Feb. 23, To expand your business, play to your strengths

If it works, do it again

I’m not a golfer, but I heard an old guy talking about the advice he used to get from a friend who was a golf pro. He’d see the pro in the locker room, and the pro would ask, “Is it working?” The old guy would say, “It’s working,” and the pro would say, “Keep doing it.”

Obvious, right? Along the lines of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” (The old golfer’s point was that Americans are practical and are more interested in results than methods.)

There’s an analogy in publishing, which my friend Ronn Levine mentions in this post: Taking a Publishing Cue From Hollywood Sequels.

If you have created a successful initiative — be it a webinar, white paper, daily publication, etc. — it makes sense to offer people some sort of part 2 or next chapter.

This reminds me of a chart I prepared for a talk about product development.

likelihood of success with new product idea

The idea is that your best customer is your current customer, and the best topic to cover is something you’re known for. If you launch a new product on a new topic, people who know and trust you are better prospects than people who don’t know you. And if you launch a new product, on a new topic, to a completely different audience, you have very little going for you.

Or, as Ronn would put it, write a sequel.

Your best options for product development are spin-offs from existing publications. Dig deeper into the topic you already cover, or branch out … but not too much. The closer you can stay to your current customer and your current expertise, the more chance you have to succeed.

Feb. 16, Why publishing companies will survive

Can self-published authors really do all this?

If you want to know why book publishers will continue to survive in the era of the Kindle, self-publishing and ebooks, just read this article: 55 Digital Branding Tips for Authors. It’s a lot for an author to take on.

And if that’s not enough to make the point, read David Gaughran’s Let Get Digital and see the list of all the things he says self-published authors need to know. Here’s a partial list.

It’s a lot of stuff. Some of it is technical, but some is the sort of thing that you either like or you don’t like. It’s stuff that pushes people out of their comfort zone. Some writers will jump right in, while others will read a list like that and say, “ew. Never mind. I just want to write.” So if being a Twit-face-insta-tumblr pro is the entrance fee, they won’t pay it.

Some few people will be good authors and will also be able to do all that social media and branding stuff. I suspect those people are the current rock stars of the self-publishing world. They can write, and they can also play the game.

But there is no reason to believe that those two skills — good storyteller on the one hand, and good social media / Amazon whiz kid on the other — will go together in most or even in many cases. Rather, it’s almost a dead certainty that these skills will specialize. And when they do, where will they specialize?

In publishing houses, of course.

The publishing house can afford to hire the guy who hates social media but knows cover design like nobody’s business. And across the hall from him is the analytic expert who knows how to beat the Amazon algorithms, but would never be caught dead on Twitter.

This is the way things go. As time goes on, skills specialize. For example, there was a time — maybe 200 years ago — when a man could be pretty well educated in most subjects. Somebody like Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Jefferson could keep up with intellectual developments in a wide variety of fields. But as knowledge increased, people had to specialize.

Today, a scientist may be an expert on one very small area and know almost nothing about anything else, or a historian may know all there is to know about farmers in 1820s France, but know very little about the rest of history.

Early in the ebook revolution a few talented souls could know enough about a lot of different topics and become self-publishing rock stars. As digital publishing evolves, that will be less and less possible, and that’s why we’ll need publishing houses that can hire experts in all the little specialties.

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Feb. 9, Amazon goes to college, the hubris of the digital first crowd, and the “shift from print to digital”

Ramen noodles in two days!

It’s very interesting that Amazon — the unquestioned leader in the e-commerce and digital publishing space — isn’t trying to force college textbooks onto Kindles. Instead, they are taking a shot at the college bookstore market, but they have the sense to know what that means — which is textbooks (in paper), hoodies, and Ramen noodles.

It’s all well and good to have a digital strategy, to imagine what the future might be, etc., but if you’re trying to run a business you need to sell the products people want, at a good price, with good service. Amazon excels at that.

“But it’s different now!” gets tiresome

I had a nice conversation with a publishing industry colleague who is trying to work with some of the digital cool kids to sell his magazines.

