Saturday, September 16, 2017

An email from 1995: Impact of VoIP and voice recognition?

I was going through some old photos and computer files this morning, and happened upon the following email. It's from sometime in 1995 (didn't preserve the headers) and was addressed to an op-ed or feature writer for the International Herald Tribune (then owned by the New York Times and Washington Post) who had written something about the Internet. My email to this person touched upon two then-emerging technologies, which didn't seem like a big deal at the time, but are now hugely important: 
I saw the article you wrote on the above in an issue of the International Herald Tribune. My question is this: Now that internet use is multiplying, and people are able to take advnatage of much cheaper LONG DISTANCE CALLS through a PC, a modem, and an internet provider, dont you think the phone companies are going to clamp down on this? I mean, five or ten years down the road people will be able to buy equipment, combo phone/modems with a chip inside that enables the general public to just dial across the world but only pay local rates plus a monthly internet fee. This will take a big chunk out of the phone companies business.

Can the phone cos start making providers pay for this, and pass on the cost to the consumer? Also, why havent they done this already? Who is actually paying for internet phone lines, and at what point will they say "enough is enough"?

One other question: VOICE RECOGNITION: what kind of impact do you see this technology having on the industry? What kind of timeframe? It seems like a major thing to me, but everyone I talk to, plus magazines, all mention two words: "science fiction" and then dismiss it as just that. True?
Voice over IP (VoIP) telephony thing quickly became a big thing, cutting down the cost of international phone calls and then leading to a host of new services (Skype, FaceTime, Google Voice, etc.). Domestic long-distance calls, which used to cost more than 30 cents per minute, are now free with most calling plans, and international calls which used to cost more than a dollar per minute to some countries, are now free or a few cents per minute at most. 

Voice recognition was slower to take off, but 2010 was widely used by automated support lines for banks and airlines. In the past 5 it has exploded, thanks to Siri, "OK Google" and Amazon Echo.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why are so many indie albums missing from digital and streaming music services?

There is an interesting article on NPR about Bob Seger titled "Where Have All The Bob Seger Albums Gone?" Seger is a singer/songwriter from the 70s and early 80s who dominated classic rock radio for decades with songs like "Night Moves." As you might expect, this is a tale of a dispute over digital revenue and an older artist (and his longtime manager, "Punch") resisting the transition from full-length albums to digital downloads and streaming music:
Punch is aware of the new reality, though to hear him tell it, retailers are the ones to blame for the unavailability of Seger's back catalog. When I ask him why he hasn't kept more of the old titles in print physically, or at least released them as album only downloads online, he explains: "iTunes has a policy of not permitting 'album only' downloads except in some instances. From the very beginning, we were very concerned as to how this policy would affect album oriented rock artists in the long run and certainly there is evidence that this policy has contributed to a decline in the format. At the same time, physical retailers have been reducing the footprint of music in their stores to such a degree where deeper, back catalog titles have a tougher time reaching an audience."

If Punch is right about the state of the industry, Seger is in a pickle: The priorities of iTunes and Spotify might have changed the way people listen in the digital era, but those new priorities make it harder for him to argue for a reversal for the sake of Seger's back catalog. And if shrinking physical retail space means it's harder to market Seger's early LPs, letting them all fall out of print only makes it harder for anyone hear them as the artist intended. In the name of preserving his client's vision as an album artist, compilations have become the default option in both environments, causing the old albums to fade in favor of individual songs.

Aside from major artists like Seger, something I have noticed is many indie artists have not made the transition to digital downloads or streaming. I've seen lots of good stuff missing from Spotify, Amazon Music (streaming), and the old Apple Music (digital downloads) including early albums by the Lemonheads (originally released by TAANG records in the 80s), Kula Shaker's Summer Sun EP from 1997, and Christopher Parkening's Parkening Plays Bach LP from 1990.

What many of these recordings have in common is they were originally released on independent labels. I don't know if the labels are no longer in operation, or whether the rights reverted back to the artist or to another entity during a sale or special distribution deal. Whatever the case, important recordings are no longer accessible unless you have the LP, CD, cassette, or DAT (!) from 20 or 25 years ago ... or can find it on YouTube.

I think moving up the format ladder has always been problematic for smaller labels. I remember when Dischord started selling CDs I got the Minor Threat album which didn't have a barcode on the back of the CD case. It also came with a historical booklet so fat it almost didn't fit in the clear plastic case. They were just kind of flying by the seat of their pants.

