Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where the (profitable) blogosphere ends

SAN FRANCISCO - MARCH 10:  People work inside ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

My buddy Rob pointed me to this great blog post about how hard it is to earn money from blogging. There are a lot of really great economic analyses at work here, but what it really comes down to is this: Too many people are chasing too few dollars for anyone to make a living.

The whole point of blogging is to democratize Web publishing. The barrier to entry is so low that almost anybody can blog, so almost everybody (seemingly) does. Ironically, there's a whole universe of people auditioning to be the next Robert Scoble when Scoble himself (according to the article) is having trouble making money at what he does.

Doubly ironic, as a guy who makes part of his living blogging, I'm happy about this. Here's why.

There are four areas of competition for any product or service in a capitalist system: Product (quality), Price (cost), Promotion (awareness), Placement (convenience). Do I know something exists, is it worth buying, at what price, and where can I get it?

On the Internet, there are really only 1.5 avenues of competition.

Placement online is nonexistent, as anything on the Internet is available everywhere on the Internet, barring some national censorship or workplace ISP filters. The price for content is free, as anyone who tries to charge for content has more or less failed. So that leaves Product and Promotion, and I think promotion is really only half an avenue of competition anymore.

Another buddy, Jason Falls, argues that promotion is where the next big fight is online. That's why everyone is nuts over Twitter and Facebook and, until recently, blogs--they're a new, untapped avenue for promotion. But they're promoting offline goods online. They're middlemen. So what promotes these social media goods and services? Search.

David Weiner at Eyeball Economy argues that Search-based promotion will soon be a core Public Relations function, even as it is already a Marketing/Advertising function. Falls argues the same thing about Social Media--PR should run it. I don't entirely agree for many reasons, but here's why I don't think search engine optimization and gaming social media will be as big a fight as everyone claims: TechMeme.

TechMeme and its brethren autoblogs has automated the process that Fark, Digg and BoingBoing do manually--selecting cool and popular stuff for a specific audience. Google News operates similarly. While I'll never concede that automated aggregation will be of higher quality than human-chosen aggregation, it's already good enough to compete and will only get better. Just as with SEO, I foresee an arms race of PR-trained techies out there trying to find new ways to game these automated systems, and engineers countering the gaming, such that wild swings or radical successes are rare. Filtering out the "good stuff" from the democratized Web will only get easier for content consumers, which is a good thing for readers and rough for promoters and bloggers.

So where does that leave us bloggers looking to make a dime? With no choice but to be the good stuff. The Web is inching towards forcing everyone, everywhere to compete on quality as applies to content. The good stuff will get aggregated. The good stuff will get consumed. The good stuff will get monetized. The people who consistently make the good stuff will get paid, which is good and bad.

Quality content requires quality content creators. In other words, talent. And here's the scary part: Talent doesn't scale.

You can't turn one good blogger into five good bloggers by throwing more servers at the problem. You have to go out and find, groom, and pay five good bloggers. And there's rarely a magic formula for finding them. They're a rare commodity, but those that can do the job can expect that in the near future they'll be paid their true worth for the service.

That said, it's not enough to be first anymore, because any blog worth doing is going to have hordes of amateur competitors out there doing it for the love, not the money, and occasionally doing it faster or better than you. The secret will be in consistency of quality--being good often enough to assure regular readership and regular monetization. Success will be hard. Success will be expensive. Success will be slow. But I'm betting the payoff will be worth it.
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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why I don't give a damn about the iPhone

Well, a number of reasons prevent me from not giving a damn about the iPhone, or smart phones in general. The first is that for all the venues of geekdom I inhabit, techno-geekery isn't on the list. I don't want a gadget unless I need a gadget. My saving throw versus teh shiny is +47, and immune to magical effects, even when cast by PR warlocks like Steve Jobs (I believe he's a an Epic half-elf 27th level podcaster under 4th Edition rules). Call me strange, but there you have it.

Speaking of need, most smartphones are intended for those that are psychotropically addicted to their intravenous e-mail drips and even if I were to fall into that category--my wife would argue it's the case--my daily commute is 15 minutes on a bad day, so I'm never that far from the suckling teat of teh intarweebs should the cravings strike. Unlike my former CNET colleagues in the greater Bay Area, I'm not trapped in a mass-transit rail coffin for 2-3 hours per day jonesin' for my music, mail and a nice game of Tetris. It's also why my household didn't get an iPod until 18 months ago, and all that little gizmo gets used for is an enhancement to the wife's car stereo. Saves us the trouble of hauling CDs in and out of the house.

But the real reason I've not lept atop the dogpile of iPhone fanatics comes via this little back-o'-the-napkin calculation from fellow Louisville geek Ben Thomas:
"AT&T’s Text Messages Cost $1310 per Megabyte."
What is this, 1983? I'll consider a seat on the mobile Web bandwagon when data access charges look like a figure from the 21st century, not a bad econ flashback to Reaganomics.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The most discouraging good news I've heard in a while

This Ira Glass video has been making the rounds, but it struck a chord with me because I was contemplating dragging an old story out of my files and giving it a go at magazine submission. After letting it sit for about year, I had stopped loathing it and began thinking it might be halfway okay. After taking a gander at Ira's wisdom, I realize that, yeah, the work is still pretty mediocre. I managed to accomplish some stuff with it, but it still doesn't hit all the notes I want in all the ways I'd like.

Basically, I'm having a creative crisis. Do I put my stuff out there on the long, ugly trek of multi-market submission when I myself believe the story is just good, not great? Or do I throw it back in the vault with the intent to recycle the idea once I find that voice that will cure, or at least mitigate, my natural self-loathing tendencies?

I'm leaning towards leaving the junk in the trunk, but I'll cop to having lost perspective on the quality of my work a while back. I've never liked anything I've written. Ever.

In either case, I've got to get my volume of work back up. One story every three months ain't cutting it. Loser.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

For those who wonder what my day job is like...

The local dead-tree news vessel did a little write-up of my day job recently, and it published yesterday. It doesn't directly convey what we're really up to--which is no fault of the writer, Bill Wolfe, who is a friend of mine--but because we're still in the "being cagey" phase about the technology component of our enterprise.

We've got some really cool tech that's going to complement the content we're producing, but since the tech isn't built yet, we're talking a lot about the content. What content? Glad you asked.

Well, first up, we've launched a few Web video shows centered on the young "new to food" crowd, with accompanying blogs. I laid the groundwork for each of these show concepts, but my plucky band of novice producers, new-to-video writers, and semi-pro actors have really made this stuff their own. To date, our lineup includes:
We've got a couple more shows in the pipeline, and the possibility of doing this little prototype on a regular basis. I'm really pulling for the latter, as it's the most enjoyable--and challenging--script I've yet written. Sarah East, the on-screen talent, really belted this out of the park.

Not bad for a stalling action until our next-gen video player is ready, eh? Here's hoping this doesn't flame out before it gets profitable. I doubt I'll get this much freedom to play again for a while.