It’s almost as if the Woodstock mindset has been merged with e-commerce. “Don’t trust anybody over 30″ has become “dismiss any business practice that wasn’t invented on an iPhone.”

In the early days of digital newsstands I thought the evil empires (chiefly Apple and Amazon, but there are others) were just ignorant about magazine publishing. As time went on that seemed less and less likely. Certainly they had somebody on staff who was supposed to learn about the industries they’re trying to pillage. Certainly they’ve had conversations with industry experts who had told them — probably multiple times — how publishing actually works.

I realized that a charitable way to understand the conflict is to see Apple’s and Amazon’s strategies as an attempt to make the buying experience as nice as possible for the consumer — because, as I said above, they’re good at that. (At least Amazon is.)

The purchaser on Amazon doesn’t want to send his information to Hachette, or Time Inc., or whoever (most people have no idea who publishes their magazine anyway), they want to buy the thing (on Amazon or Apple) and be done with it. The relationship is with Apple or with Amazon, not with the publisher.

Well … that works with a book or a box of Chinese tea, but there are lots of reasons it doesn’t work with a subscription publication. A subscription is an on-going relationship, and it has to accommodate things like changing an address, suspending service while on vacation, or linking up print and digital subscriptions. These things require the publisher to have the customer’s information.

It’s almost impossible to believe that it could have taken the people at Amazon and Apple more than a couple weeks to learn that. Publishing is not rocket science. Simple people can learn it pretty easily. It seems horribly unlikely that these digital whiz kids were incapable of understanding how subscription publishing worked.

We know they’re not stupid, but we also know that they are arrogant. They know better, you see, because they’re reinventing the world. So when a publisher says “but that’s not the way it works,” what the cool kids think is, “yes, we understand that you old fogies are stuck in the past and can’t change, but we’re not bound by your old traditions. We’re re-creating business models. It’s different now.”

In some cases that’s true. Some things are different and need to change. But somebody has to have the intelligence (seasoned with a little humility) to distinguish them. And it seems that humility is very slow coming.

Here we are, many years into this “digital revolution” that “changes everything,” and the cool kids still don’t understand some very fundamental things about subscription publishing. I’m no longer surprised by it, but I am frustrated, as are my industry colleagues who have to work on these issues.

Progress is taking place, but it’s very slow. It may be that we’re going to have to wait until a higher percentage of the cool kids are over 30.

The idea of a “shift from print to digital” is a source of confusion

I saw that phrase in a headline — “the shift from print to digital” — and it conjured up all the wrong-headed ideas the publishing industry has been suffering under for the last several years.

It’s not that there is no shift going on, properly understood. There clearly are more people doing things on digital devices. The problem is that the phrase “shift from print to digital” feeds a mindset that everything currently in print has to “shift to digital,” which is a mistake.

It’s a mistake for two main reasons. First, some people like print and will continue to use print, but second, the idea that a product is “shifting” from print to digital assumes a commonality between the two products that might not be appropriate.

In some cases it’s relatively easy to make a digital product from a print product, and the two products are quite similar. A digital book is a little bit different than a printed book, but they’re substantially the same.

A phone book, on the other hand is a very different thing in print and digital versions. Also, the concept of an “edition” is necessary in print and unnecessary in digital, so “digital magazine” is a little weird.

Rather than thinking in terms of a “shift from print to digital,” we should be thinking of how to make good products for discrete audiences — in whatever format, and with whatever product assumptions, are appropriate for that audience.

Feb. 2, publishing in the digital age, and what is a magazine (reprise)?

Publishing in an era of Digital Fragmentation

Greg Krehbiel talks on digital publishing

I recently gave a talk to some Chinese businessmen on digital publishing. The slideshow (with some notes) is available here.

The main theme of the talk is that the digital revolution is not consolidating things onto digital — as if everything is moving to the iPad. Rather, it’s fragmenting things — creating more and more places where content can be served and consumed.

