Month: May 2009

EmanciPay: A Content Monetization Plan for Newspapers

Yesterday I reported hearing that the New York Times was thinking about putting its editorial behind a paywall again. Today James Warren gives substance to the rumors:

Here’s a story the newspaper industry’s upper echelon apparently kept from its anxious newsrooms: A discreet Thursday meeting in Chicago about their future.

“Models to Monetize Content” is the subject of a gathering at a hotel which is actually located in drab and sterile suburban Rosemont, Illinois; slabs of concrete, exhibition halls and mostly chain restaurants, whose prime reason for being is O’Hare International Airport. It’s perfect for quickie, in-and-out conclaves.

There’s no mention on its website but the Newspaper Association of America, the industry trade group, has assembled top executives of the New York Times, Gannett, E. W. Scripps, Advance Publications, McClatchy, Hearst Newspapers, MediaNews Group, the Associated Press, Philadelphia Media Holdings, Lee Enterprises and Freedom Communication Inc., among more than two dozen in all. A longtime industry chum, consultant Barbara Cohen, “will facilitate the meeting.”

I can see the headline already: Newspaper Bigs Form Trust To Set Content Prices.

Just kidding.

We do need to be serious here. The Situation is dire. Humpty Dumpty is reaching terminal velocity.

But don’t bother wishing the king’s horses and men luck with the fix. They can’t do it. No newspaper trade group, no collection of top newspaper executives, will come up with a creative solution to problems that have already earned Top Rank status in the innovators dilemma casebook. The best these execs can do is make Humpty’s fall a drop into cyberspace. They have to make Humpty Net-native. They can’t do that just with better-and-better websites, or with “monetization” schemes such as “micropayments” or other scarcity plays with a net-ish gloss.

As disruptive technologies go, it’s hard to beat the Interent. The Net didn’t just push Humpty off the wall. It blew up that wall and the whole world on which both sat. In that wall’s place is a wide-open space where abundance is not only the prevailing condition, but a severly reproductive one that’s especially suited to interesting “content.” As Kevin Kelly aptly puts it, The internet is a copy machine. One measure of content’s worth is how much it gets copied and quoted. How the hell do you monetize that?

In a New Yorker piece this week, Bill Keller, the Times‘ Executive Editor, said, “There’s a crying demand for what we do and, sadly, a diminishing supply of it. How we get the demand to pay for the supply is the existential question of newspapers in general and the Times in particular.” He’s right in all but one respect: that first person plural we. Unless he’s referring to a population of sufficient generality to include readers. Or, more importantly, hackers. Geeks bearing gifts.

As it happens, we (the geeks) have one. It’s called EmanciPay. It hands the pricing gun over to the customers (readers in this case) and then makes it easy for them to pay as much as they like, however they like, on their terms. Or at least to start with that full set of options. Whatever readers decide to pay, the sum of it won’t be $0, which is what readers are paying now. (Online, at least, in nearly all cases.)


Peter Kafka reports this from the D7 conference today (over a Wall Street Journal AllThingsDigital blog):

Time for some polls! No surprise: People like to read newspapers online. Also no surprise: But people don’t pay for it. Somewhat of a surprise: People say that they are willing to pay for some kind of news.

My boldface.

I conduct similar audience polls often, though my subject is usually public radio. “How many people here listen to public radio?” Nearly all hands go up. “How many of you pay for it?” About 10% stay up. “How many would pay for it if it were real easy?” More hands go up. “How many would pay if stations would stopped begging for money with fund drives?” Many more hands go up, enthusiastically.

So the market is there. The question is how to tap it.

At ProjectVRM we propose tapping it from the customers’ side: for newspapers, from the readers side. We also propose doing it one way for all readers and all newspapers, rather than X different ways for X different papers, each designed by each paper for their own readers. In that direction lies a field of silos, all with their own scarcities, their own frictions, their own lock-ins. We need one way to do this for the same reason we need one way to do email.

Remember back when AOL, Prodigy, Lotus Notes, MCIMail and the rest all had their own ways of making you correspond? That’s what we’ll get if we leave content monetization up to the papers alone. They’ll all have their own ways of locking you in, just like retailers all have their own “loyalty” programs, each with their own cards, their own barcodes for you, their own reward systems, their own special ways of inconveniencing you for their own exclusive benefit.

EmanciPay will be simple and straightforward. It will make it easy for you to pay what you want (which may be what the papers want you to pay … or more … or less), and to do it on your terms and not just theirs. This doesn’t mean that the papers can’t have terms of their own. Maybe they have a suggested price, or a minimum they’re willing to accept. Whatever they come up with, however, will be informed by interaction out in the open marketplace, rather than their own private ones, where they make all the rules.

Think of EmanciPay as a way to unburden sellers of the need to keep trying to control markets that are beyond their control anyway. Think of it as a way that “free market” can mean more than “your choice of captor.” Think of it as a way that “customer relationships” can be worthy of the label because both sides are carrying their ends of the relationship burden — rather than the sellers’ side carrying the whole thing (as CRM systems do today).

EmanciPay is an open source project. When it rolls out, it will be free and open to anybody.

Want to help? Let me know. (firstname at lastname dot com) I’m serious.

The only problem is that development work on EmanciPay is just getting started. (I haven’t wanted to publicize it, because I wanted it to be ready to go — or at least to vet — first.) But that’s also an opportunity.

What matters for the papers is that there’s at least one answer to their challenge out there. And it’s free for the making.

(Cross-posted here.)

A Declaration of Customer Independence

Peter Hirshberg tells me that we have a Declaration of Customer Independence already, and it’s called The Cluetrain Manifesto. Could be. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when the 10th anniversary edition comes out in June.