One of my neighbors happens to be a former member of the Boston indie band O Positive. When I asked him why I couldn't get their songs on iTunes he said the singer (who now happens to be a lawyer) said it was too troublesome to sort out the paperwork and files (this is before Distrokid came on the scene). I just checked Amazon Music and only one of their albums is there, which happens to be their major label release on Epic/Sony. The indie stuff is still MIA.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

A history of clickbait and keyword hijacking, 1750-1999

A friend on Twitter lamented that the shift from printed newspapers to online news has led to a flood of clickbait that wasn’t present before. While it’s true that clickbait—articles whose content and headlines are designed to generate a very high number of pageviews—is a product of the digital media revolution, there is a long tradition in the media world of using attention-grabbing headlines, titles, and graphics to get people to buy a newspaper, magazine, or journal.

In the United States, the tradition goes back to early periodicals of the mid-1700s, which used strongly worded headlines and satire to generate outrage about the British and other issues of the day. The wave of “yellow journalism” in the mid-1800s continued the trend, which saw the establishment of tabloids in the English-speaking world which mastered the art of succinct, irresistible headlines on the front covers of newspapers. The Sun (U.K.) and the New York Post are modern examples of the format. Internationally, the rise of labor nationalism, fascism, anti-semitism, and communism gave rise to hundreds of newspapers and magazines that used bombast and hyperbolic headlines to attract readers and advance their respective causes.

In the 1990s, Jimmy Lai, a Chinese media entrepreneur, brought the tabloid format to Hong Kong with the Apple Daily. When the format was later exported to Taiwan, the boring, conservative Taiwanese newspaper competition didn’t know what hit them. Some newspapers in China tried to follow the format, but with limited success, owing to the Chinese Communist Party’s strict media controls and the power and influence of local politicians and business leaders.

There’s another digital trend that has historical precedence in print journalism: Keyword hijacking. There are a few flavors that pop up in the modern-day world. The first involves marketers exploiting interest in one type of product or service by including related keywords in web pages, advertisements, and social media, even though there is otherwise no direct connection. The second involves a company, organization, or individual taking a trending story on social media and then creating online content such as a post or article that includes keywords related to the trend. The reasoning is, people will be more likely to click the headline or tweet or post because they are interested in following the trending story.

The term “keyword hijacking” has become synonymous with shady marketing. People feel tricked when they click on an ad or a headline or a hashtag and expect to find information about one thing, and instead they are treated to information about something else. In some cases, companies will insert keywords and hashtags to promote themselves even if the issue involves grief, suffering, or something quite serious.

Keyword hijacking is not new. While doing some genealogy research a few years ago, I stumbled upon this advertisement in a Lockport, New York newspaper:

History of keyword hijacking

Some context: This was published in 1904, when tensions between Russia and Japan were heating up and war was anticipated. The store new that putting “war” into the headline would get eyeballs. It was tasteless, but it worked … which is why keyword hijacking is still a thing today.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

How to live-tweet events

Yesterday I had a chance to give an online presentation about using Twitter to cover breaking news or share information about live events. The event was hosted by Mediashift, a media education and training site that used to be part of PBS but is now run as an independent organization.

As I note in the video, I have live-tweeting events since 2008, but I was also able to share some best practices and examples for other scenarios, including breaking news, sports, community events, politics, and more. Many thanks to the staff of the Dallas Morning News for sharing their experiences.

Here's a recording of the presentation. It's about one hour long:

Saturday, March 12, 2016

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?
Last fall The New Yorker published an article about LinkedIn's founder, Reid Hoffman. LinkedIn is a huge social network focused on professional connections. It is used by more than 400 million people worldwide. It was a puff piece that reflected the arrogance of the Silicon Valley elite, but there were was an interesting reference about the source of LinkedIn's revenue and how LinkedIn recruiters help drive revenue. This post will reveal how much LinkedIn job ads cost, but note rates may vary from location to location and it's also possible to get volume discounts.

