Fully Unfinished Business

PrivacyThe original title of this post was Nasty, Messy, Murky, and Looming.  Maybe I should have stuck with that!  As we turn the corner on 2013, a number of problematic, complex issues stand out for me as squirmy uncomfortable and lazily unresolved.  The four I note below all make headlines regularly, but I am not seeing nearly enough being done to address the core causes.  Perhaps there is not enough worry about the impact.  There should be.  Have a look at the list and see how closely this lines up with your own deep concerns:

Inequality:  I believe completely in our capitalist economy.  For the long haul.  For the benefit of everyone, not a detached few.  Late this year, President Obama made his case for the necessity of economic mobility as the backbone of democracy.  The key to addressing further bifurcation into 1% and a 99% has to be rooted in education — brilliant, inspired teachers opening the minds of young citizens, encouraged by their families to thrive, with sound reason to believe in the American dream.  Our middle class has to be strong for our economy to be strong, which means we need to have new enterprises with promising jobs, and trained minds ready to tackle those jobs and over time build careers.  In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Richard Riordan and Eli Broad made the point that “It Isn’t a Sin to be Rich,” yet at the same time they called for compassion among the wealthy to reinvest their resources in helping others.  I think we’d be wise not to further politicize the notion of polarization — if we want to build a lasting marketplace of goods and services, we all need to share in its creation as well as its consumption.

Privacy: This is an awful, hypocritical mess.  For most of this year our federal government declared that the NSA was not out of line parsing metadata.  Late in the year a consortium of Silicon Valley titans sent a letter to the President and Congress highlighting “the urgent need to reform government surveillance practices worldwide.”  Many of these are the same companies perfecting advertising products that digital marketers use to better target consumers, which of course relies on the collection of personal information.  Edward Snowden — whose tactics and methodology are indeed questionable and not without dire consequence — has been branded  a criminal, but how front and center was our dialogue around privacy before he ignited the firestorm?  Last week an individual on the other end of a customer service call with my telecom provider actually asked me verbally for my PIN “to protect my security” in verifying my account — was this something he had been allowed to see in my file or was he phishing?  As someone who has spent three decades in media, I can tell you the technology around profiling is advancing way faster than our ability to digest its implications, and I urge you to continue asking a lot of questions and not take simple solutions at face value.  These are civil rights we are dancing around here.  You bet I want a good deal on a new HDTV and I want to be safe at the airport, but I don’t want my personal information readily available to any number of individuals who may have access today and then will be pissed off when they are fired tomorrow.

Healthcare: Something tells me that we are going to be arguing about this one for the rest of our lives, and the next generation or two will still be trying to wrestle it from abstraction to effectiveness.  I believe we have taken a small step forward, but like many, I am conflicted in the immediate results I am observing.  There is a very long road from dreaming to doing, and while change begings with a powerful vision, it is equally necessary to pound through the details until efficacy is more than a triumphant slogan.  Insurance companies are quite good at finding their way around the delicacies of mandates, and any number of conversations you can have right now will serve up individuals who are winners and losers.  Until we are all winners — until we all have truly affordable, truly high quality healthcare — our work is not done.  Some of us will pay more than we did before, but no one should pay more for less service, and no one who needs care should slip through the cracks because of affordability, deductibles, out-of-pocket expenses, or co-pays.  There are miles to go before we sleep, and much reform ahead before we celebrate our accomplishment.

Government Gridlock: Despite the recent federal budget agreement, we are nowhere close to healing.  With midterm elections on the horizon, there is reason for concern.  The entire idea of “reaching across the aisle” seems to me an anachronism that has to be replaced with “do your jobs and govern responsibly.”  Should those who opposed the Affordable Care Act achieve a majority in Congress, will they continue to prove obstructionist and seek to repeal the new programs, or will they do what is wise and amend the law to be more effective and constructive?  Will each debt ceiling debate continue to threaten to destabilize our currency and trading floors with the outlandish notion that government default could somehow be warranted as a strategy?  Does anyone even want to discuss reasonable solutions around assault weapons in hands beyond the military, and is the refocused energy on mental health relief going to be funded or a talking point?  We share our democracy, we share the capital markets, we share a love of freedom, and we share a right to sensible resolution of real-time concerns through debate and consensus, not grandstanding and entrenchment.  We have the right to demand better, so let’s start asking for it on a regular basis, not just when the #^%$* hits the fan.

