before those uploads start being linked back to that individual – not only if they search, but also via friends, family, and employers?

Could this mean we start to see people act a little nicer in their everyday life because they’re conscious any transgression could end up on Facebook/Twitter/Youtube/Flickr, and how will this impact on the way we live our lives? Will it lead to a more pleasant environment, or will it end up like a bad reality show as the pressure of the crowdsourced surveillance becomes too much?

And should it become normal to presume that any public space will put you under the watch of the wider digital world as well as those around you and the existing Governmental cameras?

Digital business needs to be effective more than efficient

One response to a changing economy, whether global or digital, is to pursue efficiency. Cut costs, overheads, staff and anything else you can to make your company as efficient as possible.

I’m quite obviously not Umair Haque, but I’ve been in companies or known friends and associates who have all been part of this drive at various times. And I’ve got a theory that even if it worked in the past, it’s not going to work for companies in the global digital world.

Rather than becoming ruthlessly efficient, companies now need to be incredibly effective. For starters, efficiency only gives you an advantage if you’re either going to use the excess cash somewhere else, or your main rivals are going to go bust first. And anyone that does invest is going to grab a big advantage – in a global digital world, there’s going to be someone somewhere that has a bit of cash available.

Instead, the focus needs to be on effectiveness – for consumers as well as your business. It’s efficient to deal with everyone in 20 seconds and move on. It’s effective to take the time to ensure good service and a repeat customer for life.

For example – somewhere like the retailer Argos would be seen as efficient. Give consumers a catalogue, and distribute from big warehouses without investing in floor space to display everything or salespeople to demonstrate it.

Meanwhile I’d say Zappos has always been incredibly effective – there’s a huge level of interest in the UK even though they don’t sell here. Offering new starters money to quit, or spending time on Twitter and Facebook providing great customer service probably isn’t the most efficient thing to do. But it’s damn effective.

  • Combining digital and offline teams is definitely efficient. But only in some circumstances is it effective.
  • Cutting back on digital to focus on traditional revenue generators is efficient. But it’s not going to be effective over time in what are declining markets for everyone.
  • Using a social network to broadcast out your messages to everyone is efficient. But if people see it and don’t act on it to generate any revenue, it’s not effective.
  • Running everything from a centralised template is efficient – but when people see it as a lack of effort, or get bored, it’s not efficient.
  • Running the least amounts of resource is efficient. But it isn’t effective if people leave/get ill/rivals staff up to provide better service etc.
  • Providing free drinks to staff or other benefits isn’t efficient. But if can be very effective.

I’m not saying you should, or shouldn’t do any of the examples above. I totally believe that utilising the digital world, particularly innovation, social networking and customer/vendor relationships etc will give you a huge advantage over rivals which either don’t use them, or use them badly.

But whether you’re using digital or offline, internal changes or external, or trying to improve social media marketing, the essential thing for 2010 is to look for the most effective route to a return, not the most efficient.

Nice feedback on my ALPSP presentation…

Always good to get some nice feedback…

‘Dan Thornton provided a particularly insightful introduction to online
communities at a recent ALPSP seminar. The detailed analysis of the
available options for publishing in its varied forms provided an exciting
launch pad for the day itself and provided food for thought for the many
academic publishers attending the event.’

Nick Evans, Chief Operating Officer, Association of Learned and Professional
Society Publishers (www.alpsp.org)

The slides in question are ‘Building online communities to support successful media brands’.

Is any magazine company leading the way digitally?

Does any magazine company have a clear strategy for their digital business? Viewing it from the outside, there seems even less chance of picking who will be successful in the future.

Dennis Publishing seemed to be leading the way with online mags Monkey, iGizmo and iMotor, but has gone on to buy The First Post and  bit-tech.net. Now it’s buying Kontraband, which has been around for 10 years, and has seen unique users decline from 10 million to 3 million as online video has solidified around the likes of Youtube and the BBC iPlayer.

Integrating video from a Dennis-controlled site into the other properties might make sense – after all, the various outlets guarantee a certain number of views, and there won’t be a need to share revenue with Google/Youtube.

Future Publishing is adding an online album club costing £3 a month for Classic Rock to let people read online reviews and download advance copies of the accompanying albums.

Meanwhile Conde Nast is closing Men.Style.com to focus on a new GQ.com website, Businessweek is up for sale by McGraw-Hill, and my former home at Bauer Media has been pretty quiet on the digital front since relaunching Aloud.com and shuttering Ditto.net (which has now been removed entirely from the internet).

So what seems to be a wise move?

Dennis expanding their portfolio seems logical, especially as they can now experiment to see whether their own revenue from Kontraband makes more sense than the bigger marketing potential of Youtube, and whether they can entice their 3 million unique users with some text to accompany their videos.

Conde Nast aligning their online and offline titles is also a good move – too often companies have tried to build portal sites which incorporate a number of magazines – to hide costs and a lack of content and resource – and have ended up trying to establish new brands whilst confusing audiences.  And there are some really viable alternatives…

What don’t make sense?