There are more and more reader devices using their own specs (epub, mobi, KF8, etc.). Then there are apps for those services on other devices (iPads, android tablets, smart phones). Then there’s the web, which can be different on desktop, tablet and mobile.

There is no perfect solution, but there are some practical things publishers can do to mitigate the harm.

“Digital” is not replacing print. It’s simply adding more options. That’s why I call it “digital fragmentation.”

What is a magazine?

Toward the end of my Dec. 1 edition I ask what is a digital magazine. D.B. Hebbard weighs in from a different perspective in this article: What is a magazine?

Mr. Hebbard is answering people who say that there’s no need for a Netflix for magazines because it already exists, and it’s called the internet. Hebbard correctly responds that a magazine is a different thing from a website. He says the mistake is a matter of “equating brands with products.”

The Atlantic’s 10-time a year print product is a magazine, its website is – need I say it – a website. They are not the same thing, even though they share content and a brand name. The reading habits of its loyal customers are different, as is the product.

He’s right. They are very definitely not the same thing.

For me, a magazine is a collection of stories (articles, essays, etc.) put together by an editor for the reader in one publishing package. It is complete unto itself. While it can have additional material through references to past issues, links and the like, it is meant to be read as a whole – either at one time, or over an extended period.

In this way, it is NOT like a website, which can have the same content, and be edited by the same editor, but has no beginning, middle or end when it comes to its total content. Stories stay on websites indefinitely, and article appearing in January is housed on the same site as the story that first appeared in December.

I don’t think the reader particularly cares that there’s an editor (that sounds a bit like the mindset of someone who looks at things from the publisher’s perspective), but I mostly agree with the rest, and he makes some other points in the article that are well worth your attention.

An issue of a magazine often (but not always) has a focus that ties the articles together. But there are other things that distinguish a magazine that people forget about, like …

  • You can put it on your coffee table
  • You’re likely to find one at the barber shop
  • It has a cover that is designed to attract your attention
  • You might want to share it with a friend.

I’m not trying to be silly. These are not inconsequential elements of what we expect from the word “magazine,” and they help to highlight why (1) website, (2) digital issue and (3) print magazine are really three very different things.

It has been a meme for many years now that print publishers don’t get digital publishing (and the web, in particular) because print is all they know. But I see many digital publishing people today who don’t seem to get the magazine.

I don’t think it’s a matter of “getting” something so much as it’s a confused question. “Digital magazine” is a term that breeds confusion. It’s like calling a motorcycle a two-wheeled car, and then telling the Harley guy that he doesn’t “get” cars.

We need a new word for digital editions of magazines. Webazines or Tabazines or …. Okay, those are awful, but continuing to call them “digital magazines” is only going to reinforce the confusion.

Jan. 26, Will Google kill gmail?, there’s hope for good content, and the Netflix model won’t work for magazines

Will Google kill Gmail?

This topic is slightly off the beaten track for The Krehbiel Report on Publishing, but it grabbed my attention.

Mike Elgan wrote a very interesting prediction over at computerworld.com on why Google will eventually kill gmail. His argument is that there’s no money in simply being a conduit for information — a “dumb pipe,” he calls it. And that’s pretty much what email is — a service that simply delivers information without adding anything to it. He says Google wants to mediate everything, which is why they keep trying to push people into other services.

I think he makes an interesting case, and he highlights an inherent problem with many online services, which is the disconnect between what the user wants out of the service and how the provider wants to monetize it.

Why, for example, doesn’t Facebook have a decent search engine? I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure it has everything to do with Facebook’s interests in monetizing our cat discussions and absolutely nothing to do with what Facebookers really want.

Email has become a crucial component of modern life, but, if Elgan is right, there is a disincentive for companies to provide it for us without monkeying with it and finding annoying ways to monetize it. Will we eventually have to make email some sort of public utility?

There is hope for decent content

When I was a kid I watched the Popeye cartoon from time to time, and the plot usually went like this: mild-mannered and long-suffering Popeye continues to put up with abuse from somebody (usually Brutus), but there comes a point where he’s had enough.

