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. […] [...more]
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)
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.
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.
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 […] [...more]
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.
Every time I read through one of these EULAs, it just keeps getting worse and worse. I upgraded the iPad to iOS6, because I wanted to test it out, and I’m not ready yet to turn the Maps feature on my iPhone into a hot, steaming mess. But part of the whole upgrading regimen is, […] [...more]
Every time I read through one of these EULAs, it just keeps getting worse and worse.
I upgraded the iPad to iOS6, because I wanted to test it out, and I’m not ready yet to turn the Maps feature on my iPhone into a hot, steaming mess. But part of the whole upgrading regimen is, as is depressingly familiar to Apple users, having to agree to a new, dense and even more piracious End User Licensing Agreement (aka those damn “I Agree” screens that 99.9% of the population never actually reads, but just clicks on to make them go away).
So here, as a service to any of you who might be interested in just what rights you irrevocably, permanently, idiotically, signed away without ever actually bothering to check, are some choice bits from the EULA that is now part of your iPhone/iPad/iPod:
The contradictory voices are there. They are presented by voices that mock & disagree with them - in much the same way that newspaper editors, radio hosts and TV anchors did back in the pure human filtration days - but the voices and bits of information are there.
I do agree that there is a serious problem in our society today that a large segment is seemingly living in its own reality, with its own set of facts an interpretations. But this has been true before in our history as well (See: Davis, Jefferson et al.). But this problem predates the web, and is attributable more to talk radio and the removal of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time than anything else ... and to the failure of the American educational system to produce large swathes of the citizenry capable of critical thinking. [...more]
Eli Pariser’s TED talk on the dangers of allowing someone else to choose what you see/hear/feel
If I were a weaker man, I’d just fold up my tent and move on.
However, upon closer inspection, I find myself saying “Yahbut …” a lot throughout this FUD screed.
Norwegian company Norli Libris introduces nonsensical “eBook” publishing model Quick Hit: Saw this on BoingBoing, followed it over to Applied Abstractions, and just couldn’t resist commenting on it, for 1) the benefit of my international students, who might wonder WTF is up with this and 2) to keep me from yanking out my own hair […] [...more]
Norwegian company Norli Libris introduces nonsensical “eBook” publishing model
Quick Hit: Saw this on BoingBoing, followed it over to Applied Abstractions, and just couldn’t resist commenting on it, for 1) the benefit of my international students, who might wonder WTF is up with this and 2) to keep me from yanking out my own hair by the fistful. The idea is that consumers will have to buy digital books not as downloadable files, but on cards called Digi Short, which will be inserted into the back of customized (i.e. DRM’d to death) Kibano Digi Readers.
Apparently, the one advantage would be that said “books” would thus be exempt from VAT in Norway, although the list price will be the same as a download.
The Norwegian publishing and bookselling industry, an astonishingly
backward group of companies when it comes to anything digital, yesterday
introduced a new concept for e-books that, even for them, is rather
harebrained. They want to sell e-book tablets where you can buy books
not as downloads (well, you can do that, too) but as files loaded on
small plastic memory cards, to be inserted into the reader [article in Norwegian].
This preserves their business model (though they can probably stop
using trucks and start using bicycles for distribution). According to
their not very convincing market analysis, this is aimed at the segment
of the book buying market who do not want to download books from the net
(but, for some reason, seem to want to read books electronically.)
This is such an awful, awful, CueCat-level thinking approach to digital distribution. The whole point of having a mobile device like the iPad or Kindle or Nook is so that you can do instant purchases & consumption of content. You walk past a poster advertising the new blockbuster action movie, now available as a Blu-Ray or for download – you know you’re going to have an hour to kill on the commuter train on the way home, and you missed the movie in theaters, to you decide to splurge. Out comes the tablet, button is pushed, movie is set to download in the background as you continue walking to the train station/subway/hovercraft depot.
Hint: You want to ENCOURAGE your customers to make impulse buys of your content, rather than make it tougher for them & thus allow time for second thoughts to creep in.
Making the public buy, collect, sort & carry with them little plastic cards with books on them? Good God. It displays the desperate attempt to keep the content all within the walled garden; if we can’t sell dead-tree editions or shiny little discs (goes the thinking), well, maybe if we just shrink it all down to credit-card size, we can keep people having to pay us for physical objects. And as long as the Big Publishing controls distribution, pricing & availability of a physical object, well then, all the old rules still apply.
People will not carry around little cards with books as data on them, slotting them in and out of a tablet reader. And even if (via some alien mind-control ray that bathes the Earth in Luddite Stupidity) they do, a thriving business will soon spring up, dealing in the blank pieces of plastic that can then be filled with the data.
The media business is no longer, and never will again be about, the control of big belching factories that churn out physical copies of stuff that gets trucked from A to B and then put on shelves. It’s about paying attention to every other step that used to lead up to that point. You know, all the stuff that newspapers and TV stations and movie studios and record companies ignored, and is the reason so many of them are in trouble.
That is, concentrating on creating something wonderful. Useful. Delightful.
