Sips from the Firehose
A blog that seeks to filter the internet into a refreshing, easily-gulped beverage
Posted: under Catching a Falling Knife, Denial of Reality, New Media Strategery, newspaper crisis, Newspapers, Web Tech, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.
Tags: bad customer service, call center Phillippines, failure of the last mile, FUD, LA Times, newspaper circulation, paywall failure, turning away customers
Web-native companies strive to eliminate “transactional friction.” Newspapers? Not so much.
I’ve been a subscriber to the LA Times for as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, and I’ve watched as the big beast evolved from a gray morass of 100-inch stories to the biggest (and most profitable) paper in the U.S. in the late 90s. Which has made the last decade and a half so very hard to watch. Still, I’ve stuck by Gray Lady West through some very tough times, and I have many friends who either work there now, or have in the recent past.
“Frictionless commerce” is what makes iTunes, Amazon, Google AdSense, Craigslist and so many other web titans so successful. It means that you make it as easy as possible for customers to actually buy something from you. (Image credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons)
As newspapers increasingly set their sights on a “digital first” strategy (despite some notorious recent flameouts), it occurs to me that they are neglecting one of the most crucial, and overlooked departments in the entire organization: circulation. I got unpleasant evidence of this when I attempted to renew my subscription to the Times.
First: a lesson in what “failure of the last mile” means: consider what goes into making a successful restaurant. You have to have a prime location. Decorate the exterior. Decorate the interior. Hire a great chef. Hire great kitchen assistant chefs. Come up with an innovative menu, with food that appeals to your core demographic. Procure the freshest ingredients. Ensure that the food prep space is clean and gets an “A” from the city inspectors. Advertise. Market. Give out coupons. Sweet-talk reviewers into coming and writing reviews. Have valet parking. And so much, much more that all leads up to the “last mile” – what the experience is like at the “touch point” where the customer actually engages with the product.
In a nutshell: all this effort in preparation to make a great restaurant counts for nothing if the waiter is snotty to the diners.
I’ve seen this in action again and again with the startups I’ve been involved with. Early on, we faced epic levels of “cart abandonment” when trying to coerce people into making a purchase, because (at the time) people were really, really reticent to type their credit card numbers, expiration dates and security codes into a browser window. Since then, we’ve obviously learned that data theft can pretty much happen anywhere. However, this hurdle was gradually overcome via the efforts of eBay, Amazon, iTunes and PayPal. All of which add layers of security, and money-back guarantees if your card gets hijacked and used to buy pallets of AK-47s in Cote d’Ivoire.
So here’s what trying to buy a subscription from the LA Times looks like. You dial a number. There’s a choppy, slow voicemail hell, with choices that really don’t seem to apply to what you want to do. There is no dedicated 800 number for renewing subscriptions – you just get dumped into the bin with people who want to report their paper getting stolen, or who want to turn it off while they go visit the grandkids. So that’s turnoff #1. Even as a dedicated subscriber, I wanted to hang up and just try the website to see if I could get a better experience. Still, I hung in there to see whether things would improve.
It took 3 steps and 2 minutes to get to a place where I could finally start to accomplish what I came for. Unfortunately, rather than talking with a human – I had to manually enter a credit card number over touch-tone. That’s Strike Two, folks. If you’re going to be giving up that kind of info, consumers kinda want to get rewarded with a human voice, particularly if they have any queries about what they’re buying and how much it costs. Which I did.
So I grimly stuck to it, even after entering my financial information, hoping to get someone on the phone to explain the rather complex choices on payment amounts and term of subscription that came on the paper bill I was mailed. Pressing the “0″ button just kicked me back into the main menu. Somewhere along the line, as the frustration increased, I heard that I had to “Press 9 to Speak to a Representative.” Only, that kicked me back to the main menu as well.
Finally, I started doing “button mashing” which usually triggers a kickout script in the automated phone-tree software. Call centers have learned that when they have tortured consumers to the point where we start just randomly pushing buttons and screaming with frustrated rage, maybe it’s time for some human intervention.
Sure enough, there was a silent blip as the call was transferred to a call center. Not in India – the costs for call centers have gone up there. No, this one was to the new lowest-cost call center hub – in the Phillippines. The operator was friendly enough, but the problem started when I asked about the payment terms. Under the subscription plan they now offer, the LA Times gives me unlimited web access (which is mostly how I engage with their news product these days no surprise), and charges me about $12 every two months. But looking at the rate card I was mailed, it seemed as though they were trying to incentivize me to subscribe for 6 months or an entire year by offering price breaks for these longer-term commitments.