At that point he’d say, “That’s allz I can standz and I can’t standz no more.” Then he’d eat his can of spinach, his biceps would bulge, and he’d set his sights on restoring proper order in the world — which usually meant pummeling whoever it was who was annoying him.

The lesson is that you can only annoy people so much.

If I might take some liberties with that concept, I’d say it applies to other things as well. For example, when it comes to content, you can only inflict so much unthinking crap on people before they’ll get sick of it and insist on something a little meatier.

Modern art (which, excuse me, but I regard it as unthinking crap) didn’t take over the world. There is still real art out there. “Reality TV” hasn’t taken over our sets. Some new shows are actually worth watching. On that point, see Amazon and the triumph of television.

In the same way, the slide towards clickbait articles and shoddy, typo-ridden journalism won’t last forever. People will get sick of it and will yearn for solid, well-researched, professional content.

Things tend to go in cycles. Hemlines get longer, then shorter, then longer again. People opt for feel-good fluff, then they get more serious, then they get tired of being serious and go for fluff again.

Sometimes I hear a quiet despair among publishers who create good content, as if they can’t compete with the sexy, frilly, fluffy, titilating stuff that’s free on the web.

It’s a problem, and it’s a serious problem, but it won’t last forever.

Magazines are not like TV shows or music

As I said before (follow the link then scroll to “Magazine articles don’t go on a playlist”), efforts to squeeze magazines into a Netflix-type model aren’t going to work.

As of today, there is no evidence that magazine readers are clamoring for Netflix like experience …

See Magzter the latest to enter magazine unlimited subscription business

I’m sure the digital boosters think this is just some kind of lingering Neanderthalishness that will eventually pass and then we’ll all come skipping and smiling into the sunshiny world of “everything on my phone,” but I disagree with that sentiment and that view of the future. I think a magazine is a different sort of thing that, as a general rule, doesn’t translate well to digital, and definitely doesn’t work with this smorgasbord concept.

Jan. 19, supply and demand affects writers too, non-fiction is probably the better career choice, and another magazine repents its digital-only strategy

Maybe it’s not an evil conspiracy

I follow a few indie writer blogs, newsgroups, Google+ groups, etc., and a common theme is that writers feel frustrated with their inability to break into the established publishing world.

Here’s that same sentiment, expressed from the perspective of a new startup.

Susan O’Dell Underwood was starting to get frustrated hearing from writers who were having difficulty getting published.

“I feel that frustration myself, so we thought why not do it?,” she said. “Why not do this with our skills? My husband is a photographer, artist and … I’m a writer. We have summers off and we have never collaborated … this just seemed like the thing.”

Susan, and her husband, David, who are also both professors at Carson-Newman University, have launched a new publishing company called Sapling Grove Press.

Some people want to believe that it’s all a trick, or a game. That you have to know someone to get published. That publishers aren’t giving new writers a fair shake.

When it comes to non-fiction, or biographies, I’m sure there’s some truth to that. Publishers want to get Hillary Clinton’s biography, not mine.

I don’t think the same thing applies to fiction. I’m sure the publishers are perfectly happy to find the next new big writer. The problem is that supply is overwhelming demand. Everybody has a PC and an idea, and it only takes a little bit of discipline to crank out a book. There are simply too many books out there and the publisher’s “slush piles” are full of them.

So it’s not simply a matter of finding yet another outlet for frustrated writers.

Fortunately, Susan and David aren’t trying to do that. They’re pursuing a small market.

… one of the focuses of their publishing company will be the arts and literature of the Appalachian region.

That may have potential.

The world doesn’t need yet another publishing company cranking out generic fiction, but there is a very large supply of narrow interest areas that can be served by people who have a particular gift or special concern for that niche.

Non-fiction is the way to go

Harsh Das pointed me to his latest kindle book, The Art Of Book Marketing, which I’ve just started.