It makes me sad to see that so many companies are still thinking in terms of how to defeat the digital revolutions, rather than on how we can use the web to do so many totally new, amazing art forms.
UPDATE: The initial reports (see the fact that this was a “Quick Hit”) seemed to indicate that it was Digi.no that was doing this. It turns out that it is a company named Norli Libris, whose attempt at rolling the clock back has elicited comment from other bloggers, as well as the mighty EnGadget. I thus fixed the attribution & links at the top of this post, and added a graf explaining more about Norli Libris. Thanks to @sigvald for pointing this out via Twitter (and to Google Translate for helping me decipher the Norwegian story on this.)
The point is that the problems with the news business bear surprising resemblance to the problems of society as a whole. We've tied our fate to the unfettered free-market economic forces, without really taking notice of the fact that there are a few industries, at least, that are not prepackaged Cheetos. Where diluting quality and streamlining production schedules and all the other tricks of modern corporate management may work in the short term ... but in the long term are not only killing the industry, but harming ... well, basically Western Civilization. [...more]
The good folks at CNN asked me to appear on Backstory” to talk about the News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal.
I tried to oblige them with some insights onto why this kind of scandal keeps happening, and why. You can see the results of the interview in the segment below:
More on why the news business keeps getting hit with privacy scandals like this, and why it won’t stop after the jump…
The Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers used to represent the sinewy, beating heart of American journalism. Then they got run into the ground, bought up by Tribune dorks who were more interested in playing out their boyhood “I wanna play right field for the Cubs!” fantasies, and then sold to the “grave dancer,” Sam Zell. Zell’s […] [...more]
Now that the Tribune creditors seem to have grown a pair, and are starting to openly murmur about where all their money might have gone – in stark contrast to so many investors who have complacently plodded through the zigzagging pens of modern American Capitalism towards where the Bernie Madoffs, Angelo Mozilos & Magnetars of this world wield their blood-soaked financial sledgehammers – the word is out that Zell has reached the end of the plank.
So now what?
The villagers gathered around the moat look at each other blankly, their torches sputtering, pitchforks starting to droop. There is muttering in the ranks, a strange sense of deflation. What to do now that the monster has abandoned them?
Perhaps some new savior will arise. One who can lead them out of the bottomless cycle of self-asphyxiation and learned helplessness. A man who has “vision,” and who (with just the right sort of spinelessboot-lickingunderstanding board of directors) can restore the kingdom to its past glory. Maybe … maybe … yes. Yes! That’s it!
This shall be the image of serious news-gathering and investigative reporting in America.
The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let's take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch: [...more]
GM’s NUMMI plant in Fremont was the solution to their crisis. So why did they ignore its lessons?
They don't make 'em like this any more. Even so, the rear bumper had to be reattached.
It’s about how the U.S. auto industry could have saved itself by actually paying attention to the way its business was eroding, and listening to the people who came back from Japan and transformed the Fremont plant from a place that was “like a prison … with sex, drugs and alcohol freely indulged in during the working day … where the workers maliciously sabotaged cars, and the managers didn’t care, as long as they got their bonuses for churning out pure numbers…”
The situation bears a strong resemblance to the newspaper industry, and the reason papers are in the same place as the auto industry. Let’s take a look at the places where the news industry and the auto industry screwed the pooch:
1. Starting in the 80s and going through the 90s, sales declined, as customers were turned off by the shoddy quality of the product
In the auto industry: anyone who drove a U.S.-made car in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. Everything about the cars sucked. The seats were uncomfortable to sit in, the controls made no sense and were hard to deal with. I drove a lot of rental cars in that era, and I can’t tell you how many times the A/C control knob came off in my hand. Or the windshield wiper knob was installed upside-down. In one case, the bolt holding the steering column up on a Chevy Cavalier came loose and the steering wheel dropped into my lap. Which is minor, compared to the engines seizing and misfiring, the electrical system shorting out, the windows not rolling up (or down), the doors sagging on their hinges…
In the newspaper industry: the buyouts and mergers started by the relaxation of the cross-ownership rule, caused many papers to skeletonize their staffs, and run big colorful graphics in the papers. And lots more wire copy. I worked at the Arizona Republic during this era, and I saw what they were doing on “Zone Editions.” We had the same cruddy stories for Mesa, as we did Tempe, as we did Scottsdale. They were feature stories about things like a guy with a trained parrot that would whistle and dance. We’d run it one week in the Mesa zone, and then the next week, I’d see it in the queue again for Scottsdale. Mostly, the Zone Editions were there to snarf up the advertisers in those areas, and make sure that no competition sprang up to challenge the big paper. “It doesn’t pay NOT to advertise,” was the slogan, and it was true, because of the package deals the Republic was able to offer, sucking the oxygen out of the local markets. Most papers had a monopoly position in their markets, and could pretty much be assured of making a profit, no matter what they did. Meanwhile, the readers were starting to notice that their newspapers were lacking … how shall we say this … news.
