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June 2008 Archives

June 2, 2008

Say It Ain't So, MLB

Recently, two articles have caught my eye about Major League Baseball. The first was a report that the Supreme Court recently rejected an appeal by MLB to intervene in a dispute over fantasy baseball:
MLB's Internet media arm, later joined by the pro-baseball players' union, had claimed that C.B.C. Distribution and Marketing--a Missouri company that sells fantasy sports products via the Web, e-mail, regular mail, and phone--was using baseball players' names and statistics without a license, thereby violating the players' rights to publicity under state intellectual property laws.

The second article, concerned a matter even more compelling than fantasy baseball: little league uniforms.

MLB is suing uniform vendors who use names such as the Phillies or Braves without paying licensing fees, prompting one Chicago Little League team to swap uniforms for a generic Bulldogs nickname this year. This means that if Little Leaguers want to use official names and logos, they would have to buy uniforms through Majestic Athletics, the exclusive apparel licensee of the MLB. This, of course, is more expensive than using other vendors.

After reading these two articles, I can't decide whether MLB is colossally greedy, stupid or both. I understand trying to maximize the value of your product, but not at the expense of your customers. In this case, it's not just your customers, its your best customers. Of all the fans, fantasy baseball players are the most passionate about the sport. They live and breathe baseball. MLB should be spending its time and resources figuring out how to create more fantasy baseball players - not nit picking over which site hosts the games.

And as for the little league suit, wow. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall in that meeting: "Guys, you know what, there are little league teams out there not using the official MLB uniform vendor - you know the one the we make only a very small % of our revenue from? Yeah, I figure we can grow that business by suing, get this, little league. Brilliant, no? It'll have the double whammy of both alienating our future fans and getting us some awful PR." Nice work.

Now, I know what your thinking: who cares? MLB is a monopoly, no one can compete anyway. Why not try to wring every buck out that we can? Customer loyalty only matters if your customers have options.

Fair enough, that's probably true today. But I got a feeling they'll be singing a different tune tomorrow. Right now, MLB makes a lot of its living off of its TV deals - but TV viewership is in a free fall. As TV loses its built in audience, it also loses its built in revenue. And this is gonna be bad news for expensive content providers like MLB. They may actually be forced to win audiences over on their own in the future. Web distribution, pay per view cable deals, etc., which are all a la carte pricing, may end up being the heart of their business. And at that point, alienating fans through BS like this will matter.

Think about it, if TV implodes (like newspapers did) and MLB is making its bones by direct selling of $20/month cable packages, do you think that they will do things to discourage anyone form playing fantasy baseball? Or prevent anyone from giving them the free advertising that little league team names do? Guessing not. And also guessing that the club owners and other folks that work there then will be cursing their predecessors who pulled this crap in past and made their jobs a lot harder.

June 4, 2008

Twitter: Bad Tech = Good Marketing?

Rich and I were laughing the other day that Twitter's scaling problems, while annoying for users, have actually been a marketing bonanza for them. You would think that as an IM service, being down continuously would be a disaster. Users would grow tired of these technical issues and flee to a similar alternative, right?

Wrong. Twitter not only continues to thrive, its competitors continue to flounder. Check it out:

It's actually even better than that for Twitter. Avid Twitterers use the continued down time to not just complain, but also to tell everyone else how unbelievably great and valuable the twitter service is. Every other start-up wishes it could be so lucky.

Now there is the risk that Twitter could become the next Friendster and alienate its user base so badly that they end up fleeing to another site. The network effect has strength, but it does tap out. People are already commenting that they'd leave Twitter but for the fact that their friends are still on there.

So what would make people leave Twitter? Who knows? But it's clear that it'll take more than just better architecture. That problem actually is growing their audience.

June 5, 2008

The Power of One vs. SEO

We live in a multidimensional world yet most things are singularly defined. There's some sort of inability of the human brain to define most things beyond a single definable description.

Whether its a movie star that is known for his action films (and struggles whenever cast in a romantic comedy), a pop star that is known for dance music (and struggles to make a country album), car company known for sedans (who struggles when they release a sports car), the list goes on and on. Think about that favorite song you love - it's usually one brief segment that you identify with it. In music parlance, that's the "hook" and its what matters the most.