After the first few pages I wanted to write him and suggest that he add a disclaimer that the book might be better suited for non-fiction, but fortunately I restrained the urge for another page and saw that he did just that.

Mr. Das seems to be making a living writing self-help sorts of books — i.e., How to do this, better ways to do that, etc.

Most of my books are fiction, but I have a couple books about homebrewing. I happen to know a fair amount on that subject, I have a lot of good advice to impart (especially to beginners), and I have a concise, straight-forward style.

I also have a lot of ideas about stories that never happened concerning people who don’t really exist.

Now … just take a wild guess … which one do you think is more useful? As you might expect, my homebrewing books are my best sellers.

Escapism is fun. I just read Gone Girl while on vacation and enjoyed it quite a bit. And I’m going to continue writing fiction because I enjoy it, whether or not I get a million readers.

I can afford to do that because I have a real job. If I was trying to make a living with my writing, I would focus on practical, useful, real-world help on tangible things.

The continued non-death of print

1105’s Ed Tech Magazine Returns to Print After 2 Digital-Only Years

“When the decision was made to cease the publication in print, it was based on indicators that digital-only strategies were growing in popularity with advertisers,” says 1105’s COO, Henry Allain. “We discovered that may be true in some markets, but clearly not in the K-12 ed-tech space. This segment of the market continues to have a vibrant print offering…We needed to be back as part of the mix.”

Krehbiel interpretation: troublemakers and “business development” types who can’t tell the difference between early growth and long-term trends talked this company into an anti-print strategy that didn’t pan out the way they expected.

Jan. 12, Board games in the digital age?, what’s wrong with “print under glass”?, a new kind of iPad, and when everybody wants to be a rock star

Who but a Luddite would create a board game in the “digital” age?

Didn’t you hear? Everything is digital these days. If it’s not on a smart phone, it’s just not … not …. It’s just not! It’s wrong. It’s “old thinking.”

At least that’s what some would say.

While it’s true that video games have eclipsed board and paper games, sales of tabletop games “rose 15 to 20 percent in each of the last three years.” See High-Tech Push Has Board Games Rolling Again.

Those same kids who walk into telephone poles while texting their up-to-the-minute (empty) thoughts still play “Cards Against Humanity,” beer pong, poker, and maybe even Dungeons and Dragons.

“Digital only” and “digital first” is the stuff of keynote speeches, not business reality.

“Print under glass” is a good thing!

In his What to Expect in 2015 (and Beyond) article, Joe Wikerts seems to sniff at the idea of “print under glass” — that is, simply duplicating a print book in a digital format.

… the Kindle is now more than 7 years old and the majority of digital content revenue still comes from “print under glass” format. We’re still basically consuming dumb content on smart devices, regardless of whether it’s a book, a newspaper or a magazine.

Yes, I know, the Kindle was supposed to change everything. Or was that the iPad? Or the Segway? I can never remember.

Tuesday night I came in from the snow and sat down with a warm drink and Conan Doyle’s The Valley of Fear. I have The Complete Sherlock Holmes, so I hefted the large volume and dug right in. The cat appreciates when I read a hardback because he likes to rub his face on the sharp corner of the book.

I also read books on the Kindle app on my iPad, and if I didn’t have the story in print I would’ve gladly purchased the ebook. If I had done that, I would have expected and wanted “print under glass.” I didn’t want games, or trivia questions about Sherlock Holmes, or anything else that “takes advantage of the device.” I simply wanted to read the text.

There are situations where it makes sense to change format, but sometimes it seems that people believe we should change format just because.

‘BYOD’ in education needs a new device

The second prediction on Digital Publishing predictions for 2015 is that education publishers will need to format content for any device — including smart phones — because it’s not reasonable to expect budget-strapped schools to buy iPads for every kid.

I agree that the country is probably not going to spring for an iPad for every kid, but I don’t think the solution is to get kids to work on their smart phones. As I understand it, smart phones are the enemy at schools.

Rather, there might be a market for a new “in school” tablet — with limited functionality and some very strict controls.