I’m not entirely convinced by an online album club – granted the Classic Rock audience are more likely to be familiar with an album club than torrenting MP3s, but is there enough to justify £3 in the face of memberships for the increasingly familiar Spotify and Last.fm? Plus the music labels are making their own moves to become content providers, along with the artist themselves.

Having worked on Ditto, obviously I’m biased about it, but as it was pretty much quiet on the staff/development front, it seems strange to save some minimal server costs.

Oh, and I’m still not tempted by the print UK edition of Wired. Besides the obvious ‘geeks on the internet’ issue, I’d have rather seen a larger U.S. edition which included more UK coverage and content to boost awareness of UK companies, and to go further to justifying the cover price.

Any less confused?

7 reasons why companies need social media managers

There has been a lot of debate recently about the need for companies and organisations to employ social media managers and specialists in a dedicated role – the main criticism appears to be that the role isn’t needed because employees already use social media.

That might be the case in a limited number of small organisations, but someone will end up as an unofficial social media expert. And as someone who performed the role for a large organisation, I know there are a number of good reasons for having one person as the focal point – even if every employee is actively representing the group or company.

1. Justification: Are employees going to use social media effectively when they have senior managers questioning whether it’s worthwhile?

2. Guidelines: Most people have a reasonable amount of common sense, but if you haven’t got clear guidelines for employees to refer to if needed, you’ve got no excuse when they get things wrong. And all it can take is one personal attack for even the most responsible employee to make a mistake. That’s assuming they even keep up to date with the latest legalities of using social media in addition to their day job.

3. Analysis: Do you know what’s working? And is a social network referring the most traffic because of scale, or because other social networks are being ignored or done badly?

4. Co-ordination: Do you trust independant employees to know where exclusive news should be revealed first? Or could a status message or tweet destroy your carefully planned campaign? Is the right content going online at the right time, to coincide with the right development work?

5. Research and Development: Is Facebook more relevant to your company than Bebo? Will you reach the right people on Twitter? And should you be improving the forum on your site, or developing a widget for social networks? The answers are different for every organisation, and indeed, every campaign

6. Coordinating external resources: Do you know enough to decide between a good and bad external agency when it comes to social media? And in a large company, are you sure other departments aren’t hiring other agencies at the same time?

7. Crisis management: When something does go wrong, you need a plan in place, and someone who can manage an effective response.

Whether or not social media is a specialist role, or part of a wider remit, there needs to be someone with the authority and accountability to ensure that the work feeds into the wider business effectively, with an effect on product development, customer service, SEO, and business strategy.

Ads and Paywalls won’t save newspapers and magazines

Numerous newspapers and associations of publishers are discussing the topic of paywalls for specific content or entire sites in an attempt to ‘create value by beginning to charge for it’ in the words of the American Press Institute.

Sadly for that plan, it’s not 1998 or 1898, and I’m not sure how charging for something creates value. The value that should have been created was lost when sales teams bundled online advertising as a free or low cost ‘added value’ bonus to print advertising, at a time when online adverts were capable of getting a decent click-through rate – and then not investing in helping advertisers to utilise new opportunities to better connect with their prospective customers.

The end result is that display advertising is generally decreasing in direct effectiveness and value (although there can still be branding benefits), and attempts to offer more innovative solutions generally fail because advertisers find it too much of a leap from simply booking the biggest reach at the lowest price they can negotiate. Those advertisers that are more innovative, meanwhile, have already started learning that they can create their own content and interaction directly with customers.

And the paywall debate continues to ignore the problem.

Instead it’s simply gouging consumers instead of advertisers.

I already have a paywall around newspaper content – which is one reason why I don’t buy print content. Every day I walk past racks of printed content protected by a cover price, because I can quickly access a wealth of equivalent content online, tag it and save it, interact with it, and often interact with the authors of it – whether bloggers, or increasingly mainstream media employees.

Want an example of ways to monetise a piece of content effectively – this is probably my favourite example of making the most of it.

It means investing in the content creators in your company who can connect and leverage levels of interest – whether they’re a celebrity columnist or an editorial assistant. It’s easy to forget the passion people feel for their favourite title or writers when you’re stuck inside the bubble all day.

It means creating value worth paying for and then offering people the chance to invest in it. And people need to be able to judge and justify the value for themselves – not be forced. Think forcing people works? Bugmenot begs to differ.

And it means creating value for the businesses who are looking for new customers.
I’ve seen companies move advertising budgets because a commercial person switched companies after giving them great service and helping them learn better ways to connect and make sales. If that person was able to educate more businesses, the demand from competitors and other companies would follow.

The problem is that doing all this requires more work, which could reduce the profit margin – but I’d rather have a small profit that can grow, rather than heading for losses.

US print advertising sales

US print advertising sales

U.S print ad sales dropped 28.28% in the first quarter of 2009, losing more than $2.6 billion in ad revenue. There’s a lot more analysis on Alan Mutter’s Reflections of a Newsosaur, including breakdowns by category, but losing almost a third of the value suggests U.S. print ad sales are reaching terminal velocity, and the rest of the world isn’t going to be far behind.