In the market place, once your known for your "thing", moving into something else is really hard. It actually is probably harder than just starting anew. It's so hard that for those that do succeed, they are usually given a new label ("renaissance man", "slash", etc.). At Topix we learned this when we started out as a news aggregator. We were successful, which is great. But now the site is really a thriving community site. So why do most folks still identify us as a news aggregator? The power of one.

Marketers have known that for years, and have spent lots of blood, sweat and tears trying to come up with that one thing that they can wrap their brand around. The quicker picker upper. Tastes great, less filling (pretty clever, huh? Two things merged into one). Driving (BMW) and luxury (Mercedes). Trying harder (Avis) and convenience (Hertz). Multidimensional products defined in singular terms.

Unfortunately, lots of online start-ups have forgotten these lessons. Why? One word: SEO. In the Google regulated world fo the internet, if you launch a bunch of content/ information under static URL's and optimize those URL's to various keywords, you can actually catch a fair amount of traffic. This SEO traffic is so easy and appealing, the natural reaction is "where do I get more?" The answer of course is optimizing more content, but for a completely different set of queries.

As a result you have people launching many, many pages of of data that is wholly unrelated in the consumers mind. This goes completely against the power of one. So yes, they get their additional traffic, but it is at a cost.

These sites that spam the search engine may provide content for a variety of queries but completely fail in sticking in the consumers mind as a destination site. What's the difference you say? Well, many things. Selling ads to people for a site they never heard of, regardless of traffic numbers, is, um challenging. So you get stuck with the networks. Also, when you live by the SEO sword, you can easily die by the SEO sword. Just ask the price comparison engines. And finally, other than a few chosen sites, the SEO traffic you receive caps out well short of that needed to grab a piece of the consumers mindshare. But I've already said my piece there.

June 6, 2008

And You Thought You Were Having A Bad Day

http://view.break.com/513310 - Watch more free videos

June 9, 2008

Its Actually an Old-Paper

Ken Doctor's analysis of the recently announced Sam Zell plans for the Tribune is spot on. Up until now I was impressed by Zell's turn this place upside down mentality. It's exactly the kick-in-the-pants that an entrenched organization (like newspapers) need to turn things around.

But turning a place upside down only works if you there's a plan for once you have it there. As Ken points out, in this instance, there doesn't seem to be one.

What is surprising is that in publicly announcing cutbacks, Randy Michaels, Zell's radio guy-turned-Tribune czar, is focusing on, of all things, PRINT.

Take his notion of how to make the papers more readable and sell more of them.

Michaels saying the papers will become more USA Today-like, with:

"a new look and feel in each market, emphasizing what people are telling us they want in the research: charts, graphs, maps, lists."

Wow. Great solution for 1992 perhaps, 10 years after USA Today turned the newspaper world, Pleasantville-like, from black and white to color. The problem with that is that USA Today is essentially flat last several years in circulation, and it's got a national base and multiplicity of hotel/travel programs to keep the numbers up.

Ken's whole analysis is worth the read. Anyway, I just started chuckling that this is the second instance in which a company I know had a chance to pick one of two words for its business and managed to pick the wrong one. Tribune is a newspaper company - emphasis on the word "new." I mean, that's the crux of the business, right? Tell me what's new? Its the timeliness of the content that makes the paper interesting, not the format delivered (the "paper" part).

In today's world, any paper that is delivered just once a day is going to be old by definition. Call newspaper the latest oxymoron, right next to jumbo shrimp. Old-paper is more appropriate. Any plan to fill an old-paper with a bunch of crappy charts and graphs is not going to change this face. Even the crappy charts will be dated by the time it reaches me on a paper.

Online however, is what is interesting. And, Tribune does have a successful presence there as well. Turning more resources there seems to make more sense than trying to revitalize the old-paper. Well, that and fixing the ad model too. (Couldn't help myself). In any event, looks like out of the choices new and paper, Tribune picked the wrong word.


If your curious, the other instance I thought of where a company picked the wrong word was when Ask Jeeves ditched the name "Jeeves" and re-branded themselves ask.com. In my mind, the "Jeeves" part was the only interesting part of their name. Ask was and is plain vanilla and hard to brand around. I'm not saying Jeeves is a great search engine name either (it's not), but it was the better of the two choices. Even today, a couple of years later, when referring to the company, I still call them Jeeves. Beats saying Ask.com.

June 11, 2008

The Power of the Sports Guy

From today's Boston Sports Guy column:
Q: What has been the most eye-opening e-mail you've received in the Finals?