When everybody wants to be a rock star, sell guitars

You can either kid yourself and think that you’ll break through the pack and become the hot new rock star, or you can note that everybody in town is a wannabe rock star and provide them with the equipment and services that they need. Guitars. Guitar lessons. Silly outfits. Etc.

Nowadays everybody wants to be an author. You can be silly, like me, and give it a try yourself, or you can provide services to wannabe authors.

A whole lot of new services have taken the smart route and are helping the millions of wannabes. There’s editing services, cover design, help with formatting, help with marketing, etc. It’s probably a good business to be in right now.

Jan. 5, the future of social media in publishing

A curmudgeon’s view of how social media will tranform publishing

For years I’ve been a social media critic, curmudgeon and general doubter. I find Twitter incredibly stupid, the ever-changing rules on Facebook annoy me, and I can never decide whether you’re supposed to wish someone a happy birthday on LinkedIn. There ought to be a social media flowchart with questions like “does it involve cats?,” “is it a picture of food?,” and “are you trying to find a job?”

I’m fairly certain that social media will have a profound impact on all types of publishing, but generally not in the way all the experts have been touting.

For example, I’m a self-published author, and I’ve read several of those books on how to beat the Kindle algorithms and so on. The bottom line is that it’s not enough to write a good book. You have to be good at lots of other things as well — picking the right title, finding the right categories, getting a good cover, using social media to drive traffic, etc. The list of things you need to be able to do is fairly long.

The books say anybody can do it, but the truth is that only very few people are going to be good at all those things. That’s okay, and I’ll explain why.

Think for a moment about music. Some people are really good song writers and some people are really good entertainers. We don’t expect the singer to write all of his own songs.

Or think about comedic actors. Some of them are incredibly funny, but others are just very good at delivering the funny lines that the writers came up with. The actors themselves can be rather boring people in real life.

I’m sure you’re seeing the point, which is that there’s no reason to believe that somebody who is good at creating great content is also going to be good at navigating the twists and turns of social media.

Right now the people who are succeeding are the people who are above average in understanding how to be hip on social media and in how to create worthwhile content. But some people are geniuses at social media and dumber than a mud fence, while others are geniuses at creating content and have the social skills of a potato.

The obvious next step is ghost writing. And apparently it’s happening already. Here’s an interesting story about ghost writers who are glomming on to some person named Zoella. (I had no idea there was such a person until I read this story.)

Apparently Zoella is very popular online, and she’s using that popularity to sell ghost-written content.

The article makes a distinction between legit Youtube sensations and the cheaters. Re: the legit people …

They’ve developed their brands, curated an audience, and created content that is successfully geared towards their demographic.

IOW, they have skills in several different areas. Most people can only do one or two of those things decently. These folk are good at all the elements that make for social media success.

The cheaters, on the other hand, “eat up anything [content creators] come out with” and put their name on it. Even if it’s garbage.

[N]o matter how bad the book is, it’s going to make money

… because it has the celebrity’s name on it.

It doesn’t take much thought to realize that this is a bad long-term strategy. Once people realize that everything coming out under celebrity brand X is garbage, the brand will lose its luster.

These people are paving the way for the next step in social media, which is to allow some people to be the popular front man — the lead singer, the actor, the comedian — while others create the content, do the market research, etc.

Things have to move this way because there is simply no chance that the best advice on any given topic is to be found from a person who is really good on social media. It’s just not going to happen.

Certain people will rise to the top — maybe because they had a really good first novel, or maybe just because they look good in a sweater, but there will be a subgroup of people who have the moxie to be social media royalty. They will rely on something like ghost writers to provide content. The tasks required for success will specialize.

What’s the business application of this?

First, don’t beat up on content creators because they’re not tweeting, facebooking and getting millions of followers or likes or whatever. It’s a rare bird who is a content expert and a social media maven, and it’s foolish to think any company can create a staff full of them.

