The Innovator's Dilemma

Yesterday, Sophie Cousineau, a business journalist from Montreal’s La Presse, offered her explanation as to why Barack Obama had to fire Rick Wagoner, the CEO of [praized subtype=”small” pid=”597ce70258167de10a3ead0ceea0179355″ type=”badge” dynamic=”true”] (GM). She talked about some of Wagoner’s past successes but also the fact that he hung on too long to his strategy that centered on SUVs and trucks.

It struck me that with the GM situation, we are facing a perfect example of the innovator’s dilemma. Coined by Clayton M. Christensen in the book of the same name, the innovator’s dilemma is “a theory about how large, outstanding firms can fail “by doing everything right.” The Innovator’s Dilemma, according to Christensen, describes companies whose successes and capabilities can actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies. ” (source: mit.edu) Christensen also talked about “disruptive technologies”.

In GM’s case, they were so focused on their high-profit margin products (SUVs, trucks, minivans) that they ended up being blindsided when the easy credit required to buy these expensive vehicles evaporated and the price of gas went through the roof.  It also reminded me that sometimes you need to kill your cash cow before someone else does it for you (or said otherwise, it’s better to cannibalize yourself than have someone else do if to you).

Which brings me to traditional media (you knew I was going there, were you?).

Newspapers traditionally have been huge cash-generating vehicles but they now have clearly met disruptive technologies both on the reader and on the advertiser side. Basic news is a commodity and aggregators (like Google News) serve as destination site. On the advertiser front, classifieds revenue has been completely disrupted via the free model (pioneered by [praized subtype=”small” pid=”c51b8fbbdf9041e28ba547a1644985a2c4″ type=”badge” dynamic=”true”]) and online eyeballs do not monetize as well as print readers. That leaves an industry that’s questioning itself with many people wondering what will happen to it in the future.

Directory publishers have very good profit margins but, for most of them, 80%+ of their revenues still come from the print platform. The good news is there hasn’t been too many disruptive technologies yet but you always have to wonder what will blindside the industry. Social media and mobile should be top of mind IMHO.

TV networks and cable providers are still enjoying a successful ride with broadcast/cable television and are slowly starting to think of a post-broadcast world. Disruption there will clearly come from the ability for viewers to go à-la-carte on the Web (either through legit or pirated channels) and link back to their television set. A startup like Boxee is trying to crack that nut.

What it means: the GM and the newspaper industry examples definitely show us that smart people, doing what feels like the right thing, can lead whole industries to catastrophe. What should media companies do? As Clay Shirky said recently “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did…”

The Innovator's Dilemma

Yesterday, Sophie Cousineau, a business journalist from Montreal’s La Presse, offered her explanation as to why Barack Obama had to fire Rick Wagoner, the CEO of [praized subtype=”small” pid=”597ce70258167de10a3ead0ceea0179355″ type=”badge” dynamic=”true”] (GM). She talked about some of Wagoner’s past successes but also the fact that he hung on too long to his strategy that centered on SUVs and trucks.

It struck me that with the GM situation, we are facing a perfect example of the innovator’s dilemma. Coined by Clayton M. Christensen in the book of the same name, the innovator’s dilemma is “a theory about how large, outstanding firms can fail “by doing everything right.” The Innovator’s Dilemma, according to Christensen, describes companies whose successes and capabilities can actually become obstacles in the face of changing markets and technologies. ” (source: mit.edu) Christensen also talked about “disruptive technologies”.

In GM’s case, they were so focused on their high-profit margin products (SUVs, trucks, minivans) that they ended up being blindsided when the easy credit required to buy these expensive vehicles evaporated and the price of gas went through the roof.  It also reminded me that sometimes you need to kill your cash cow before someone else does it for you (or said otherwise, it’s better to cannibalize yourself than have someone else do if to you).

Which brings me to traditional media (you knew I was going there, were you?).

Newspapers traditionally have been huge cash-generating vehicles but they now have clearly met disruptive technologies both on the reader and on the advertiser side. Basic news is a commodity and aggregators (like Google News) serve as destination site. On the advertiser front, classifieds revenue has been completely disrupted via the free model (pioneered by [praized subtype=”small” pid=”c51b8fbbdf9041e28ba547a1644985a2c4″ type=”badge” dynamic=”true”]) and online eyeballs do not monetize as well as print readers. That leaves an industry that’s questioning itself with many people wondering what will happen to it in the future.

Directory publishers have very good profit margins but, for most of them, 80%+ of their revenues still come from the print platform. The good news is there hasn’t been too many disruptive technologies yet but you always have to wonder what will blindside the industry. Social media and mobile should be top of mind IMHO.

TV networks and cable providers are still enjoying a successful ride with broadcast/cable television and are slowly starting to think of a post-broadcast world. Disruption there will clearly come from the ability for viewers to go à-la-carte on the Web (either through legit or pirated channels) and link back to their television set. A startup like Boxee is trying to crack that nut.

