Tag Archives: Business model

Facebook, Sears, and Kodak

When I was a lad several decades ago, many Americans did their shopping at Sears and took their pictures with Kodak film (I can explain “film” to you youngsters if need be). More recently, my kids might have shopped at American Apparel or Claire’s. What all of those formerly huge companies have in common is that they are all nearly dead. The reasons for that range from bad management to dumb financial deals to changing tastes to the digital revolution. In every case, however, I think there is a common thread of a failure to understand their customers in the context of the customers’ changing world.

We have something similar going on in my mind with Facebook. It’s huge and seems invulnerable but one might have said the same thing about Kodak or Sears 50 years ago. First, think about how the world is changing for their customers. Privacy has moved from something that digital folk like me were babbling about many years ago to something that is on everyone’s mind. In an April survey of 1,051 US adult internet users by Janrain, most respondents said they are not in favor of websites or apps using what they learn about them online to target ads. In fact, 70% of them want some very restrictive laws, similar to the E.U.’s GDPR, passed here. I don’t think there is any doubt that a tech backlash is going on and the more consumers and lawmakers find out about the sloppy (at best), invasive, and maybe criminal (at worst) data use by large tech companies, the greater that backlash is going to become.

Facebook’s entire business is built around invading your privacy. Two points from eMarketer:

More people are becoming suspicious of sharing data through third parties. In a March 2018 survey from Raymond James, more than eight in 10 US internet users said they were at least somewhat concerned about how their personal data is being used on Facebook. Similarly, in a Gallup survey of 785 Facebook users in April 2018, 43% said they were very concerned about invasion of privacy. That’s an increase of 30% in 2011.

What has resulted is that people, especially young people, are sharing less content. The entire reason Facebook is valuable for most people is that content that their friends, classmates, and family post. It’s the network effect – that value of the network relates to the number of people on that network.

I’m not shorting Facebook stock today but I’m not so sure that unless they get their privacy house in order that won’t be a bad play down the road. Less content means fewer active users which leads to less revenue. Will they all move to Instagram (a Facebook company)? Maybe, but probably not since that’s not what’s occurring now. As each day brings a new headline involving a bad actor and data, another nail gets pounded into the coffins of companies that don’t respect their customers’ privacy and wishes. Privacy and data use are no longer just food for geek chats. They’re on the front page. How long can Facebook or any company last if they don’t figure this out? Longer than Sears or Kodak?

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Filed under Consulting, digital media, Reality checks

We Are At An Advertising Turning Point

Unless you never use the internet, you’re aware that something is happening in the next few days because every service and site you use is updating their terms of use. You may be wondering why you’re getting lots of emails to that effect or why sites are putting large banners to that effect on their homepage. It’s due to the start date of the GDPR. In case any of you don’t run digital businesses (which I suspect is most of you), the GDPR is a regulation that pertains to privacy and data protection for all citizens of the E.U. Because the internet is a global thing, many digital publishers and stores are extending the protections of the GDPR to their non-European consumers as well. I, for one, am very glad even though there is a good chance that it will force the ad tech business to change dramatically. It’s a big effing deal and we are at a turning point.

Let me preface this by saying that I got fed up with the ridiculous amount of tracking going on quite a while ago. Like many people, I think that tracking someone without their permission or a court order is wrong. I think it slows down the user experience and unbalances the trade of content for attention toward the publisher since tracking me beyond your content is infringing on some other entity’s territory. Besides that, it’s creepy. I don’t want to see a few weeks’ worth of ads for an item I looked up for a friend in which I have zero interest. I don’t care about ad personalization, frankly, although I know for many people it’s a much better user experience. I think only showing me ads for products and services that you think I might care about excludes product discovery and I have proof in that I’ve made many purchases based on content-based marketing but very few based on served ads.

I installed a browser extension called Cookie Auto Delete which wipes out cookies as you surf. That’s on top of Ghostery which blocks ads and other trackers. Because of that, I don’t see ads other than those targeted to things such as geography that don’t require cookies (actually, I don’t see a lot of ads period). Am I hurting my friends in digital publishing? I don’t think so since most of the cookies placed these days are not by publishers but by ad tech services that I think undermine the value of great content. They value eyeballs, not what lures the eyeballs.  Ads served directly by publishers and embedded in their content value the content. They’re not based on your ability to track me.

Am I overly sensitive? Not when I’m joined by billions of people who have installed ad blockers. If ad tech was doing a great job, that wouldn’t be happening. Would GDPR be necessary if ad tech companies respected consumers’ privacy? Of course not and I think it’s going to cripple any business that doesn’t respect its customers enough to work in the customer’s best interest. Tracking them like Big Brother doesn’t do that, does it?

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Filed under digital media, What's Going On

Ghost In The Machine

Foodie Friday and my question for you today is have you ever been to a ghost restaurant? I’d say probably not, because the entire point of a ghost restaurant is that there is no restaurant there. Huh?