First, the quote from the The New Yorker:
For the first two years, Hoffman concentrated on growth, so LinkedIn had no revenues. (Today, most of ​LinkedIn’s $2.2 billion in annual income is from fees paid by recruiters for access to extra information about the site’s users.) 
I can give some insight into the source of this revenue. Part of it comes from premium memberships, for LinkedIn recruiters to access data about promising prospects. But there is another component to this revenue, which doesn't reflect the interest of "recruiters" but rather companies who want to list jobs on LinkedIn. The LinkedIn job ads cost a lot.

How much do LinkedIn job ads cost?

To list a job on LinkedIn, companies pay through the nose. For one of my consulting clients I created its first LinkedIn recruiting campaign. The company was paying something like $325 for a single job listing for one month (purchased in a batches of 10 ads). Multiply that by millions and you get the idea of where LinkedIn’s billions are coming from!

Keep in mind that this basically means matching recruiters/corporate types with the right candidates and charging a hefty fee to do so. Why do LinkedIn job ads cost so much? Mainly, because it's effective and the competition is terrible. It works because most of the alternatives — ads in the paper, Craigslist, online sites like Indeed or Monster, etc. don’t have the reach or the algorithmic smarts to generate results that are as good.

LinkedIn has been able to achieve scale by providing a great place to post online resumes and connect with current/former colleagues, and then building a whole bunch of extra services on top of that - company profiles, job search engines, premium services, etc. I imagine they also increase the value of that data by building (or buying) profiles of the millions of companies associated with LinkedIn members, and then assigning value to them based on various criteria (age of company, number of employees, market value, hiring/turnover trends, etc.) It's very powerful, and it will be very difficult for other companies to catch up with LinkedIn in terms of quality or revenue generated.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The evolution of reading in the digital age

In the past few years, a lot of people have remarked about how their reading habits have changed. Here’s an example I saw on Hacker News earlier this week:
I was a good reader throughout my childhood, youth and academic years. Lately, and after a couple of decades, it's becoming increasingly challenging to focus, consume and finish books. I'm becoming the modern age illiterate. I'm usually squeezed for time - but even if I find some, I don't pick up where I left.

Does anyone encountering the same challenge? Any ideas/tips that could help overcome the cycle? Do you think it's caused by modern information overload, distraction addiction, or perhaps dealing with short cryptographic lines of code?
I know exactly what he or she is talking about. I loved reading when I was younger, everything from newspapers to novels. I took a long break from reading for pleasure when I started my first graduate degree in the mid-2000s, and never really got back into it. Part of the reason is I don’t have enough time to read. I am very busy with work, even on the weekends and in the evening (after dinner is actually my most productive writing time). When I do have free time, I like to spend time with my family. I can watch TV with them or even play video games with my son. But it’s hard to share a book.

But there’s something else. My reading habits have really changed. What I find myself doing now with most long-form Web or mobile content, as well as printed magazines and newspapers, is skimming to get the basic facts or quotes and then moving on. I just don't have the time or attention to stay focused anymore.
e-readers and digital text - Kindle Fire, iPad and Kindle paperwhite 

As for books (fiction and nonfiction), I find myself skimming when I use the Kindle. The Kindle Fire is even worse because of the easy access to other distractions. For printed books I can focus but I have found my threshold for abandoning a book is much lower. I did this recently with a novel by an author I used to love (Martin Cruz Smith if anyone is curious). I just felt the characters in the new novel were wooden and I noticed some basic editing errors. I returned the book to the library after about 40 or 50 pages.

One of the commenters in the Hacker News thread speculated that the community focus on programming in bursts while looking at snippets of code all day may explain the change. But that hypothesis doesn’t hold for me … I don’t look at much code. Indeed, a large part of my day job involves looking at or writing long pieces of text for the In 30 Minutes series.

Rather, I believe the change in habits results from a combination of information overload, easy access to screens, and training our minds (through exposure to text messages, tweets, online updates, short video clips, etc.) to prefer condensed communication.

It’s an uncomfortable trend. On the other hand, I also see it as part of the evolution of media and society. If we look back through history, we can see how other new media had a similar impact. Newspapers, film, and television changed styles of writing and peoples' preferences for reading materials and storytelling. Then, as now, there was great discomfort in the way media and storytelling evolved. A 1961 speech by the then-chairman of the FCC called television a "vast wasteland." If you go further back, there was negative reaction to the introduction of radio, the use of photos in newspapers, certain types of stage plays, and even opera, which was seen by 17th-century British intellectuals as "chromatic torture."