So sure. Maybe if you let me shave a few bucks off the bill, I’ll pay you the whole amount upfront and let you make some money off the “float” of having my entire wad of subscription money that you can earn interest on. It’s one of the ways that smart companies entice consumers into locking themselves into making a yearlong commitment.
Unfortunately, the call center operator had no earthly idea of the pricing structure for the product she was trying to sell.
After having to verify (for the 3rd time on this now 15-minute call) my phone number, address, name, credit card number, etc., just asking how much I was going to pay flummoxed this person. I was quoted three different prices for the subscription I now have. I corrected the operator a couple of times, and finally after teaching her about the product she was trying to sell, got to the bottom line.
I can pay $12 every two months for the next year. Or I can pay $83 up front to “lock in” the subscription price.
Let’s do the math here.
If I pay every two months, that’s six payments a year, right? Simple math: 6 payments x $12 = $72 a year.
And you want me to pay $83 upfront in one lump sum? How does that make financial sense? I’d be paying MORE for a yearlong subscription rather than saving a few bucks.
The operator stammered and then went back to the script of “locking in the subscription price.” Well, is the price going to go up then? No. I don’t know. Maybe.
By how much? I don’t know. When? I don’t know. But it might. Is there anyone else I can talk to about this? Not right now.
OK, at this point, I hung up. Deconstructing this entire experience, from a webconomics point of view, this is an absolute disaster. The LA Times has made it difficult and frustrating for existing subscribers to attempt to continue to be subscribers. They’ve cut costs in their circ department by outsourcing all the call center jobs to places where ill-trained people stumble over what should be easy points. And finally, their pricing structure makes no sense once you drill down and work the numbers for yourself. And the numbers are completely different on the web, in the mailers, according to the people on the phone. The price just keeps changing!
This makes it impossible for the end-user (i.e. subscriber) to trust the prices that we’re being given. Yeah, it’s only a few bucks, but come on, now. You guys know – or SHOULD KNOW – how consumers react when they start to suspect that someone else is getting a better deal.
I’ve written at length over the years about the migration from an ad-supported revenue model to a subscription-based model (AKA “paywalls”). The jury’s still out on how well this is going to work out for the newspaper industry; yes, the New York Times, Financial Times and Wall Street Journal are often cited as success stories (although detractors point to weaknesses in their underlying dynamics). News organizations across the board are looking to ways that they can support themselves by charging subscriptions to access their material.
This only works when that transaction is quick, easy and painless.
Posted: under Denial of Reality, Politix, Ukraine.
Tags: Crimea Annexation, disinformation campaign, fighting back, Kremlin
This is why it is important to teach journalists how to use social media.
My friends and colleagues in Ukraine are fighting a protracted battle in the global court of public opinion, and they are using all the digital tools and techniques that I’ve been referencing/showing off/misusing during the last seven years that I’ve been teaching and training there. Read More
Posted: under Content Pirates, Denial of Reality, music, New Media and Politics, New Media Strategery, Webconomics, Wrongheaded solutions.
Russian ISPs openly brag about how much pirated content they have – it’s their market differentiator
Years ago, working in Russia, back when the whole “Content Pirates” project was just the mere glimmering of an instinct, I was talking with the local techies about how the web works in Russia. At the time, we were trying to implement an internet-centric business model for a publishing company, and were coming up against massive cultural differences in how to make money off of content.
This profile for vKontakte founder Pavel Durov is particularly ironic, since he just bailed out of the company, citing intense pressure from Kremlin-backed investors. The site has 143 million users worldwide, 88 million in Russia. They generate about $170 million a year in revenues, mostly from advertising. And the site is rife with pirated works.
Posted: under Digital Migration.
Experiments to see if there is an audience for high-value content
Pundits have long said “Let a thousand flowers bloom.” Well, this is one of them.
A group of journalists down at the Folha de Sao Paolo (and excuse me for not putting in the various tildes & accent marks, but I’m trying to do this via the new and allegedly improved Scribefire, and special characters are giving it the vapors) are launching IndieJournalism.com in the hopes that breaking away from the behemoth media companies will give them the cred and agility to survive the next few years.
“… the group’s members shared their ultimate goal: to create a platform for both readers interested in long-form journalism and journalists interested in producing it. More than that, the site is betting on developing a new business model and a new kind of digital journalism product.