Second, realize that it’s not enough to understand social media. I understand the violin, but I can’t play it very well. Companies need people who have that indescribable whatsit (apologies to Wooster) that makes them successful on social media.

That’s still not enough. The social media genius also has to have the humility to “read the lines” from their ghost writers, and subject their social media persona to the goals and brand image of the company.

The way I see this working out is not unlike the way companies do display booths at conferences. There needs to be a game, or a good giveaway, or some beautiful people to draw a crowd, but it’s also necessary to have a nerd who actually knows what the heck is going on.

The future of social media is just like the future of any industry or technology. Tasks will get divided up into specialized niches.

The person who does the video channel might not be the content expert. The best-selling author might need somebody else to run his Pinterest page and his Tumblr blog.

The trick going forward is to find and use talent where it exists, and don’t expect one person to be the jack of all trades.

Dec. 29, Viewable ads, plus CNET and the non death of print

What good is the ad you never saw?

Conversations with online ad salesmen can take predictable paths. I’ve always worked in an environment where we measure marketing by how much it costs to get a new sale or subscriber, so I evaluate marketing spend on a cost per acquisition basis, and would prefer to purchase ads on that same basis. Ad salesmen usually want to sell ads on a cost per click, or even a cost per display basis. I tell them a “display” doesn’t mean anything. Just because the server sent the ad doesn’t mean the browser displayed it or the visitor saw it.

When it is possible to talk an ad salesmen into a cost per conversion campaign, they want to count “view through conversions.” That means the web visitor saw the ad, then converted later. This makes sense because hardly anybody clicks on ads these days, so “cost per click” underestimates the effect of the ad. We all know there is some effect from just seeing an ad — otherwise nobody would invest in road-side signs, or print magazine ads.

Also, it’s not really a “view through” conversion but a “display through” conversion. The ad salesman can’t promise that the visitor saw the ad. He can’t even promise that the ad showed up on a part of the page that was viewable in his browser. (More on that below.)

Counting a “view through” is fair, so that you don’t underestimate the effect of the ad, but depending on how you do it you can easily overestimate the effect of the ad. You do this, first, by counting “views” the user never saw, but second, by the length of time you allow between the metric you’re using (display, view, click) and the conversion event. If somebody sees an ad and buys 5 seconds later, you’re pretty safe attributing that ad to that sale. But what if the visitor saw the ad four days ago, or a month ago? The cause and effect chain gets a little shakier.

If you’re buying ads on a “view through” basis you need to watch that time lag very carefully. The ad salesman will try to stretch it out. Keep an eye on what standard they’re using to “count” a conversion, and make sure you have a way of seeing the gap between the event and the conversion.

One part of the tangled mess of online ads is getting a little less tangled. New standards on viewability require people who serve ads to distinguish between the ones that are viewable and the ones that are not. (For example, an ad that is “displayed” down the page where the visitor never scrolled.) There are still some details to work out, but it’s a good development, and it makes the math of ad buying a little more direct.

Marketers would like to be able to track sales to a specific cost so they can calculate the ROI, but as I mentioned in the discussion above, it’s never as simple as that. There’s always a certain amount of guessing and fudging involved. Allowing ad purchasers to only pay for ads that are “viewed” (i.e., on the viewable area of the screen) is a step in the right direction.

Digital magazine launches print product to expand its reach

I’ve covered this before and I don’t mean to harp on it, but anyone who says “print is dead” should be politely escorted to a nearby sink and invited to soak his head until the fever passes.

Tech website CNET is launching a print magazine to expand its reach.

“There’s a different audience on every platform,” said Holt. “It also gives you an opportunity to do different stories. Print’s a better medium for providing context and longform journalism … So there are plenty of reasons for doing it, you grow your audience, you grow your advertising opportunity [and] it gives you a better opportunity for certain kinds of storytelling.”

Wow. Sense.

Everything is not going digital. There is still a place for print, and smart publishers will keep that in mind.

