Structure and Content

As part of developing sustainable business models for online media, I have tried to catch-up with what Reg Chua is thinking about the structure of journalism at his blog “(Re)Structuring Journalism”.  I have followed Reg on this topic for about a year.  But I continue to struggle with what are we structuring and what problem are we solving.  I think Reg would argue that through structure we create enduring context, which leads to engagement, which should lead to value.  But there are a lot of turns in that argument and to put some of this into practice, I have tried to break it down a bit further. Continue reading

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OpenWebAsia – Business Models in Southeast Asia

Looking for more background on developing sustainable business models for the independent online media in the region, I attended the OpenWebAsia conference that was held in Kuala Lumpur this past week.  This is a semi-regular event last held in Seoul in 2008.  This year’s event was sponsored by the Multimedia Development Corporation
MDeC a branch of the Malaysian government responsible for the promotion of a multimedia industry in Malaysia.  The conference was attended by a mix of entrepreneurs, venture capital and finance types as well as business executives from major international and regional online and mobile leaders like Yahoo!, Google, Amazon, Jobstreet, …

My first time at this conference, but attendees who attended in the past remarked that attendance and the overall mood was definitely up from past years. The regular drumbeat of positive online news definitely contributed to the mood.  In the past six months, major online media deals announced include:

In this list of deals and ventures you begin to see some of the key themes of the conference:

  • ecommerce/Online Payments
  • VentureFunding and Localization
  • Social Media

    In addition, there was one notable omission, advertising which was almost completely absent from the two-day’s discussion. See last week’s post about the value and size of the regional online advertising market.

    The conversation around ecommerce generally broke into two related tracks – the online sales of physical goods and payments for consuming online content (mostly games).
    Many Malaysian, Singaporean and Indonesian entrepreneurs are looking to ecommerce (online sales) to create profitable online businesses where advertising has been unable to drive sufficient revenue.  Currently, in the Malaysian market there are a handful of major
    players in the ecommerce, storefront space – most notably eBay Malaysia, and Mudah.com.my (a joint venture between Singapore Press Holdings – SPH – and Norwegian media giant Schibsted ASA).  But as a whole the space is still small and underdeveloped.  On the conference room floor one of the most frequently mentioned obstacles to growth was online payments.  Online payments has traditionally required a credit card, but at this stage of development most Malaysians felt uncomfortable revealing this information online.  A few of the Indonesian attendees voiced similar sentiments.  If North America and Europe are any indication, this obstacle will fall as soon as there is something online that people want badly enough to push them over this barrier.    A second obstacle and a more surprising one was fulfillment.  Many of the ecommerce entrepreneurs said that unreliable local courier services and very high-priced
    international services made the cost of local Shipping & Handling (S&H) prohibitive.

    The second area and one that should present some interesting opportunities for content producers is micropayments for online or mobile content.  The infrastructure for this has been developed in Malaysia to allow consumers to pay for online gaming.  It generally involves something like a “top up” process where consumers register for an account.  They may actually get a card to help them remember the account details and in some cases to create opportunities for offline micropayments as well.  They then use the card as a debit card when they want to purchase something online.  The account is then debited and access to the product is granted.  Since the product access is immediate and payments are small, the assumption is that the amount of bad debt from unfulfilled product is kept to a minimum.

    New venture funding/venture creation also received a lot of attention in the panels as well as on the conference room floor.   Independent VC funding appeared to face several regional obstacles including the lack of sufficient scale to drive exit valuations either from IPO or acquisition.  The creation of joint ventures between established global players and local Internet companies to localize platforms clearly has some traction with Facebook, eBay’s Paypal and Rakuten announcing deals in the last year.   But as a whole the ability for any local start-up to gain enough scale to drive valuations made the investment or joint ventures a challenge.  There is clearly an opportunity to create some type of localization service for regional internet start-ups to help drive scale across the region. As one representative from Yahoo! commented that is nothing else any start-up site should have an English execution to make it at least accessible by some consumers around the region.