Peter thinks what we need now is a Constitution. Could be that’s what we’re working toward with ProjectVRM.

Meanwhile I just found an old file in which I noodled an adaptation of Jefferson’s original Declaration of Independence. So I thought I’d go ahead and post it here anyway, and see what ya’ll think. Here it is:

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all customers are born free, that they are endowed by the market with innate abilities to relate, to converse and and to transact — on their own terms, and in their own ways. When sellers have labored long and hard to restrict those freedoms, and to ignore and insult the capacities enjoyed naturally by customers — by speaking, for example, of “targeting,” “capturing,” “acquiring,” “retaining,” “managing,” “locking in” and “owning” customers as if they were slaves  — and when sellers work to inconvenience customers to the exclusive benefit of sellers themselves, for example through “loyalty programs” that require customers to carry around cards that thicken’ wallets and slow checkout in stores, it is the right of customers to obsolete the coercive systems to which both sellers and customers have become accustomed. We will do this by providing ourselves with new tools for leveraging our native human powers, for the good of ourselves and sellers alike.

We therefore resolve to construct relationships in which customers control their own data, hold rights to metadata about themselves, express genuine loyalty at their own grace, deal in common and standard ways with all sellers and other second parties, assert fair terms and means of engagement that work in mutually constructive ways for both themselves and the other parties they engage, for the good of all.

We make this Declaration as free and independent persons, each with full agency, ready to form agreements, make choices, assert commitments, transact business, and otherwise act in the free and open environment we call The Marketplace.

To this we pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our precious attention.

I dunno. It would be fun, perhaps, to run down a long list of grievances, as did the original Declaration. Also to clean up the sylistic clash between Jefferson’s (which I copied, pasted, and edited) and my own. But I’m too busy (as are many others around here) actually building the tools we need for putting customer independence and freedom to work.

So consider this grist for our mills. And an excuse to post something after too long an absence (during which we had two excellent workshops).

Making surveys unnecessary

It’s almost going on two years since I wrote Why Surveys Suck. They still do. Case in point: Sirius, the satellite radio company. Last December, Mike Elgen in Computerworld listed satellite radio among 10 Things That Won’t Survive the Recession. Said Mike,

I’m sorry, Howard Stern. It’s over. The newly merged Sirius XM Radio simply cannot sustain its losses. The company is already deeply in debt and would need to dramatically increase subscribers over the next six months in order to meet its debt obligations. Unfortunately, new car sales, which account for a huge percentage of satellite radio sales, are in the gutter and stand-alone subscriptions are way down.

I’ve been a Sirius subscriber for years. I’m currently paid through next November, but after that I’ll let it lapse if nothing convinces me to renew. The reasons are straightforward:

  1. I don’t like having no choice about what company I buy my gear from. Near as I can tell, Sirius has few or no third parties. They make their own receivers, antennas, and accessories. True, some car radios come with Sirius already installed, but I don’t want to have to buy a car to get the service.
  2. Their gear is full of proprietary suckage. The dock for one won’t work with another, to name one problem. My old Sportster radio has a display that’s as dim as a nebula. None of the new offerings fit in my old docks (I have three of those).
  3. I don’t like being forced to pay for something I don’t want in order to keep getting for “free” something I’m already paying for. (I visit that one here.)
  4. At the very least, they should have a player that works on the iPhone. If other developers can get 20,000 apps on the iPhone, why can’t Sirius? (They should follow on other smartphones, as well as hand-helds of all sorts.)
  5. Listening online should be easy. It’s not. The whole website is a triumph of design over utility.
  6. I want to spool data off of the radio, just to know what I listened to and when. Can’t do that.
  7. I would be willing to pay on an a la carte basis for lot of Sirius’ offerings. Especially their most expensive: Howard Stern.

I could go on, but it would all be beside the point: that none of this stuff shows up on the survey Sirius sent me this morning.

Here’s Sirius’ side of this little market “conversation”:

  1. “Please enter your primary Email Address (required)”. Would it be other than the one they used to send me the survey?
  2. “What types of music do you like? Please select up to 7 (roll over with mouse to see examples)” In fact I like more kinds of music than they list. Some would be in my top seven.
  3. What types of talk/entertainment/news do you listen to? Check all that apply”. I like Howard, sports and public radio. That’s it. (I like music too, but for that I listen to Internet radio because the stations are better, and there are many more of them.) They list Howard as a check box. Public radio doesn’t rate. Sports gets its own section…
  4. What types of sports do you follow? Check all that apply.” I checked three. This is the only place where I sensed the survey talking to me, personally.

That was about it. Meanwhile I want to scream at Mel Karmazin (who runs Sirius XM) — a guy I have respected for many years — HEY, MEL! QUIT BEING SO VERTICAL. GET HIP TO THE NET. QUIT TRYING TO OWN THE WHOLE MARKETPLACE. STOP TRYING TO BE PROPRIETARY AT ALL COSTS. HURRY! THEY’RE WRITING YOUR EPITAPH OUT HERE.

What will VRM do to make surveys stop sucking? Two words: eliminate guesswork.

Surveys are ways of improving guesswork. But they are no substitute either for conversation or for relationships that transcend the mass-marketed. And that transcendance is required for companies like Sirius to survive.

So. What can we do on the VRM side to make it easier for customers to relate to any vendor? What tools already exist, or can we make, that will standardize and unify the way we make our wishes known for any vendor or combinations of vendors?

How can we offer to pay on an a la carte basis that the vendor can take or leave — but at least know that the money is there to ignore?

These are some of the challenges we’ll be working on at the VRM West Coast workshop on Friday and Saturday of this week in Palo Alto. Follow that link for more details.

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