There has been a lot of thoughtful expository writing about this; if you are interested (and can manage to read an entire book) I recommend checking out Mitchell Stephens "The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word" and Walter Ong's "Orality and Literacy". They are somewhat dated now, but I think they really documented important transitions from antiquity to the end of the 20th century.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The numbers that help explain why Gigaom failed

(Updated) Gigaom abruptly failed yesterday. This was a respected organization with lots going for it, including a talented editorial staff, a slate of impressive events, and (by its own admission) a growing research business.

What happened?

A lot of the analysis I have seen centers on the growth of mobile, the decline of Web CPMs, the crazy competitive landscape, and the rise of clickbait. Tom Foremski concludes "Unless you are Buzzfeed, Gawker or Business Insider – you can't make a living as an independent publisher from ads because the traffic numbers required are out of reach."

So far, I haven't seen anyone talk about Gigaom's business and the costs associated with running a tech news site. Founder Om Malik and the company didn't reveal any details yesterday, but we can take a look at some earlier documents including Gigaom's media kit and 2014 funding announcement to flesh out the story of Gigaom the business.

First, a summary of costs for advertisers from the media kit:

Display advertising:
  1. Charging $35-$45 CPMs, depending on the channel. 
  2. Rates dependent on campaign duration, budget and targeting. 300x250, 300x600 and 970x250 ad units available.
  3. Flipboard campaign: $55 CPM, over 1.5 million readers/month
"1-week channel takeover"
  • Gigaom homepage channel (1M+ impressions per week) $22K per week - includes two sponsored postss
  • Mobile channel $15k
  • Cloud $8k.
Sponsored posts:
  • $3,000 250-word sponsored post
  • $5,000 800-word sponsored post
Event sponsorships:
  • $5K–$85K, depending on branding/activity
  • Annual cost for subscribers appears to be $10k (NOTE: Digiday reports a much lower cost)
Translation: Gigaom was targeting expensive corporate sponsors, mostly in the tech and business verticals -- the media kit claimed 37% of the audience had C-level job titles, 29% were in companies that had more than 1000 employees, and 53% were "IT decision makers." These numbers seem a little low to justify $45 CPMs, and it's not clear if anyone actually paid that rate (discounts could be offered, or they might have been selling unused inventory for a much lower price through ad networks). On the other hand, because the company was not in the consumer advertising space (where rates are much lower) and it's targeting a different set of sponsors, it can get more revenue for the same number of visits to the website.

In theory, Gigaom wouldn't have to hit the insanely high traffic numbers that sites such as Buzzfeed shoots for, but even $45 CPMs aren't enough. Assuming 6 million page views per month, with each page generating one impression at $45 CPMs, the monthly revenue would total just $270,000. This helps explain why Gigaom (and many other blog-based media companies) have branched into other sources of revenue such as research and events. (UPDATE: Digiday reports that only 15% of Gigaom's revenue came from advertising, compared to 25% for events and 60% for research) 

There's another set of numbers that can help explain the Gigaom story. Om posted last year when it received an $8 million funding round (bringing the total to $22 million) that the company had 70 staffers.

I've worked in tech media, and this is a huge number more often associated with mature media companies. Om didn't break out what all of these people were doing, but I know in addition to a healthy newsroom the company had an events staff and a growing research business. I would expect there would be at least 10-15 people associated with ad sales and ad operations.   

Assuming an $80k average annual salary + benefits package, the company would be paying $5.6 million/year just on staff costs. Factor in rent, expenses, operational costs, etc. and Gigaom has to be going full-bore on revenue and growth targets to generate enough cash flow to stay afloat ... or it would have to line up more funding. 

That's what Buzzfeed ($96M in funding to date, according to Crunchbase) and BI ($55M) are doing to fund their operations -- clicks and revenue simply aren't enough to scale the business, so they take VC cash. The VCs are going along with the plan, too.  
Gawker is a different animal: It claims growth and operations are funded by sales. I don't know if the company had early investors (Crunchbase doesn't list any) but it is taking a far different approach to making the business work.

I'm interested in learning more about Gigaom's finances and funding in the weeks ahead, but it's possible we may never know the details. The creditors now running the company are staying mum, as is Om.

If I made any mistakes or am missing part of the story, please let me know in the comments below.

UPDATE: Since this post was written, Digiday's Lucia Moses has been able to put some more numbers behind the story.