This image was selected as a picture of the we...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is one explanation I read:

A ghost restaurant is a “restaurant” that people can’t actually physically visit. For us, it involves using our existing space, kitchen equipment, and staffing to execute a menu that’s not served in our normal restaurant. Customers place their orders and we deliver.

The key is the different menu. A normal takeout order from someplace would be the same food. Many of the “takeout” places I’ve patronized have a table or three even if the business is focused on preparing orders to go or for delivery. You probably would think of many Chinese or pizza places. Ghosts, however, don’t have to worry about decor or servers per se. Front of house is non-existent. Imagine a sit-down steakhouse that was also delivering pizza out of the same kitchen but not serving it in the restaurant other than as the odd special. Two restaurants, one of which is virtual operating our of one kitchen.

The beauty of this model is that it can overcome bad weather (which might keep people at home and not dining out) as well as maximizing the use of the kitchen, perhaps with the addition of a few more kitchen staff. You can close one restaurant at 9 while continuing to deliver from the other until midnight. Like on-demand grocery delivery, on-demand food service is a growing business and a ghost restaurant opened in an existing place can tap into that demand by formulating a menu that is delivery-friendly even if it doesn’t align with the base restaurant at all. I would never order eggs or a steak or pretty much anything fried because they generally don’t travel well (soggy fried food is gross).

Why do I bring this up and what does it have to do with your business? It’s a great example of out of the box thinking. How can you expand what you’re doing without major capital expenditures? What’s the worst, least efficient part of your business? In this case, while there is a nice margin in serving customers drinks, they tie up tables and require servers. What happens if you keep the customers but eliminate the need to have them linger or be served? A ghost restaurant eliminates the inefficiencies while retaining the base business and it doesn’t compete with it because it’s a different menu. What about your business can be “ghosted”?

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Filed under food, Thinking Aloud

Soap To Soda To Gum

It’s Foodie Friday and today we’re going to raise a glass to chewing gum. Well, not to the gum itself, but to the founder of the Wrigley Chewing Gum Company, Mr. William Wrigley. While he made his fortune selling gum, he started out to do something quite different and therein lies the thought I have for us today.

English: Doublemint gum Photo by User:Hephaest...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Wrigley began selling soap. Like many of us in business, he tried to distinguish his brand by giving his customers a little something extra which would help distinguish him and his product from the competition. In his case, he would give away baking powder. After a time, he figured out that his customers liked the baking powder more than the soap and so he started to sell baking powder. Along with the baking powder, he gave away two packages of gum. You can guess what happened next.

There are two things in his story that I think are relevant to any of us in business. First, giving the customers what my Creole friends call a “lagniappe” – a little something extra – always pays dividends and sometimes they’re huge. I don’t know if Mr. Wrigley’s soap (or baking powder) were premium-priced to cover the cost of the extras he gave away, but the outcome certainly negated any cost. Always ask yourself how you can do more for the customer.

At some point, Wrigley realized that he had to pivot his business because his sideline was more successful and popular than his main business. He’s not alone in this. WeWork grew out of a baby clothes business renting unused space in their building. Instagram was something that grew out of the users of a whiskey lover’s app posting photos. The founders recognized that the photo sharing was more important to the users than the whiskey information. When Justin.Tv began letting users stream videos, (having started as just one guy streaming his own life) the “gaming” channel blew up and Twitch was born.

We need to keep an open mind when we see opportunities. Yes, we can’t always be chasing the new shiny new thing, but when one aspect of our business is screaming to be given a lot more attention, we need not be afraid of making a pivot. Mr. Wrigley pivoted (twice) a century ago, and while technology has changed, the basic business acumen he displayed hasn’t. Ruminate about that!

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The Ludovico Technique

One of the most uncomfortable scenes in all of film is the scene in “A Clockwork Orange” in which Alex is made to watch scenes of horrible violence for an extended period of time. His eyes are held open and his head is immobilized. This is part of the fictional aversion therapy known as The Ludovico Technique. It’s forced attention to something.

That’s what a good chunk of marketing has become today. What got me thinking about this was the announcement by Snapchat that they will test a new ad format called “Commercials”, which will be unskippable six-second ads that run in select Snapchat Shows. You want to see the show? Then you WILL watch the ad. It’s not all that rare anymore for various media to force your attention. Been in a taxi lately? Maybe you were subjected to TaxiTV. Nonstop noise and motion that, unfortunately, we humans are wired not to avoid. Maybe your attention was grabbed at the gas pump. $15 of gas and a headache from the TV screen blaring the latest headlines and ads. Or perhaps you didn’t have your headphones on as you waited for your flight to leave and the sound of the overhead TV (and the ads) interfered with your reading. YouTube has a “skip” button after 5 seconds for longer ads but also sells unskippable 6-second ads.

All of these things as forced attention. Disabling the fast-forward button during VOD playback is another. I am well acquainted with the attention-value exchange. We give you free content, you give us your attention which we then sell to sponsors. I made a career in TV and media based on it so I’m a fan. I’m not, however, a fan of taking that attention without consent. You can always change the channel or flip the page if you want to skip the ad. The examples above don’t give you that option.