A: Probably this one from Toronto:

I've noticed in your columns that you refer to the "TD Banknorth Garden" as "Whatever The Hell The Garden Is Called." We at TD Bank spent over $100 million purchasing the naming rights to the Garden. We would appreciate if you mentioned the "TD Banknorth Garden" by its proper name. With your large number of readers, it would make our investment worthwhile. Thank you.


Ed Clark, president & CEO of TD Bank

(You know what? Ed probably has the power to screw up my credit or something. I'm going to listen to him. The TD Banknorth Garden it is!)

It's good to be the king.

June 16, 2008

AP.com is the Answer

All of hullabaloo the past couple of days regarding the AP and fair use has made me chuckle. In my mind, this is sooooo 2005. I remember the day we got our first lawsuit threat from the AP - it was pre-newspaper company purchase of Topix and out phone rang. Rich took the call from the AP person who wanted to know whether we wanted the complaint faxd or fed-ex'd to us.

Obviously, things worked out fine with them. We cut a deal where we actually became a paid licensee of their content and let them use some of our technology to tag their stories. We ended up doing similar deals with Reuters, CBS and a bunch of newspapers. We figured that if we wanted to make our bones in the world as a news site, it would require us to actually host some news stories.

Even at that time though, I remember thinking that the AP was in for a long road. They're in this weird position where they produce an extraordinary amount of great content, but host pretty much none of it. This puts them directly at odds with their licensees (like Topix, Yahoo, Google, AOL, etc.). The people who host the content LOVE when bloggers (or anyone) links to a story on their site. Links = traffic = revenue. But the AP doesn't see any of this traffic or revenue from this activity (ignoring any revenue sharing deals they may have with licensees). So its viewed as a lost licensing fee opportunity and that they don't like. So they end up suing the very folks their customers love. Weird.

The answer of course is obvious. The newspapers who own the AP should decide on one site (AP.com, Topix, whomever) to host the full content of all the AP stories, eliminate all of the AP's third party licensing deals and let (in fact encourage!) everyone to link to their stories to this single site. Bloggers continue to link, AP benefits from the links via revenue on the site and no one gets sued. Sounds easy right?

And it is. Provided you can talk an organization owned by a bunch of newspaper companies to take swift and decisive action in a manner which may pinch their bottom line short term. In other words, in this case suing a bunch of bloggers is probably the path of least resistance for the AP.

June 19, 2008

Thoughts on Twitter, Friendster and MySpace

I was having lunch with a couple of folks today and the subject of Twitter came up. With the company's notorious scaling issues (and accompanying great marketing), why hasn't someone come in and taken the market? Where is the MySpace equivalent to Twitter's Friendster?

An easy explanation would be that that while Twitter has technical issues, more important is that it has a network of users. The strength of that network cuts off at the pass anyone who challenges them. I don't buy that argument. Networks, like swarms, move frequently. Friendster to MySpace to Facebook. No network effect prevented that migration.

In my mind, to entice people to switch networks, you need to offer them something new. Copying the existing market-leader won't do it. You basically need that one killer feature which defines the product and gives people a REASON to move.

In MySpace's situation, I actually think their feature was (a) it was an LA-based company; and (b) they appealed to the music scene. Those aren't typical product features, but in this case they were. Everyone in the bay area was on Friendster - there's no way a bay area social network that appealed to the same crowd was going to win. MySpace went after a different crowd in a different way and the swarm migrated.

Emily commented this on my last post on Twitter:

The complication added by the axillary features like you find on pownce is just annoying for someone that likes elegant, clean, simplicity.

Judging from their traffic, she's 100% right. The feature set of the company hasn't given anyone a reason to move. - at least for the bay area, early adopter crowd that Emily is part of.

Who knows, maybe the Twitter-killer feature is geographic, like MySpace, and the ultimate Twitter killer needs to come from someplace like LA or New York. Or maybe there is no Twitter-killer feature and the network will rule (like with eBay). But for some reason I doubt it.

June 24, 2008

Yahoo's Lack of Leadership

It's only been a year since Jerry Yang took over at Yahoo, but it sure seems longer than that. Prior to Jerry it was Terry Semmel who led the purple and yellow. Perhaps Jerry could blame Terry on why the company is in the position its in today, but that wouldn't really be fair.

