Phil Sim

Web, media, PR and… footy

Value + Sustainability = Future of media

I went to my first media event (well, that I wasn’t running anyway) for the first time in about two years this week and it felt wierdly surreal. I think it had something to do with the fact that I hadn’t done it for so long, yet it was so eerily familiar as well. There were only about eight or nine journos there, but among them were Brad Howarth and Louisa Hearn, who I both worked with on Computerworld about ten years ago, Gus Kidman who started in tech media on the very same day I did, Len Rust who has been around for as long as anyone I know can remember, and Vic Lea, who was the first journo I hired to come work with me on MediaConnect!

Anyway, the event was a media roundtable to discuss the upcoming Future of Media summit being held by Ross Dawson’s Future Exploration Network. Anyway, I’m hardly about to miss the chance to sit around over a free launch and gab about the future of media, plus MediaConnect is a partner of the event, so up I rocked.

Ross gave an opening presentation where he talked about all the usual Web 2.0/new medi a trends that we in this corner of the blogosphere tend to rant about ad nauseam. However, what Ross has done is wrapped all of that up into a Strategic Framework that the Future Exploration Network is interestingly publishing under the Creative Commons License.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the graphic on the Web but FEN have done a really, nice job of mapping all of this stuff into a nice pretty picture.

As I’m quickly discovering though, for me, the event really got worthwhile when the discussion opened up and it got me thinking somewhat about a number of issues about the media and by the end of the event, I think everyone was wishing I’d shut up. But hey, I don’t get to these kinds of things very often, so I was making the most of it!

Anyway, the point that kept coming home to me, and the factor I think is missing from the Strategic Framework is that it doesn’t factor in the two most important concepts in media which is 1) value and 2) sustainability. During the round table we talked about things like professional vs amateur content, local vs global, format and distribution wars, but in the end the only thing that matters is value to the consumer.

In the past, value has been just one factor in the media equation. Of equal, or even more importance has been largely economic factors like distribution costs, revenue income, staffing, etc. But those walls have been largely torn down. It is possible to start a kick-arse media company with absolutely no money if you’ve got a compelling enough content product in the right market. As I mentioned in a recent blog, TechCrunch has proved that.

All that matters is which SUSTAINABLE formula can best meet the readers information/entertainment needs. It doesn’t matter if its professional or amateur, text or video, distributed to mobile phones or the web. All that matters is that the end experience for the user is the most compelling offering around. Users will go where the VALUE is.

It’s up to all media companies to cut up the four spheres that this framework is based upon – content, format, distribution, revenue – and simply come up with the best value proposition for the reader/viewer/listener. The trick of course is that for every reader that’s going to be different, which is where the challenge of finding the point of sustainability arises.

And sustainability doesn’t have to be monetary but I do believe it will always come down to payback. Nobody does anything for nothing. Whether it be fiscal payback or emotional/intellectual/sexual/ego payback – the content generator or editor needs some form of compensation for their efforts and the creators of social media need to think very carefully about where that comes from and if it can be sustained, how can it be sustained.

I still look at 95 per cent of Web 2.0/new media plays and to me its glaringly obvious that they haven’t even begun to solve this equation.

Anyway, for me that was one of two big picture issues that are now glaringly central to the future of the media. The other is, does the media have a future at all? I’ll try and blog on that one tomorrow.

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What I’m up to

Clearly, I'm not blogging so much anymore. I'm trying to ensure I blog at least once a week right now so as I don't lose all momentum but I've finally accepted that when you're busy, it's impossible to keep everything going at full pace and if you don't prioritise, either you burn out or you just do a poor job of everything.

Right now, I'm very focused on MediaConnect. We are launching our new event Influence 2006 this week and I'll probably blog a bit about that in a couple of days and we're also gearing up to release of the new MediaConnect websites, which I'm very excited about.

That's been an interesting and enjoyable experience. I was always going to try and incorporate a good dose of 'Web 2.0' into the new MediaConnect portals, but this experience has re-inforced to me that so many of the pillars of Web 2.0, we've already been doing for the last five to six years.