So where is the issue? Not with the media. Our job is to provide the sponsor with the opportunity to sell something. If the creative is awful, people leave. The focus needs to be on making ads that people want to watch. There is an ad running now with bulldogs substituting for bulls during the Pamplona run. I watch it every single time. There are many other great examples of ads you wouldn’t skip even if you could. Forcing consumers to watch is stealing their attention. It’s subjecting them to a bombardment of crap with any shelter available. Does that sound like a great way to do business?

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Filed under digital media, Huh?

Tribute Bands And Your Business

Over the weekend I saw the Dark Star Orchestra. For those of you unfamiliar with the band, they’re one of the leading tribute bands out there and they play the music of The Grateful Dead. I’ve seen them several times and oddly enough each time I do it reminds me of a few business thoughts.

I played in several bands as I was growing up. We always felt we were a cover band. We were playing someone else’s songs but doing so in our own way. Most tribute bands go beyond that and attempt to recreate the sounds and often the appearance of the original artists. If you’re any sort of fan of The Dead you know that their performances were very hit or miss. The DSO is way more consistent and they sound just like The Dead on a great night each and every time. So what does this have to do with business?

I think imitation is more than just the sincerest form of flattery. I think in many ways it’s better than innovation despite the fact that we often hear of the “first mover advantage.” Innovation is great, but by not being first the flaws in the original product or service become way more clear. The fact that you’re building later lets you correct for those flaws and get beyond the original. That usually is something you can do much more cost-effectively too.

What do I mean? The iPod was not the first music player, just the most successful. Anyone who looks at Instagram knows both that they weren’t the first of their kind and that most of their “new” features these days come right from Snapchat. You could video chat someone long before Skype came around and Amazon was not the first retailer on the web. Each of those companies, and other such as Spotify and eBay, were not first movers. They were imitators – tribute bands if you will, who took the best of the pioneers and made it better.

Is it easier to get funding for a copycat? Probably – the business model has been proven and, therefore, investor risk is reduced. Japan, and now China, built economies on imitating successful products and making them better and/or cheaper. A tribute band has a pre-built fan base. If you’re a Beatles fan or an Oasis fan or a fan of The Band, you have no chance to see the original but you can spend a night with their music. If you’re a business, you don’t have to be the original if you can make the original better and capitalize on their fan base. The DSO do it brilliantly. Can you?

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Filed under Consulting, Thinking Aloud, Music

Zuckerberg Unbound

Philip Roth wrote a series of books in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The middle one is called Zuckerman Unbound and deals with the relationship between an author (Roth’s alter-ego Zuckerman) and his creations. It’s not a great relationship although it is a pretty good book. Roth’s character seems to express regret for the books his younger self brought into the world, and at one point he finds out that a book he wrote has caused his mother a great deal of pain and suffering.

English: Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Fac...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I thought about Zuckerman as I watched (and am watching as I write this) another Zuck – Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook – testify before Congress about how his creation, designed to bring people together, has morphed into something that has blown many people and institutions apart. I doubt any of you reading today’s screed touch billions of people every day the way Facebook does, but I think there are some lessons to be learned here.

One thing that rings hollow for me is the apology offered to the committees. I and many others have been writing about Facebook’s lack of privacy and transparency for years. This isn’t something new nor is it something about which Facebook was unaware. One might suppose that they, like so many others in business, were of the mindset that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission. Bad call, and they’ll be doing a lot of begging as the inevitable new regulations on the use of data are put into place. That’s lesson one.

My favorite moment of yesterday’s hearing came when one senator informed Mr. Zuckerberg that Facebook’s “user agreement sucks.” It does, but it’s far from alone. I’d also argue that any “simple” agreement that links out to a dozen other pages for further explanations of things not explained in the initial policy is far from simple. I doubt I could pass a quiz on what Facebook can and can’t do with my information and I’ve been on the platform since 2006. Anyone that generates data that you’ll use to benefit your business should understand what they’re giving you and why. Lesson two.

I do know that Facebook gives the user a lot of control over who sees what although it really doesn’t do so by default. I’m less clear as to what they gather although I’ve downloaded my data and gone through it. Some of what is in there comes from activities off of Facebook, probably either through my use of a Facebook ID to log in or via the Facebook Beacon. How many users understand that they might be tracked EVERYWHERE by Facebook and not just when they’re using the service? Facebook would argue that you’re using the service when you use your Facebook ID to log in elsewhere but I think that’s specious. Yet another lack of transparency, and lesson three.

I wonder where Facebook goes from here. As far back as 2010, it’s been under attack for its privacy failures. It’s a business founded by a man who called users “dumb f^&ks” for giving him their information. Maybe like Zuckerman, he’ll come to realize that he needs to be unbound, cut loose from everything that made him what he was and fix the problems in a way that fulfills the promise of connecting the world that he espouses. At the moment, it appears that others may step in and take steps that alter his world forever.

What’s your take?

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