I do think as long as we keep highlighting the ambiguities in ideology brought to bear through tangible initiatives, we have reason to be optimistic.  Rigorous, heartfelt discussion is our path from here to there, and as long as we don’t sweep our messes under the rug with a label of “mission accomplished,” we should have continued reason to be optimistic.  What could be more revitalizing than committing to making our world a better place?  Yes, we have so much more work ahead of us.  Let’s get to it, shall we?   The new year begins, let’s do our best to be proud that we did something aligned stepping forward in 2014.

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Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

Investors and company executives are cheering of late for the resurgence of Facebook above its IPO price from about a year ago.  Mobile growth is the story at Facebook, and many are pleased with the associated revenue progress.  I wish everyone well tallying their riches.  I am still not sure how much significant value is being created, particularly as it applies to the company’s core advertising business.  And hey, I was a very early believer in this business model and all the promise it held as the definitive interactive media platform of a generation — kind of like the first time as I kid when I saw a movie on HBO, a complete movie on television with no commercials, I just  knew something good had happened and someone was going to get rich as a result.  Uh, that was for taking the ads away.

If you are active on Facebook, particularly mobile, you probably weren’t surprised by the earnings improvement.  You’ve seen the ads — oh, have you seen the ads — you can’t miss them, right there in your news feed, as intrusive as the interface mandates.  Recently an ad for a salacious French maid’s costume was offered to me with the following copy — pretty much full screen — and I was kindly given the opportunity to Like the page:

“This five-piece At Your Service set from Dreamgirl comes with a sexy babydoll with apron, maid’s hat, ruffle back thong, and feather duster.”

Curiously this clever bit of sponsored media appeared above a friend’s timely post on racism and below a post from a financial journal I follow on how to avoid manipulated options.  I suppose under certain circumstances this might be considered targeting, but I can honestly assert I was not in the market for such an outfit, either for myself or as a gift, nor had any click stream I created left a trail for the behavioral targeters.  Perhaps they could have offered me a nice bottle of Bordeaux, which would have made sense since I am a wine enthusiast and often post articles about my favorite varietals on Facebook, and I’m guessing their database knows I have a Pinterest board on the subject of value excellence (“Good Wine, Good Price“), but no such luck.  I am a middle-aged male, heterosexual, and married, so maybe that’s the profile they sold to the advertiser.  I would guess that the CPM (in ad-speak, that’s “cost per thousand” impressions, where the M is the Latin numeral) was very, very low, offset by volume that was very, very high.  Again in ad-speak, we sometimes call that “dollar-a-holler.”  In these cases, maybe a nickel.

Just so it’s clear that I am not picking on Facebook, my friends at AOL Mail where I have maintained the same email account for about a quarter century, now offer a curious feature: After I send an email, the confirmation screen is filled with singles looking for a date.  It’s nice to see that the advertiser is not presumptuous; sometimes they offer me women and sometimes men.  The fact that the advertising delivery system is ambivalent toward my preference is unusually progressive.  It also is quite genially unconcerned that my wife continues to see my email send pages resolve to these artifacts on our shared monitor.

Note to New Media Companies, with love, from Old Media Companies: Some things have not changed, including that there are still four key constituents in the advertising equation:

1) The manufacturer or seller of products and services.

2) The ad network or agency.

3) The media delivery vehicle or platform.

4) The viewer of the ad.

For full value to be created, all four have to be satisfied by the results of the supply chain.  For real ongoing business, it is most essential that #1 and #4 are happy, so that #2 and #3 can speak to a job well done.

Let’s look at all four in the French maid and available-singles ad examples and see who is happy working backward:

4) Me: Not happy, except that it gave me an idea for this story.

3) Facebook and AOL; Happy (except if they read this post); they got paid by #1.

2) Agency or network: Happy; they found plentiful inventory in the form of my news feed and mail page, and they also got paid by #1.

1) Advertisers: Should not be too happy; they paid the bill, and I am making fun of them for it.

So the owner of the bill and the receiver of the message are not happy (#1 and #4), but the middle-folks are just fine with it (#2 and #3).  Oh, they’ll tell you they are working on it, improving their targeting technology and all that, but they aren’t losing sleep, because they got paid.  They should be losing sleep, lots of it.

There is also an implicit fifth constituent, the expanded community surrounding the nucleus of the supply chain, particularly of significance in our interconnected world of social media.  When an offer is useful and enticing, like many of the tested e-coupons on RetailMeNot, pleased customers will gleefully pass them along.  That’s free evangelism from existing fans to unlimited prospects, making ad dollars work even harder through leverage.  When ads are garbage, they are terminal, mercifully so.  In fact, bad-vertising can hurt a brand through negative association — poor word of mouth is difficult if not impossible to combat.  Wonder if your would-be customers are laughing at you?  You may not know until the community turns on you, then it’s costly to recover, or perhaps too late.