    Finally, in the area of social media, one of the most impressive series of presentations during the conference was from the emerging open data movement in Malaysia.  Referencing the efforts of Tim Berners Lee to develop a web of open and transparent data, the organizers of the effort highlighted trial efforts like MalaysiaCrime.com
    and Data.org.my as the beginnings of databases that would be developed from community contributions in lieu of access to government databases that are currently restricted.

    Malaysia Crime - Citizen Sourced Data

    It would be hard not to come away impressed with the sophistication in the room as well as an appreciation of the challenges that exist to build sufficient scale to drive business models in the region.

    For a look at the twitter sidebar conversation during the two-day conference, you can find follow the back and forth at #owasea.

    More to come.

    Newspapers and Content Models

    Over the last several weeks I have watched the reporting and discussion about the crisis facing the newspaper industry in the US.  There has been some good reasoned reporting and analysis.  In my opinion, Clay Shirky’s post on the newspaper industry represents one of the best.

    In much of the writing there is an undercurrent of surprise at the suddenness of the decline.  But, I think if you ask people close to some of these companies, you will find that what’s happened has been talked about for years.  Even the speed at which the product might unravel was acknowledged, if not acted upon by the people who made decisions.

    I think we knew that classified advertising was eventually going to be gone and that we had  increased our investment in news and circulation on the back of profits from a classified business that quickly had little use for the circulation investment.  I still remember when it became clear that CareerBuilder could do almost as well in a non-affiliate newspaper market with its own telesales teams as in a local newspaper affiliated market.

    I think we knew that we were trying to sell consumers newspapers that were mostly packaging and wire service to keep margins and circulation up and ultimately speeding the decline of the circulation we were trying to maintain.

    I think we knew we needed focused surgery, but couldn’t take a knife to the areas that needed to be amputated in order to save the core.

    If you are a newspaper today and trying to focus, one area you need to examine is the impact the internet has had on how we gather and create value for different types of content.

    • Reviews:  The internet has made word of mouth its own form of reporting that increasingly drives user purchase behavior and advertiser dollars.  Yelp and Zvents and the handful of social review sites have made reviews a marketing game of most friends and most reviews.
    • Opinion: Low-cost frequent punditry has made everyone the head of their own editorial page.
    • Reporting: Getting all the facts and just the facts of a particular occurrence.  Breaking a story and getting it mostly right.  The internet has changed the news cycle and the degree of precision that is required to break a story.  Newspapermen may not approve, but the audience does.
    • Investigative reporting:  I haven’t seen this model yet online.  It is a complex process.  In many ways it is like creating a movie or a video game.  The more value in the story – the deeper the investigation, the more roles and people who are required to make it happen.  There are people trying to make this work – ProPublica and a few others.   This will eventually get figured out, probably by someone who doesn’t have an immediate profit motive.  NPR, the BBC, perhaps a university project like Global Voices.

    I am not even going to comment on the comics and all of the other things that we wasted so much time in the past discussing  TV Grid in the paper or not, comics in the paper, horoscopes, … They all exist online in better formats.  Be dispassionate about it.  If it doesn’t contribute to what you want to focus on, don’t waste time discussing it.  Just let it go.

    So, what does that mean if you are trying to focus.  Some of it will be driven by scale.

    If you are in a small market, you may want to have investigative pieces and a weekend features section, … But given the size of the market, you will probably need to focus on creating a community that gets the story in and creates a reliable volume of reviews for things happening in town.  You may employ a couple of stringers to make sure this happens regularly, but that may be all the market will support in terms of revenue or engagement.  Remember that not every citizen cares about every issue enough to run out to report on it or even read them when they are reported on.

    If you are a large brand or national paper, you may have the revenue depth to compete to in all categories of content, though having a clear idea of which category represents the core of your brand and drives your most loyal consumers will be critical.  So, if you are the Washington Post are you investigation, news and reporting from the American capital?  And everything else is secondary color.  If  you are the New York Times, what are you?  Reporting from the style capital of America are you features driven?   Are you international news and reporting a la the BBC?  The challenge for them all is how to focus, you can’t continue to chip away at the news operation without a guidebook for what you want it to look like when you are done.