Online sales also fell by a record 13.4%.

That doesn’t mean businesses don’t need to sell as many widgets and doohickies than ever.

It means they can’t see enough value in print or online newspaper advertising to use a recession-hit budget.

And those that survive the recession will have had a crash course in finding alternatives which are more cost-effective and justifiable. They won’t be rushing back.

The messy future for magazines

Two stories on the Mediaweek site today perfectly illustrate the complexity and confusion in the publishing world.

At 7.30am it was suggested that Bauer Media (Disclosure – I worked for Bauer Media/Emap until earlier this year) would be reviving The Face, with an all-digital proposition one of the possibilities. While I’m not alone in wondering why The Face would be picked, considering the recent closure of Arena, any re-launch is a rare occurrence. And particularly a digital one. Bauer Media, by the way, has officially denied any such plans.

Then at 4.10pm it was revealed that John Menzies Digital has folded. Which means the end of magazinesondemand.co.uk and white label versions for WHSmith and Asda. The service had allowed readers to download over 100 magazines in digital editions. Paid Content has some more context around the decision, which closes the business after just 14 months.

So we’ve gone from a possible digital relaunch of an iconic title to the loss of over 100 digital editions in the space of a day.

What this hopefully illustrates better than anything is that the future of publishing or broadcasting any content is full of uncertainty at the moment. And there is no ‘right answer’ to how best to transform for the future.

Actually that’s a lie.

The right answer is to try various ideas, keep optimising them, and count a reasonable time span in years rather than months.

More on business strategy in a networked world

Following on from my previous post on networked business strategy – which was itself a response to a post from Dave Cushman) – I thought it’s a topic worth expanding upon in light of the constant debate over online publishing revenue.

Flicking through Seth Godin’s ‘Tribes’ reminded me of the work of Ronald Coase, the Nobel laureate in Economics.

Back in 1937 he wrote the highly influential ‘The Nature of the Firm‘ which looks at the fact that “production could be carried on without any organization that is, firms at all”, he sets out the transaction costs ( which means the cost of obtaining something through the market is generally more than the actual price, plus search and information costs, bargaining costs, keeping trade secrets and policing and enforcement costs) which mean that ‘firms will arise when they can produce what they need internally and somehow avoid these costs’.

Or as Seth says, ‘we start formal organisations when it’s cheaper than leading a tribe instead’.

This is where the kernel of your business is located.

Or for the flipside:

As my former boss at Bauer Media, Carl Lyons, wrote today ‘people will pay for digital content – if it’s easy enough‘. (Now I’ve left, I can say his blog is well worth reading, without sucking up!)

The flipside is this:

‘Consumers (Customers/users/whatever terminology you like) will accept using a firm for their needs when it avoids the transactional costs of circumventing it.’

By that I mean that I’ll happily pay for a Pro account on Flickr simply because it was a lot easier and more convenient than finding an alternative when I needed it, despite the fact I know I could find a reasonable alternative. I’ll happily buy books from Amazon (My recommendations are all here) or sell via either Amazon or Ebay because although I could find alternative routes to the market, they involve a cost of time, effort, organisation etc I’m not happy about paying at the moment.

So the key seems to be:

1. Figure out what people want to achieve when they are in the area of the market you serve

2. Figure out what you might offer which allows them to achieve what they want in a way which reduces their transactional costs (Time, effort, cost, etc)

3. Figure out how you might offer that service in a way which allows your service to benefit from an internal reduction/removal of transaction costs over/above/with the network.

Does this seem to make sense?

Applying this to a content model:

If we accept that there will always be free content available from somewhere, the transactional cost for a consumer is finding it, judging reliability, going into more background, possibly acting upon it, sharing it, discussing it etc (Any I’ve missed?)

As a content producer, the cost of content creation in many circumstances has already been hugely disrupted by online publishing, digital audio, video etc. The cost of a live broadcast for a major television company over recording it on a mobile and broadcasting via Qik? And the difference in terms of the technology gap will only reduce in line with Moore’s Law.

But the content curation (rather than aggregation) aspect raises big transactional costs via the network – what relative percentage of trust do you place in Wikipedia? Digg? Reddit? Is it cheaper to organise a network, build a system, or use a specialist journalist? And they have contacts to relevant industries which could come under Trade Secrets in transactional costs etc.

And this is also why I despair when online publishers only talk about display advertising revenue (or now subscriptions), as if they’re the only possibilities for revenue. (If a blogger puts Google Ads on his site and then claims he can’t monetise he gets a lot of feedback very quickly!).

The transactional cost for me of finding a product to buy is either in terms of locating reviews and hoping a relevant display advert is close by. Googling it and finding what I’m looking for. Or posting a message on Twitter. And the subscription model has the flaw of inviting/inciting the network to either reproduce content outside, or finding ways to beat the pay wall.