“The crisis is knocking on our door, and we still haven’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel,” Netto says. “It’s up to us journalists to find our own way. I’m not saying newspapers are going to disappear — in fact, I think it’s not going to be that way. But the fact is that each media format has its strength, and it has become difficult for the large media outlets to invest in in-depth reporting because their structures were specifically designed to mainly deliver hard news.”
The business model here seems to be selling stories one by one, the way that Atavist or Byliner do. I’m not sure that there’s enough of an audience base, particularly in Brazil, for this to be the main support for long-form journalism. Additionally, this front-loads the cost of doing a story.
That is, you have to be able to support yourself for as long as it takes for you to do the research and the writing, and then hope that somehow, your piece finds enough of an audience (and that a significant sub-percentage of that audience is motivated by your excerpt to click on that good ol’ PayPal button) to recoup your costs. Maybe they will be able to sell subscriptions, but even that is going to require a massive shift in consumer behavior.
I’d be more excited about this if they were working on a new ad model, or even a new means of supporting themselves via e-commerce. Maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the appetite in the market for more engaging and fun tablet experiences – they do say that they want to do more “Snowfall” type immersive experiences.
Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Webconomics.
When clicks drive coverage, what happens to hard news stories? Are we doomed to “hamster wheel journalism”?
Sleeping kitteh, dying news industry.
Is the future only listicles and kitteh pictures?
Posted: under journalism, Online Video.
Tags: book party, Dave Mitchell, Point Reyes Light, sheriff's calls, the light on the coast, watch video, west marin
Readings from “The Light on the Coast”
My very first case study on best practices in journalism was about Dave Mitchell and the saga of the tiny Point Reyes Light. It was a multimedia piece – which, back in 2005, was a real Big Deal for the Online Journalism Review. I shot so many hours of video of Dave explaining his philosophy for running a newspaper, that Dave said that “I don’t think I recognize you without a video camera in your hand pointed in my direction.”
It’s a bit hard to find the files, and I’m not guaranteeing that the video files will play – but they are still up on some hidden portion of the OJR site.
David signing books in the offices of the Point Reyes Light.
A little over a week ago, I went back to visit Dave, to celebrate the publication of his book “The Light on the Coast,” a compilation of stories culled from decades of the Point Reyes Light. These are funny, touching, quirky – really, just about any other adjective you could ever apply to the complex little pocket of rural intellectualism that is West Marin.
Many of Dave’s former reporters, editors and photographers traveled long distances to make it to this party. You could tell there was a real kinship between all the people who had worked at the Light over the decades. Journalists reminisced with each other, and mingled with locals in the current offices of the Light, and next door at Vladimir’s restaurant, where we took over the back room.
The entire event was a testimony to the lasting effect that Dave has had on the lives of everyone in this community; how his dedication, hard work, gentle spirit and shaped the evolution of the little communities sprinkled up and down this beautiful coastline. Dave’s stubborn belief in the power and virtue of providing a a good, reliable forum for a community to have a conversation with itself, has meant that West Marin still has a “sense of place” that is sadly missing in so many other areas of the country, where big chain stores and soulless luxury hotels have taken over.
If you are a good journalist, and live your lift with integrity, decency, and caring about the community you work in … if you are really, really lucky … you will get a day like what Dave Mitchell got. You will get a day when your community and your former co-workers all turn out to tell you how much you meant to them. How much your life’s work has positively affected the place that you love so much.
And now, check out some of the readings from Dave Mitchell’s book. You can order it online – I highly recommend it.
First up: Dave reads a Don DeWolfe column about how the Point Reyes Light got its name.
(Don is the editor/publisher who preceded Dave, and who reminisced about the printing technology he used – an actual Linotype machine, with molten lead pouring into molds to print the pages.)
Next up: Dave reads a story about how bar owners used to have to dash back and forth, due to local laws preventing “Lady Bartenders” from serving anything other than beer or wine.
Posted: under journalism, Online (Multi)Media.
Tags: Nick Denton, playboy interview, privacy, security, social media, we live in public
Thought-provoking take in a Playboy interview of Gawker Media’s Nick Denton, one of the most-hated men on the internet. Also, one of the most successful.
His premise may be a little self-serving, in light of his whole net worth being based on prying into people’s lives and then shaming the shit out of them on his web properties. Then again, you might also legitimately say that his web properties are devoted to outing/shaming/calling B.S. on people because that’s the ethos he lives by.
PLAYBOY: You’re more willing than most people to organize your life according to principle and see how the experiment turns out.
Nick Denton, displaying some of the “let it all hang out” spirit.