Terry Semmel failed as Yahoo's leader because he missed the market. He undervalued search, didn't understand the dynamics of user generated content and tried to run Yahoo as an old-school content/ display ad shop, albeit with a different UI. But in my mind these are actually understandable, if not forgiveable, mistakes.

When Terry Semmel started, the economics of search hadn't played out yet, UGC was still in its infancy and most of the industry was trying to apply the old media rules to the new medium. And besides, it's not like anyone though Terry was a new media visionary - he was a Hollywood guy. Hollywood does two things: creates content and monetizes it. What a shock that when he came to Yahoo that's what he tried to do. He was hired to replicate the hollywood model at Yahoo and that's what he did. Obviously we now know that it was the wrong strategy, but that's hindsight talking.

But even under his leadership, Yahoo stayed atop as the most trafficked site on the net, and one that made billions of dollars annually. Terry's biggest problem is that another company came in an took a large part (note: not all) of the most lucrative business from underneath him. In other words, Terry failed to be Google. But then again, so did everybody else. That's a strategic error, not a leadership failure.

When Terry Semmel left the asset was still relatively strong, just some opportnity costs effecting its value. Jerry Yang however is a different story. There's an old saying that bad leaders don't make bad decisions, they make no decisions at all. When Jerry Yang took the reigns over at Yahoo his first, decisive act was to...wait for it....spend 100 days figuring stuff out. Ugh. And it only got worse after that.

The job of a leader is to lead. Its to make decisions, tough ones, in a timely manner and to generally be that authoritative force that inspires those being led. They might not make the right choice every time - but that often times doesn't really matter. Most bad decisions can be fixed. It's the paralysis that comes with not making decisions that can't be overcome. That type of paralysis leads to lost confidence of the troops/ employees - and once that happens, you're done. Every decision is questioned - openly and publicly - defections occur, factions are formed, etc. It's the paved road to failure.

And that's where Jerry finds himself now. It's not his actions that have been the problem, its his inaction. Think about it, his first 100 days, after all that thinking/ evaluating, led to...what? Ok, you don't like the Microsoft deal, fine - instead your going to do....what? It's not been poor stratigic decision that led the asset of Yahoo to be where it is today, it the been lack of guidance and leadership. There's no vision/ plan/ leadership to inspire the troops. Unfortunately, there's only one way to fix that.

June 26, 2008

PowerSet for $100M

Venture Beat reports that PowerSet just got purchased by Microsoft for $100M:
Powerset, of San Francisco, has developed a technology that attempts to understand the full meanings of phrases you type in while searching, and it returns results based on that understanding.

By buying Powerset, Microsoft is hoping to close the perceived quality gap with Google’s search engine. The move comes as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer continues to argue that improving search is Microsoft’s most important task. Microsoft’s market share in search has steadily declined, dropping further and further behind first-place Google and second place Yahoo.

Congrats to the PowerSet team...makes me wonder what a company that crawls and indexes the entire web, not just one site, is worth...hmmm.

UPDATE:TechCrunch says not so fast...

UPDATE #2: And we're done...

June 30, 2008

A Walk Down Tag Line Memory Lane

The Tagline Guru just posted a few pretty interesting lists that caught my eye: including both the Most Influential Taglines Since 1948 and Celebrated Taglines Prior to 1948. I actually fond the list of older taglines to be more interesting. Some highlights from that list:
The pause that refreshes. (Coca-Cola)

Ask the man who owns one. (Packard)

The champagne of bottled beer. (Miller High Life)

I’d walk a mile for a Camel. (Camel Cigarettes)

I think I liked the first three because they're examples of three companies who's product pretty much went unchanged since 1948. Of the three only one, coca cola, changed its tag/ marketing - the others did not. Fast forward 60 years and coca-cola sits on top of the market still, the others gone. Coincidence?

As for the Camel one, well, that's just amusing.

One more note: coincidentally, only a few weeks ago we were chatting about the Morton's salt tag (when it rains it pours) and logo (the little girl holding an umbrella, spilling Morton's salt behind her). We were wondering the reason why a salt company would focus its brand on something other than the taste. Bob informed us that the logo/ tag was there because way back when, apparently salted became unusable from clotting in damp weather - but Morton's fixed that problem by adding magnesium carbonate to it. So they crowed about it. So there you go.

Anyway, go check out the lists - good stuff there.

About June 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Marksonland in June 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

May 2008 is the previous archive.

July 2008 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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