I haven't been able to put as much time as I would have liked into our 1Eyed project. I've been frustrated that I haven't been able to recruit a high standard of franchise operators for the various sites in the network and subsequently still our original franchise that I operate generates the lion's share of the traffic. I had hoped that the site would gather momentum organically but its going to need a kickstart to get it rolling properly. Somewhere I've got to find the time to make that happen, but I do have a lead that could prove interesting.
I've also pretty much figured out that I can't turn over a lot of content for both 1Eyed and Squash. So I think its going to be my Eels in the winter months and Squash in the summer. 

John Hyde tells me he's getting pretty close to releasing a rough, beta build of the Wyaworks platform. Our problem is that John's too successfully monetised the business already. He's got a heap of consulting work based on the original platform and subsequently, we're not churning through the development as quickly as we would have liked. We're probably going to have to revisit the business model and look for a bit of funding earlier than we thought so John can ramp up a little with some help so as to take care of both the consulting work and the software development.

And finally, MediaConnect is moving, physically. We're going to leave behind our big, old office in Crows Nest and head out west closer to where I, and most of the staff, actually live. No more hour-plus commutes every day. We've got a nice, new office, overlooking the water (admittedly it's a man-made lake, but hey, it's better than the view of the tin-roof we've got now) but I'm not looking forward to moving all the phone lines, network, furnitue, addresses, etc. 

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Attack don’t defend

If you come from a country that has already been bundled out of the World Cup – the USA for instance (sorry, couldn’t resist) – you may not have watched the glorious Australia vs Croatia match, where the Green and Gold managed to snare a two-all draw and advance through to the second round for the first time ever! Go Aussie.

It was a thoroughly entertaining, not least made possible by the fact that, in reality, the game couldn’t be drawn. For Australia, a draw meant victory while Croatia had to win outright. That meant that there was always one team seeking a goal with the other trying to defend their advantage.

What was obvious about that, was that the match was for the full ninety minutes dominated by the team that was behind. The one that needed the goal was always the team that seemed likely to score next. While, the leading team, who only minutes earlier might have looked fabulous when they were trying to get to the lead, crept into their shell when in front and struggled to match the intensity of their opponent.

Thinking about it, I think that goes for most things. When we attack, when we aggressively strive for our goals or to overtake someone we perform better. When we’re trying to protect a lead, focusing more on what the other guy is doing than what we’re doing, we struggle.

Certainly, you don’t need to go any further than media companies to see this in action. In the New York Times today there is article which analyses the companies that are doing online well, but in the end it notes that offline revenues still make up the vast bulk of revenues.

That’s where media companies struggle. They’re still trying to defend these massive, handsome revenues and they’re all worried what online will do to those revenues. And as much as pure play folk will scream that media companies need to cannibalise themselves, the fact is the longer the transition to online takes place, the more money traditional media companies will make. That’s hardly a lot of incentive to really make attacking Internet plays.

But that doesn’t mean media companies should just sit back. They should be attacking. Not in their core, revenue-generating markets, but in new markets. Online media is disruptive. So you can choose to be the one being disruptive or you can be the disruptor.

There is no better example of this, than the big, Australian media company Fairfax. Fairfax

operates the flagship broadsheet newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne, our two biggest cities and are one of the most highly regarded and respected media proprietors in the country. Yet, their traditional revenues, classifieds, are clearly under threat.

So Fairfax have looked to diversify their business. Good move. And how have they done that. They’ve made a number of acquisitions that have taken them into the New Zealand market, including an online auction site, a dating site, and so forth. They’re buying companies and making plays that are first and foremost aimed at protecting their existing revenue streams. Yet, you talk to people working in online in Fairfax and you keep hearing the same message, that the company struggles to really, hammer forward on the web because it’s always compromised by protecting newspaper revenues.

Why not then, attack new markets. Why not put your really, smart people, who get online, into building new businesses. Go into new markets, where you’re not the incumbent, where you’re not trying to defend a position, where you can attack with a focus on advancing, rather than protecting one’s turf.

In a media world, that every day looks more and more global, Fairfax’ international initiatives have been focused on the tiny New Zealand market. There’s are markets out there, infinitely bigger than Australia and Fairfax opts to focus on one that is much smaller than the one it already services – I don’t get it?