When advertising works — the right, relevant message in front of the right, engaged human being — it can be an excellent experience.  Absent concerns about privacy, you might embrace the very respect involved in not having to see ads you don’t care about.  But all this posturing about collecting intelligence on customers to deliver better leads — how come I’m still getting ads for reverse mortgages on My Yahoo homepage, which has every financial feed coming through loud and clear to tell them I’m a reasonably well heeled owner?  That page is still sold as remnant inventory (in ad-speak, leftovers) at bargain-basement prices, maybe less than the French maid costume or the singles ads.  Some money being left on the table there?  They’ll probably tell you no.  They would be wrong.

As the national dialogue on privacy invasion is reaching fever pitch, even POTUS has been dragged into the ruckus with a defensive “Don’t worry, we respect you while we protect you” mantra.  That dialogue is likely to resolve itself in the dialectic, because it is a civil rights discussion grounded in our cherished democracy.  I actually think that problem is going to get solved before the ad targeting starts to get it right, because there is too much money at stake for annoying and disrupting us that no one really wants to give back.  Like the story goes, always follow the money — the real today-money, not the theoretical long-term-value, someday-we’ll-get-this-right money.  Why would you want to do that?

Maybe I’ll just watch HBO.  The price has skyrocketed, but the shows are pretty good, and it is still ad free.  I am always willing to pay for that.

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Facebook After The IPO

I bought a small amount of Facebook in the IPO.  It was a flyer.  It was unscientific.  It was counter-scientific.  It wasn’t meant to be a life-changer either way.  It was kind of like a lottery ticket, with a long time until the ticket would be drawn, and at the worst some remainder value on my ticket if I lost.

I really like Facebook.  I’m addicted.  I confess to being one of the first “grown-ups” on the site with an account going back to 2005 using a .edu email, investigating for business purposes (yeah, right).  I love to write and I love to read so Facebook is made for someone like me.  I tremendously enjoy sharing ideas, give and take, so that works for me, text more than pictures, it’s all good.  I marvel at the ability to stay in touch with people from all phases of my life, kind of like sending Christmas cards all year round, and without obligation to respond when I don’t have the time.  It’s a great platform.  I have invested a significant amount of time in carefully building my friends list (100% known to me, so don’t friend me if we aren’t at least acquaintances) and my much too long list of Likes.  I tried Google+ and it’s fine, I have an account and I post my blog entries there, but I’m not going to rebuild my Facebook network somewhere else, too much work, the switching costs are real.  Facebook is doing the job for me.  Not sure if I am doing the job for them, but we’ll get to that.

A lot of people asked me what I think about the > $100B valuation.  Here is what I wrote as a comment on Facebook in response:

The question is whether you believe FB can grow into its valuation. The answer is, who knows, but the multiples are very tough on any kind of fundamentals. No one has ever had a proprietary audience of almost 1B, that’s unheard of. The questions are: 1) can they hold them, or at least the valuable ones, without alienating people on privacy or losing them to the next big thing; 2) can they attack TV ad budgets with innovative, targeted campaigns that are both effective and not off-putting; 3) can they diversify beyond display ad revenue into transactions, research, and virtual currency; and 4) how will they deploy their cash for accretive acquisitions, particularly in mobile. That’s a lot to do, but at least they know what not to do having studied those who came before and puttered out. History (AOL, Netscape, the portal wars, et. al.) would suggest no, but remember when the smart money bailed on Apple and called it for dead. Suppose FB triples profit this year and next — well, at this price they’d be trading at less than 10x income, which is still aggressive, but not out of reality for a high growth company (today’s price is “augmented reality”). You’re paying a huge risk premium, so you have to believe they can deliver against that — which is a question no one can answer, hence the risk premium. If you think FB will perform like MSFT, AAPL, GOOG, INTC, WMAT and be one of the greatest companies of the early 21st century it’s ground floor, if you think it’s a fad, it will be an expensive adventure. Gee, I think I just wrote a blog entry!