What it means: the GM and the newspaper industry examples definitely show us that smart people, doing what feels like the right thing, can lead whole industries to catastrophe. What should media companies do? As Clay Shirky said recently “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did…”

Can a Hulu-Like Play Save the Newspaper Industry?

I was re-thinking about my recent blog post about the importance of Hulu for the TV industry.  A strong “national” brand unifying various media players under the same umbrella while allowing individual players to have their own unique “brands”. For example, you can find The Colbert Report on Hulu but you can also find it on the Comedy Central site.  You can find it on CBS’ TV.com also (powered by Hulu) and on DailyMotion (via an agreement with Comedy Central). You can possibly find illegal versions on other video sites and illegal copies on torrent sites as well. In Canada, you’ll find Colbert on the CTV site.

So, having a “national” hub that aggregates content from, what common sense would call, “competing” players doesn’t prevent other “national” and “regional” brands to co-exist with the same content and it allows TV networks to compete on an equal footing with “national” video portals like YouTube. That works as long as industry players have a stake and a say in the evolution of the “national” hub, and that’s the case with Hulu.

Seemingly unrelated, Google just announced that they were pulling the plug on their Print Ads initiative (where Google was reselling newspaper advertising to their network of advertisers). Many people were watching and hoping this might help support print newspaper ad revenues. It was clearly not going anywhere.  Google said in their announcement “We believe fair and accurate journalism and timely news are critical ingredients to a healthy democracy. We remain dedicated to working with publishers to develop new ways for them to earn money, distribute and aggregate content and attract new readers online.” Yahoo! also has agreements with newspapers to help them monetize their online traffic via a unified ad platform called APT. This seems to be going well but again, newspapers don’t necessarily control their destiny in that agreement.

Now, this got me thinking about the newspaper industry ecosystem in general. Players in this space usually compete with other “regional” players offline (New York Times, New York Post, etc.) but are also competing against “national” brands online, usually aggregators (for example, Google News). I just realized that…

TV industry challenges = Newspaper industry challenges!

I believe it might be time to build a new national brand and platform in the newspaper industry. A “Hulu for news” that integrates national and local news from all major newspaper outlets in the US, citizen journalism content and social media tools. A startup that’s staffed with the most web-savvy new media people, that understand where traditional media comes from and where it’s going but that are not locked in old paradigms. Other interesting technologies for that venture would be the Topix.com platform and content and the Oodle national classifieds platform. This initiative would allow syndicating of news and ad content through widgets and APIs. Content could be displayed on “local” newspaper sites and re-syndicated to smaller sites. I’ve read somewhere about similar past initiatives that failed (can’t find the source now) as offline competition was creating too much of a hurdle for anyone to align. But I think the industry might be at that critical juncture point where they absolutely need to agree to cooperate online while competing offline. Who will take the leadership of this initiative?

Update: Jemima Kiss from the Guardian says “if newspapers start thinking like startups, they might just have a chance.” I agree.

On Atomizing Your Business Model: The Newspaper Industry

Continuing our series on the atomization of content and business models, today I look at the newspaper industry.

First, from the user point of view: online (vs. the print version), it’s much more difficult to find the glue that will make your news container (your URL) stick together. if you have a strong brand (the New York Times, for example), people will navigate directly to your site but readers can now access your content via RSS readers, blog posts and news aggregators like Google News. These have been flourishing, reorganizing newspapers’ articles (the new content atoms), into flexible reading formats. For newspapers, it’s a catch-22. You want to be indexed by news aggregators to drive traffic back to your site but you wonder if you’re losing brand equity at the same time. Efforts at trying to get readers to register to newspapers’ sites (to generate potentially valuable socio-demographics information) have been a major failure. Clearly, the only strategy now is building a strong brand online while allowing readers to access your atomized content via a variety of vehicles but that creates problems from a monetization point of view.

Traditionally, the newspaper business model has been found in these three revenue categories: reader subscriptions, traditional display advertising and classifieds. Except for a few exceptions (the Wall Street Journal comes to mind), experiments in paid online user subscriptions have been failures as digital content is much more difficult to sell as an aggregate than print content. Classified revenues are being nuked by free sites like Craigslist or Kijiji, or aggregators like Oodle. Newspapers have been also forced to offer free classifieds, managing to generate some priority placement /enhanced content revenues but not to the previous print level. Online display advertising is working but it does not monetize as well as print advertising.