Even if you bomb, making a global play, you’ll win because you will have done online properly. The lessons learnt being the aggressor rather than the defender will be infinitely more instructive when that day finally does come and the economics force you to make online your priority.

But if a big, media company like Fairfax, can’t carve out a couple of global, niche markets, then when the dam is ready to burst on their core businesses, what chance really do they have plugging the holes, anyway.

When you spend all your time looking over your shoulder, worrying about what’s coming up behind you, you can bet your going to fall over, eventually.

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The Juggernaut that is TechCrunch

When I talk to traditional publishers and editors, as I invariably do in my day gig, and they say they don't believe blogs are ever really going to impact their business, as they invariably do when I have that conversation, I invariably end up pointing them to TechCrunch.

It's kinda hard-to-believe that TechCrunch only turned one today. In just a year, it has come to totally own, dominate it's market niche. In doing so, it has cut a leg or so out from underneath a couple of major tech titles like, ZDNet and even the likes of Infoworld and eWeek. Bet none of those guys saw that coming when TechCrunch launched as a simple, one-man blog 12 months ago.

Full credit to Mike Arrington, who has done an absolutely amazing job. But it would be wrong to view Mike as a blogger. He's run TechCrunch as a professional, media business since the very early days. He's placed a big emphasis on marketing, he's built a community via events and networking, he's brought in professionals and external contributors when needed and he's taken every opportunity to monetise his success, enabling the snowball to keep up its momentum.

Most bloggers don't have the time, resources, talent to fulfill half of those criteria, but really the most important one is to continually build on your mometum. It's the same of any business but double important in publishing. You've got to keep feeding the beast and the more you feed the beast, the hungrier it gets so you've got to keep upping the ante and that's really, really difficult to do unless you're particularly motivated and talented. Heaven knows, I've had no success doing that with this blog. On my list of priorities, Squash sits at about number ten and subsequently I've never, ever taken advantage of the various stages I've had success to keep the ball rolling. And the frequent dormant periods have eroded a lot of the wins I've managed to have in the past.

But that's really, the only thing that traditional publishers have to rely on. The fact that most bloggers don't have the time, the expertise or the drive to keep evolving their business like a traditional publisher can. A successful media operator is like the Juggernaut character in the new X-Men film. Once it builds up momentum, the momentum just gets stronger and stronger and it becomes unstoppable. TechCrunch proves that when you have a Juggernaut like Arrington, blog-style media can steal eyeballs and consequently revenue. I think TechCrunch has set a precedent for all aspiring blogging Juggernauts and if I was a traditional media operator, I'd be listening for the rumbling…

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Real-time is the key to communal applications

Within 2 minutes of someone having a Google Spreadsheet invite at our office, we had put it into use as a key tool in our day-to-day activities.

I've been forced to come to the realisation that spreadsheeets are really much more powerful than I'd ever given them credit for. For a long, long time, I've lamented why people would create spreadsheet-style applications when they could build a simple database and get infinitely more power.

However, what a spreadsheet delivers is ultimate simplicity than serves a wealth of purposes. A few of the guys in my organisation, do everything on spreadsheets and as much as I've tried to disuade that in the past, I now tend to view spreadsheets as a bit of an application prototyping environment.

After all, most database-style tools now allow you to easily import data you may have created with a spreadsheet.

However, the problem with a spreadsheet is if you  have multiple people editing the same spreadsheet it can get very messy and thats exactly where the real time update ability on Google Spreadsheet comes to the fore.

As I speak, I've got three guys all working on a company spreadsheet. Any change anyone makes can be seen by all of them as it is made. We've got no issues about version changes, read-only access, data not being saved, it's just pure simplicity. And that's what a spreadsheet is all about.

Real-time updating of communal information is key. Any online application that doesn't have this capability is doomed to fail, in my humble opinion. I've tried to get people using online services like Writely, ZohoSheet, etc and they've all fallen down in this regard and people have given up on them because of this.

So while Google has copped some flack in some quarters of late, with people lamenting it's just another me-too product, I must disagree. It and GMail are the only web-based apps I've seen people take too almost immediately. 

I think it will prove to be disruptive. (BTW, EditGrid appears to be another online spreadsheet with real-time updating capabilities). 

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