    If you are major regional paper like the Chicago Tribune or the Boston Globe, which way do you go?  If the national papers are staking out positions in large-scale content activities and if the barrier to compete in the local reporting and reviews space is pretty low.  What do you do?  Look for economies in the technology platform, move quicker and faster than the new entrants to develop new online features?  Invest in quality of reporting and reviews? Maybe the answer is you have to break yourself up.  Be small and aggregate up to your region?  Is there enough revenue in the market to maintain a group of reporters to report on the city?

    The other exercise that newspapers need to do is a clear understanding of revenue at risk?  Category by category of newspaper advertising needs to be examined to identify is there a dominant online advertising model for those advertisers – e.g. online job listing; what percent of the advertising is held by the newspaper, is the newspaper advertising share relatively stable?  Why?  Is there some braking inertia in the category?  Look at department stores. These stores still don’t have a good online ad unit to drive online audience to take an offline behavior.  Newspapers are often built-in to merchant coop arrangements guaranteeing some newspaper advertising presence.  So, if a good ROI driven online ad unit emerges and the marketers change the coop rules, then poof.  2 years, 3 years max.

    Sorry, just some rambling on a Sunday afternoon.  I should spend a little more time trying to organize some of this.  There may actually be a unique thought mixed in here or there.

    We knew then what would happen.  We probably know now what we need to do.  It is just very painful, but it is doable.  If the newspapers that are left are honest about what they see in the future and the implications for decisions in the present, then they need to get on with it. Articulate the future, give the employees that are going to be effected a heads-up and get on with it.

    The Secret about the Newspaper Business Model

    Well, I keep meaning to get back to blogging about media and Mike Markson’s recent post about the reasons that newspapers are sinking online has given me the kick in the pants I need.  I wish I had written it. I think it captures everything and does it without the usual sentimental hand-wringing about the Fourth Estate.  I will do some hand wringing about journalism in a later post.

    I have to say one of the reasons that I have procrastinated over writing a similar truth-telling post is that a lot of the consulting I do is with online companies that have identified newspapers or other traditional media players as the partnerships that will help them gain the scale or sales they need to be successful.

    So, if you are in a start-up here’s a few recommendations:

    1. Read Markson’s post and think about it.  It is so true it hurts.
    2. If you want to create a partnership with a newspaper be
      absolutely clear what you want to obtain in the partnership.  If the
      deal starts to move into other unexpected areas WALK AWAY.  Do not do a
      partnership for a press release.
    3. After you have determined what you want to get from the partnership DO NOT BE AFRAID to ask the questions you need to make sure that the benefit will be forthcoming.
    4. DO NOT get sucked into “the common wisdom”  – see Mike #2 and #8 especially.  They may be local brands but not all of their traffic is local, and they don’t create that much uniquely local content.
    5. If you are partnering to leverage the large local sales forces at newspapers, again do your homework.

    Who do you want to sell?  Small and Medium sized localbusinesses?  Well just because they are local, doesn’t mean thenewspaper sells to them.  Pick up any major daily and count the numberof ads that are from uniquely local businesses.  Macy’s is not local. Neither is Safeway or Best Buy or Fry’s. If your product is aligned with the sales force’s customers, then be prepared to for some serious training.  See Markson #10.  The sales forces sell everything. They are used to selling without having to be accountable for the ad’s effectiveness.  Training and materials and incentive programs are critical to getting the newspapers sales forces focused on selling your product, explaining its benefits and pricing.

    I know this sounds bleak.  But, newspapers do have strong local sales forces.  You just have to be able to mobilize them without jeopardizing the newspaper’s traditional revenue streams (see Markson #10) or creating a sales support structure that weighs your own company down.  As for traffic, one day (maybe) they will sit down with a spreadsheet and unbundle the business.  Create websites that compete in one area and don’t try to be everything to everyone.  When they settle on which of these businesses they want to compete in, then partner up. It could be news, entertainment, sports, ….  Unlikely that they can win in everything.

    So, that may be the end to my little bit of advisory work.  But, it is best that companies looking for ways to tap into the world of traditional media, work from a position of facts.