To better monetize their destination site, newspapers have been looking at various new solutions. One is in-line text ads (double-underlined sponsored keyword ads appearing directly in the article text) delivered by companies like Vibrant Media but, as I mentioned yesterday, the blurring of the line between editorial and advertising content has created ethical issues within news organizations. Already in 2006, in an article called “Is It News…or Is It an Ad?”, the Wall Street Journal exposed the various issues around the product:

“This type of online advertising within the text of an article, known as in-text advertising, has been around for a while. But it used to be relegated to niche sites like the videogamers’ haven IGN.com and ScienceDaily.com. Now it is appearing on some mainstream journalistic Web sites, like those of News Corp.’s Fox News, Cox Enterprises Inc.’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Hearst Corp.’s Popular Mechanics magazine. That marks a departure from a long-observed tradition in the print medium of keeping editorial content separate from advertising. “Journalism ethics counselors decry the trend. “It’s ethically problematic at the least and potentially quite corrosive of journalistic quality and credibility,” says Bob Steele, the senior ethics faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla.”

More recently, Tim McGuire from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Arizona wrote about its use in the Arizona Central web site:

Michael Coleman, Vice-President of Digital Media for AzCentral, told me late Friday that the site has been using Vibrant Media for “two or three weeks.” Coleman described the relationship as a test and said this is not a “Gannett roll-out” of the concept even though some Gannet papers are using the system. “We’ve got a pretty non-committal contract with them, Coleman said. “The publisher made the call, and we decided to try it and see what happened.” Coleman said the experimental aspect of the deal explains why nobody has announced this deal.

Business Week wrote about the phenomenon in December:

Many journalists believe that selling the words in a story blurs the line between editorial and ad content. Some worry it creates an incentive to insert ad-linked words or order up certain types of stories. Forbes’ online arm caused a ruckus in 2004 when it rolled out in-text ads. After an outcry among the editorial staff and negative media coverage, Forbes ended the practice. (…)

Publishers are paid by Vibrant and other marketing companies based on how many times readers scroll over a word. Advertisers only pay Vibrant for how many times a reader actually clicks on an ad. In-text ads draw a higher response than traditional Web ads: About 0.2% of Web users click on posterlike ads known as banners; Vibrant CEO Douglas Stevenson says 3% to 10% scroll over and click on in-text ads, depending on the category.

I think the use of in-line text ads might be problematic thus far because newspapers have been using the technology to better monetize their destination site. I would suggest that the better use of this new ad vehicle would be to monetize a smaller atom of content, i.e. the news article, decentralized from the destination site. Embedding in-line text ads within RSS feeds or other distribution mechanisms might be a small price to pay to allow readers to access news article outside of the newspaper’s site. Another option would be to have RSS ads, like the Feedburner Ad Network.

I think the general takeaway here is that newspapers shouldn’t look at the same business models to monetize centralized and atomized content.

Update: The Kelsey Group discussesNewspaper Next 2.0, a “progress report” by the American Press Institute on the evolution of newspaper companies beyond the print edition.” I took a quick glance at it (it’s a 110-page document) but it does not seem to address many of the business model issues that newspapers are facing. As my friend Peter K. says in the post, “The report has a better fix on consumer-oriented solutions than business solutions. But that’s not surprising for a newspaper industry (i.e. editorial-driven) product. If the Yellow Pages Association commissioned similar research, it would probably be the other way around.”

Social News: USA Today Revamps Website, MySpace News is Coming

From Terry Heaton’s PoMo Blog:

MySpace is getting into the news business with launch due in early 2nd quarter, according to inside sources and the company’s own sales materials.

  • MySpace News takes News to a whole new level by dynamically aggregating real-time news and blogs from top sites around the Web
  • Creates focused, topical news pages that users can interact and engage with throughout their day
  • MySpace is making the news social, allowing users to:
    Rate and comment on every news item that comes through the system
    Submit stories they think are cool and even author pieces from their MySpace blog
  • MySpace users previously had to leave the site to find comprehensive news, gossip, sporting news, etc. With MySpace News, we bring the news to them!

Now it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this is not good news for those of us in the news business, unless we view it as another way to get our content onto yet another platform. MySpace is currently cutting deals with content providers to do just that, and I think it’s likely the process will show us what types of “news” will be of interest to young people, circa 2007. And that is something we might be able to use downstream. That said, this is another example of an internet pureplay company taking on the role of media company and using their core audience as the distribution vehicle.

Update: Wired News has screenshots and a powerpoint presentation.

What it means: MySpace is launching the equivalent of Google News (news & blog aggregator) with a social element a la Digg.com (news rating & reviews). Which means they are completely dependent on content producers, which means, as Terry Heaton says, it’s another distribution venue for news providers. The big challenge will be: can this new news outlet drive traffic back to content producers? By the way, there’s nothing to prevent traditional news sources to execute the same strategy especially if they have a solid brand. The best example is the launch of the new USAToday.com this week. In this letter to their readers (found on GigaOm), the editors discuss their new features. They include scanning other news sources directly on USATODAY.com, seeing how readers are reacting to stories. recommending stories and comments to other readers, writing reviews, etc. This is a very positive move by USA Today!