Photo credit: Village Voice Blogs
DENTON: You could argue that privacy has never really existed. Usually people’s friends or others in the village had a pretty good idea what was going on. You could look at this as the resurrection of or a return to the essential nature of human existence: We were surrounded by obvious scandal throughout most of human existence, when everybody knew everything. Then there was a brief period when people moved to the cities and social connections were frayed, and there was a brief period of sufficient anonymity to allow for transgressive behavior no one ever found out about. That brief era is now coming to an end.
PLAYBOY: That doesn’t jibe with your other theory about how we’ll judge one another more kindly when we have no privacy. Human history is not a history of tolerance for deviation from the norm.
DENTON: You don’t think there was a kind of peasant realism? You hear these stories about a small town, seemingly conservative, and actually there’s a surprising amount of tolerance. “So-and-so’s a good guy. Who cares if he’s a pig fucker? His wife brought a really lovely pie over when Mama was sick.”
I grew up in Small Town America in the 1970s. Tucked back into a musty corner of the Upper Midwest, rural Wisconsin pretty much ran along the lines that Denton is describing. You can’t live with a family for generations without pretty much knowing all about their business.
You’d know without asking what their opinion was on pretty much any matter of import without having to ask, because their opinions were shaped by their grandparents, their parents, their siblings, and their life experiences.
As were yours.
The idea that we are free to become who we say we are, to invent ourselves – that is a curiously American concept, and one that functions only in fairly large urban environments. Even there, if you become suitably prominent, all the locals will pretty much be all up in your bidness, as the Southerners say.
So in that light: does social media represent a phase in human evolution wherein we all voluntarily put ourselves back into that small-town pressure cooker, where everybody knows all they need to know about us all at a glance? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? Can we even stop it at this juncture – and if we did, would we really want to?
Because there is this thing about small towns: after a certain amount of time, it becomes next to impossible to really pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
It’s like my career with the paparazzi taught me. Somebody talks.
Somebody ALWAYS talks.
In our modern media landscape, so littered with charlatans who take advantage of ignorance and misinformation to skin the rubes, maybe this kind of brutal enforced honesty is not the worst thing after all.
Posted: under journalism, Online (Multi)Media, Weblogs.
Tags: banner image, journalists as targets, paid protesters, Storify, titushki
Here’s an example of a banner image, created for Storify.
i chose these images based on … well, not much at all really. Just stuff that was foremost on my hard drive. Given more than 5 minutes, I could probably do better … but this is still more attractive than the blank space that is the default on Storify.
This example uses a variety of quickly-chosen and lightly edited images to fit the radically horizontal image space on Storify.
Damn. Things are getting heavy. Journalists are being attacked by paid provocateurs:
Journalists being beaten by thugs: Hromadske.TV’s Dmytro Gnap was stomped, his camera smashed, and the memory card stolen.
The pro-Russian government in Ukraine is using “titushki” — paid provocateurs hired to disrupt rallies and provoke police, according to the Kyiv Post.
These protesters are acting like morons, trying to make the protests look like they are violent and anarchic. They are helped along in this mission by some of the more casual protesters, who show up after having a few drinks, and seem to be mainly interested in the more festive aspects of the protest.
Posted: under journalism, Online (Multi)Media.
Tags: example, infographic, Kiev
This is just a test of an embed code…
Posted: under Digital Migration, journalism, Webconomics.
Tags: Adobe DPS, Atavist, iBook Author, indie business model, Inkling, journalist's guide to self-publishing tools, long-form journalism, Vook
How journalists can build their own news/publishing business
I was asked by my students if there were ways that they could publish their stories, videos and audios, without having to give up control to media companies that really aren’t all that interested in publishing new & interesting content from unknown authors. Well, not unless it is given to them free, with no obligations to pay any residuals or royalties, and they have exclusive rights to publish and market that content in all media known or unknown, throughout the universe, until the end of time.
There are a bunch of companies that have sprung up that publish multimedia books – you’ll have to do some research to see which one would offer you the best deal for your project.
1. Vook – they started off just doing ebooks with video embedded. These were interesting as experiments, but really didn’t push the form very far. Now, they’ve started publishing to all the major platforms (rather than trying to establish themselves as an alternative to Amazon, with their own proprietary standards – a losing game, if ever there was one).
The first Vooks were like the first CD-ROMs. They had text on them with cutscenes of dubious quality. Usually made from literature that was in the public domain (i.e. free for some geek to hammer on without having to pay fees to the pesky creative writer-types).