Today’s Strategic Imperatives For Directory Publishers

Flick picture by disoculated

Yesterday, I gave an interview to the Globe & Mail about Canada’s Yellow Media / Yellow Pages Group, the incumbent directory publisher and my former employer (I worked there from 1999 to 2007). Even with the challenges they’re facing, I’m still a fan of the company (and of the industry in general) but the interview gave me the opportunity to put in writing what I think are the core strategic imperatives today for any directory publisher, not just Yellow Media. The list won’t surprise anyone in the industry but it’s always good to remind ourselves what they are.

  1. Change the culture. “Internet culture” must truly permeate every aspect of the organization. Concepts like speed of execution, innovation, quick iterations, coopetition, risk-taking, failing fast must become second nature (other people on Twitter & Google+ suggested “internet culture” also meant constant learning, openness, willingness to help each other out, adaptability to constant change, sharing, crowdsourcing, diversity, immediacy, learning, and expectation of access)
  2. The sales force. I believe the sales force is now the major asset of all directory publishers and this sales force needs to be able to sell print directory products as well as a variety of online products including third-party ones like Google AdWords or Facebook advertising. This means recruiting and training are critical success factors. I use to believe the brand was a major asset but not anymore.
  3. Reinvent the Print. I still believe print business directories have legs and they won’t die tomorrow (and by the way, stop it with “Yellow Pages are dead” please, nothing ever dies, it just becomes niche). Even I still use the neighborhood book once in a while. But the book needs to be reinvented to become more locally relevant, more about the consumer. As Francis Barker (SVP at Dex Media at the time) said in 2004 at a BIA/Kelsey conference, print books design should be influenced by online local search patterns/usage. I’ll add that they now should be influenced by mobile local search/discovery apps. On a related note, book distribution in apartment and office building should be improved to avoid the PR disaster pictures like this.
  4. Continue investing in the Web. Beef up your dev and product management team, invest in R&D, try things. Facebook has shown that you can continue innovating even when you have huge consumer usage and ad revenues.
  5. Focus on mobile.  The Web is extremely fragmented and some players like Google and Facebook have managed to capture gigantic market shares. There’s probably a bigger opportunity to support the franchise by focusing on mobile and launching various vertical apps. Directory publishers need to invest and build up their mobile team and technology.
  6. Get serious about social media. I’m obviously biased because of the work I’m doing on Needium, but the time for experiments in social media is over. This is serious business now both from a consumer and an advertiser point of view.

Am I forgetting anything?

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A Manifesto for Sustainable Web Development

As a startup entrepreneur for the last three years, I’ve had the chance to observe the online scene both locally (Montreal), nationally (Canada) and internationally (US and Europe mostly). I’ve organized and participated in many unconferences and camps (most recently last week at WebCamp Montreal) and I’ve spoken at conferences in Europe, the US and Canada. I’ve met many entrepreneurs all over the world and I’ve coached aspiring ones. I’ve traveled to Silicon Valley countless times and had the opportunity to breathe the air there, trying to identify the various cogs of that ecosystem. I’ve realized that, if the right conditions are present, tremendous value can be created by building Web products.

My perception of the local online industry (Montreal specifically) is that we’re really good at online marketing / communications / advertising and we use this as the main method to generate value. We do build many online products but they end up being used in specific time-sensitive ad campaigns, ephemeral things, and when these ends, these products become orphans. This perception is obviously influenced by my product management background. I’ve been building Web products for more than 10 years and some of the things I’ve created have influenced whole industries and are generating millions of dollars in revenues.

Montreal has all the ingredients to become a hotbed of Web development and startups (I wrote about that a few months ago). After all, we already did it for the videogame industry. There is a lot of money for interactive projects, especially in large organizations, but we’re trying to replicate the old broadcast/advertising model online. There must be a better way to do things.

To re-think the way we work as an industry, I’d like to inspire myself from ecological terms coined in the last few decades: sustainable development and the waste hierarchy (known commonly as the 3Rs, reduce, reuse and recycle). Environmental science learnings can teach us to create more value with less “material”. Based on my personal experience, here is my manifesto for sustainable Web development, to create a better, more innovative, more valuable Web ecosystem.

  1. Think “product”, not “ad campaign”. Use budgets to create things that will last. Think how you can achieve your communication goals by building stuff instead of buying media placement.
  2. Do not re-invent the wheel, Focus on building value on top of existing material. Re-use existing standards. This is how we’re going to accelerate the pace of innovation.
  3. Use open source software. You’d be amazed to see how many technology components are now available in open source. You get access to whole communities when you use those technologies and you speed up innovation.
  4. Leverage existing APIs. You’d be amazed to see how many content and technology components are now available via public APIs. Use them, again, to speed up your development.
  5. Less talk, more build. We love our social time, drinking beers with industry colleagues and imagining a better world. If you want the world to change, go in action mode. Just do it!
  6. Give back. At the end of a project, if you’re not going to reuse the code, open source it. If it’s not going to be used at all, give it back to the community.
  7. Do not focus on “competitors”. The online market is huge and will be so for the next 20 years. Think about disruptive ideas, think about incremental ideas but focus on your business and the opportunities.
  8. Work with other companies. This is the corollary of the last bullet. Can you participate in common projects that will benefit multiple organizations?
  9. Use locally-produced technologies in your projects (when possible). This rewards risk-taking in the local ecosystem.
  10. Share your best practices with others. Blog, speak, be open, You win on execution, not on ideas.
  11. Mentor others. Make sure other people benefit from your experience. Be generous with your time even though that’s probably the most precious resource you have.
  12. Participate in the ecosystem. Attend events, write blog posts, take position on important topics.
  13. Learn from failure and respect those that failed. Silicon Valley folks believe you can learn from failures. Do the same.
  14. Think out of the box. Don’t be afraid of pathways less traveled. Challenge people.
  15. Launch your own company. If you really believe in your ideas and your current professional environment doesn’t allow you to execute them, start your own company.
  16. Listen to builders, innovators and “crazy” people in the industry. They sometimes sound crazy but listen to them. They see things you don’t see.
  17. Create long-lasting value, not short-term results. ‘Nuff said.