Let me add a few more comments about Facebook.  I think they are doing a good job pushing the envelope on new horizons, but like all great software companies, they hit and miss.  Facebook aims to build community, which is noble, but it really wins on narcissism, that’s their secret sauce, and it’s primal.  People like to talk about themselves.  And post pictures of themselves.  We really, really do.  Okay, maybe not everyone, some just want to stay in touch with their kids halfway across the country, or meet new people with common interests, or reconnect with a pal from elementary school, or keep tabs at their own risk on an old flame, or support a political cause.  There’s a haute blend of secret sauces, but most of the recipe involves a chance to make yourself seen or heard where this previously required a lot more effort and guts.

The Like Button was brilliant, in one smooth swipe adopting the Fax Machine Factor — with each individual instance being more valuable as the aggregate network expanded exponentially.

News Feed was seminal, the turning point which bought them a shot at Built to Last.  Initially resisted, it was bold and visionary, a finishing move against direct competitors.  The true genius of News Feed remains the simple control that lets you quietly code out anyone’s posts that don’t interest you without hurting their feelings or having to drop them as a friend.

Facebook Connect was audacious.  Imagine if any of the portals had tried this earlier, expanding global registration beyond their own confines to widen the walled garden, and having that embraced by would be competitors!  All the web surfer experiences is they don’t have to create another user name and password, but if they want to do that, they still have the option (this is of course a two-edged sword, noted below under privacy).

Creating a robust platform for third-party app integration with an accessible and broadly supported set of APIs was sheer genius.  Facebook knew they weren’t going to be great at everything, why not let others create games and tools that feel like Facebook without being Facebook?

How do we know these features were game-changers?  Look how widely adopted and copied they have been.  That’s the rest of the digital social world confirming you got something right, all to your benefit.  On the other hand, true innovation at lightning pace means any developer will get some things wrong, and not be afraid of that.  Facebook has proven it’s in the club, with some less than customer friendly features that need attention.

Timeline makes little sense as a consumer experience, perhaps it’s meant to be something else, a comprehensive framework to compile marketing data, I don’t know.  What I do know is that it took away something useful, our ability to quickly scan someone’s self organized profile for affinity, and redeployed it as a pastiche of artifacts.  It reminds me of what a resume is not — it’s not a memoir.  All they had to do to make Timeline great was make it an option for those who wanted it and let the rest of us just keep our profiles.

The Facebook mobile app is not very good.  It was late to market, and the user interface appears cobbled together.  Data I/O is slow and cumbersome.  It does not update predictably or stay current with alerts.  It is still not optimized for tablet displays.

Privacy Settings remain pretty rough, albeit less so than one or two years ago.  There was even a joke with Muppet stand-up comic Fozzie Bear going around Facebook on IPO day declaring the reason the company went public is, “They couldn’t figure out the privacy settings, either.”  Granted the surprises of late have been fewer, but the third-party stuff via FB Connect can be woefully weird to control — do you really want your friends to see every song you’re listening to on Spotify or every article you’re reading on HuffPo?

This past week I spent a full day with some twentysomethings reviewing technologies that were and weren’t appealing to them for e-commerce.  The discussion of Facebook was unlike anything I had ever heard, immensely contradictory.  They could not imagine a world at any time in the future without Facebook, it was as much a part of their lives as food, which they currently couldn’t afford.  Yet they admitted they were using Facebook less each year that went by since high school, and they expressed vast mistrust for the Facebook brand, terrified of what would happen to all the personal information they had unveiled and were becoming predisposed to hold back.  How’s that for twisted logic?  Can’t live without it, using it less, and minimal trust for the brand — some action items there for the development and marketing teams.

It’s barely the second inning for Facebook so there’s a lot of time to recover.  Here’s my advice: win the trust war and you will go from being Good to Great.  Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite helped CBS get there — even when there was little question that what William S. Paley wanted was what the Man Men were selling.  The namesake founder of my beloved corporate alma mater went on TV every Sunday night and became Uncle Walt, which resulted in many millions of folks subsequently vacationing at highly developed former swampland in Central Florida.  Facebook can win a big piece of the ad game if trust is front and center, central and foremost, and transparency is not buzzword.

A motto like “making the world more open and connected” is cool, but be careful that these don’t just become words in your press kit, literally about 1/7 of the world is watching.  Do it, don’t say it, win us over and hold us forever so your name goes on the list with the unforgettable.  Miss that and the stock price will be the least of your concerns.  Now you’re playing for legacy, where Like has to become Love.

I am purposely publishing this after a single day’s trading and before the market opens again.  With the FB stock price a hair above the IPO price for a deal everyone desperately wanted, it’s now everyone’s deal on a level playing field.  The only thing that will hold or improve that stock price over time is consistent greatness.  It’s commencement.  It begins.