Dec. 22, Talk to your customer-facing employees, “media trends” v. niche publishing, and the advertising addiction

Instead of dreaming up crazy strategies, talk to the people who deal with your customers

I recently read an article about how Barnes & Noble could re-energize the Nook. I’m not linking to the article because it didn’t seem to have any clear recommendation, but it got me thinking about big picture, grandiose business ideas. That is, the kind that might succeed spectacularly or fail spectacularly. The kind some “genius” comes up with.

Rather than relying on geniuses and betting the company on a throw of the dice, I think B&N management should take a more careful approach. Talk to the people who manage the Barnes & Noble bookstores and coffee shops. Talk to customer support for the Nook. Listen to what customers are saying.

They are probably doing this already, but I suspect the information is being fed into the “genius grand idea generator.” Some VP is going to make a Big Decision that will either save the company or ruin it.

Instead of relying on the Big Genius at corporate HQ, they should allow individual business units to come up with ideas and then let them experiment. The goal is to try lots of things and fail quickly and small in pursuit of the good idea(s) that can win big.

The idea that one uber genius is going to find the exactly perfect strategy is far less likely than that somebody among the company’s ordinary creative people will find something good.

They should also bear in mind the advice I heard at an industry conference recently, where the speaker bucked received wisdom and said you should never listen to your customers — rather, you should watch what they do. For example, most restaurant customers are too polite to tell you that they didn’t like their meal, but you can see if they finished it.

A thousand customers telling you that they’d love to have such and so doesn’t mean much. What matters is if, when there’s money on the table, they’ll actually do it.

The implication for B&N is to look at user data on the Nook.

The path should be (1) gather anecdotes from customer-facing employees, and maybe do some surveys, (2) look at the data on actual customer behavior, (3) give managers access to that information and allow them to come up with ideas, then (4) do lots of small experiments.

The future of publishing is in niches

A friend sent me this article — Michael Wolff on digital media in 2015: ‘A deluge of crap’ — which has some interesting observations about big picture media.

On the big picture scale, media is all about click bait and catchy titles and slideshows and traffic. Or, as Michael Wolff puts it, big picture media is all about a deluge of crap.

But that’s just what the kids do, not what real people with jobs do.

Real people with jobs have to worry about real things. Prices. Regulations. Facts. Processes. The latest buzz feed click bait is just a distraction.

People want help with their jobs. E.g., how do I fire somebody without getting sued? What’s really going on with natural gas prices? How do I get the best tax deduction?

People also want to be a part of a community where they can get to know and learn from their peers.

These needs won’t be met by digital crap that’s designed to get clicks and page views, and these real-world needs represent business opportunities for niche publishers.

Pay no attention to the people who want to steer your business on the basis of some kind of grand “the world is heading ___” blather. (Unless you’re Buzz Feed, I guess.) The list of “next big things” touted by industry experts and explained on fancy power points at industry conferences is very long — and, like clickbait, it’s a deluge of crap.

Instead, find out what people need in their niche and provide that.

Foregoing short-term ad revenue for long-term gain

The Sorry State of Online Publishing makes some very good points about how websites are sacrificing long-term gains to get more ad revenue.

As Jon Stewart recently told New York magazine, “It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, ‘Come on in here and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

All of us have been fooled by those ridiculous articles. The catchy headline promises something, but the content doesn’t deliver. That sort of strategy might get a website more traffic, but when it continues to not deliver on the promise then visitors learn it’s not a trustworthy site. Also, when the site forces the user to load ten different pages to read “ten amazing things about X” — just so the site can get more ad impressions — the reader goes away mad.

I think everyone knows that this is an awful way to treat people and an awful way to run a content-based business. The problem is that publishers have become addicted to the ad revenue. If they change their site to a more reader-friendly design, revenue will certainly plummet. At least in the short term.

I suspect that a company that respects its readers — without the deceptive links, excess of ads, unnecessary page reloads, etc. — will win out in the long term. But who’s willing to take that risk? Who’s willing to give up the revenue today on a bet that respecting the reader will result in more revenue next year?