2. The workers felt ignored and belittled, so they began to act out, and a “give a shit” attitude took over
In the auto industry: the line workers had no power to offer suggestions, and indeed, were punished for speaking up. All that mattered was churning out enough cars to meet the quotas, no matter how shitty the quality. Resentfulness led to workers intentionally sabotaging cars, which led to even greater expense down the line, when the shitty cars had to be fixed by workers who really didn’t understand what was wrong with them, and just used the “bigger hammer” method to make cross-threaded bolts hold, or quarterpanels stick onto the chassis.
Online KP.org password sign-up confuses me with other people with the same name, asks for data on people I haven’t seen for years. Against the advice of almost everyone I know, I recently switched from Anthem to Kaiser Permanente for our corporate health policy. I know that it’s not an especially good time to be […] [...more]
Online KP.org password sign-up confuses me with other people with the same name, asks for data on people I haven’t seen for years.
Against the advice of almost everyone I know, I recently switched from Anthem to Kaiser Permanente for our corporate health policy. I know that it’s not an especially good time to be in the health insurance business, as all their spare profits being converted into fat wads of anonymous cash, being accidentally left under Washington, D.C. restaurant tables that congressmen just happen to be eating at … but I still buy into the conventional wisdom that “you gotta have health insurance.”
One of the features of Kaiser that induced me to make the switch was their supposed web-friendly way of managing your own health care records and doctor appointments. Well, that and the fact that they are (for California, at least) dirt-cheap. Anyway, since we here at Artesian Media like to think of ourselves as constantly connected internet smartypants, I figured Kaiser’s high-tech approach might actually be a better fit for our peripatetic lifestyle, plus I was more than a little curious to see what insurance companies consider to be “State of the Art web tools.”
I was impressed by the persistence of the doctors at Kaiser in pushing patients to use all these new web tools that have apparently been developed at great expense. This despite the fact that, as one worker at the big Kaiser mothership on Venice told me, “Without South-Central L.A., this place wouldn’t exist. Since ‘Killer King’ went down, we are the place to go if you are poor and live in Da Hood.”
Anyway – I decided to try to sign up at the KP.org site. I entered all my private information (the insurance company really seems to want to be able to figure out every single thing that could help them track you down should you welsh on a bill, but that’s understandable – if unsettling), and then clicked to get my password that would allow me to access my own medical records.
But before I could do that, I had to pass one final gantlet: a series of questions that KP.org says are “accumulated by an outside contractor, and that I should know the answers to.” A kind of “This is Your Life, David LaFontaine.”
Despite the Orwellian/Kafkaesque overtones, I figured that this was going to be a cinch of a test to pass. After all, if an outside contractor was culling information from the internet to ask me questions about myself, well, how hard could this be? I checked over my shoulder to make sure that nobody was looking, in case there were any queries prompted by my accidental (*cough cough*) clicking on certain websites during my wide-ranging research.
Unfortunately, this process shows how flawed it is to attempts to determine identity via robotic online spiders. The first question out of the gate showed me how much trouble I was in – it asked me which institution I had a connection with. Unfortunately, each one of these institutions was based in and around Boston, a city in which I have never lived, but where another David LaFontaine is quite active. The next question had to do with where my ex-wife was currently living – listing her under a name that she had never (to my knowledge) used.
Once again, a question that has nothing to do with any information that is relevant in my life. I supposed I could have Googled this, but I only had 75 seconds to answer each one of these questions.
The next screen that came up basically said: FAIL.
I have now sunk lower than Sarah Palin. I flunked a quiz about my own life.
KP.org insisted that there were no “make-up” exams, and that any kind of password would have to be delivered through snailmail. Which, considering that my issues of The Economist are arriving torn to shreds, checks sent to our vendors are getting pilfered, and we regularly receive mail addressed to people living in completely different cities — is not a comforting thought.
So before we all jump on the bandwagon of “cost savings through modernizing medical records,” by all means do some testing of what exactly it is that we’re migrating towards. If I’ve already entered enough personal information to make it dead easy for any script kiddie to steal my identity and go on a spending spree — why is it that this multimillion dollar site can’t even figure out which David LaFontaine I am, and ask questions that are relevant to me? And BTW – David LaFontaine is not exactly a common name, or one where I run into a lot of confusion. It’s pretty unique.
This is a strategy that is also being pursued in New York by NY Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who has invested more than he would like to admit to (millions? hundreds of millions?) into high-tech printing presses, capable of churning out massive print runs with razor-sharp color. The 15-tower, triple-width ultra-compact Commander CT press looks a lot like the last-generation Nikon F6 film camera. It was the apex of film technology, what many analysts recognized at the time as "the perfect camera" -- but that alas, was rolled out just as every working professional made the move to use digital. [...more]
Print die-hards claimed that all that was needed to reverse the audience migration to the internet was to make newspapers more “lively” in appearance. Early verdict: looks pretty, but the advertising still isn’t there, and that sound you heard was Mort Zuckerman puking and weeping over in the corner.
I’ve been in the Bay Area for a convention of “[fill in blank] for Dummies” authors and various business meetings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to scope out what the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing with its much-ballyhooed investment in glossy magazine-style paper for the front pages of its sections, and the use of high-quality color images.