Do you agree or disagree with what I wrote down? Have I missed anything? Feel free to leave a comment. This is the beginning of the conversation…

The Age of Cheap Content and Content Arbitrage

Ken Doctor from the Newsonomics blog covers the acquisition of Associated Content by Yahoo! for a rumored $90 million. He writes an in-depth analysis and offers a sobering conclusion:

Overall, today’s deal is further evidence we’re into the age of cheap content and of content arbitrage. The stream’s being reversed all around the news business, with advertising driving content creation in ways that those of us who fought print advertorials couldn’t once imagine. Content arbitrage is a feature of the landscape as I recently wrote (“The Newsonomics of Content Arbitrage“) and one that modern media companies must learn. How they use its principles will make all the difference in what they and their brands stand for, but the need to understand the principles is reinforced by today’s deal.

What it means: I think these are two key trends to understand if you’re in the business of content production. Companies like DemandMedia or initiatives like Patch (at AOL) are creating scalable platforms to create low-cost content. Content arbitrage, creating specific content that can be easily monetized, is logical from a business point of view (i.e. go where the money is) but it begs the question from a democracy point of view. Who or what will fund important news reporting that doesn’t monetize well?

Another consequence is that it puts pressure on the price paid for articles.  I had the opportunity to hear Luke Beatty, Associated Content’s founder, at the last BIA/Kelsey conference. One of the things that struck me was the “what’s in it for me” for network writers. Beatty told attendees that you couldn’t really make a living with what they pay but writers were getting exposure, were becoming experts through their use of their platform. This has tremendous impact on journalism. At the same conference, Rick Blair, Examiner’s CEO, described the various contributor levels we find on the Web today: pro, pro-am, amateur, user-generated content (Blair mentioned that Examiner is at the pro-am level).

It’s also forcing news organization to think about content production segmentation. Am I in the business of producing all the content I offer to readers? Am I outsourcing a portion of the content production? Do I want to control the technology platform behind that content production?

In a related article about the Huffington Post’s 5-year anniversary, Henry Blodget talks about disruptive technologies. He says “Disruptive technologies, meanwhile, are emphatically NOT better than incumbent technologies–at least not at the beginning. Disruptive technologies are often worse than incumbent technologies.  Their advantage–the reason people begin to adopt them–is that they’re also simpler, cheaper, and more convenient.”

More questions than answers at this point for news organizations but these trends need to be taken into account when building the next strategic plan.

Are Newspapers Outsourcing Core Features to Foursquare?

Megan Garber from the Nieman Journalism Lab explains in details how the Wall Street Journal uses Foursquare to offer geo-localized news:

[The Wall Street Journal] has also been making regular use of the Tips function of Foursquare, which allows users to send short, location based updates — including links — to their followers. The posts range from the food-recommendation stuff that’s a common component of Tips (“@Tournesol: The distinctively French brunches here feature croques madames and monsieurs and steak frites. After dining, check out the Manhattan skyline in Gantry State Park”) to more serious, newsy fare

via Location, location, etc: What does the WSJ’s Foursquare check-in say about the future of location in news? » Nieman Journalism Lab.

What it means: That’s a very nice implementation of geolocalized content within Foursquare. You can see more examples in the article. After reading it, something was bothering me (the same way the Facebook “Like” button bugged me) and I finally figured it out. I left the following comment in the Nieman blog: “what Foursquare is doing, newspapers could do themselves. It’s all about structured data. Most newspaper organizations have structured their content on topics/keywords/subjects but they forgot to structure it on geographical information (places, businesses, points-of-interest, neighborhoods, etc.). As soon as you have this 3D view of your content (vertical + local), you can syndicate it in a multitude of ways.”

We live in a fragmented/atomized Web now. We have atomized content, business models, functionalities, APIs. The smart internet companies are atomizing both content AND features/functionalities.  They become both media companies and technology providers. Their end goal is becoming a media. They use their technology to reach their end goal. That’s a very smart strategy. As a potential partner of these smart internet startups, you need to ask yourself if these functionalities are core business to you or not. If they are, DO NOT OUTSOURCE THEM to another media company! Do partner for content distribution though.

The Web is becoming more and more local. Newspapers should own the expertise of geo-localizing their content, displaying it that way within their mobile apps (or Web site) and then syndicating it to partners like Foursquare. It’s core business.

Complex Business Models Collapse Because it's the Last Remaining Method of Simplification

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

via The Collapse of Complex Business Models « Clay Shirky.

What it means: must-read for anyone working in a traditional media company today.

Complex Business Models Collapse Because it's the Last Remaining Method of Simplification

When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

via The Collapse of Complex Business Models « Clay Shirky.

What it means: must-read for anyone working in a traditional media company today.

Craig Smith: We’ll see more change in the next 2 years than in the last 10 years

Craig Smith, CEO of ServiceMagic, just finished his keynote address the BIA/Kelsey Marketplaces 2010 conference. His business is definitely impacted by the rise of social media given the importance of word-of-mouth in service providers recommendations. ServiceMagic has embraced social features early on with merchant reviews but is now getting into Question & Answers and neighborhood group buying. He issued a call-to-arms to the industry saying that we (the industry) need to deliver more value. How? He suggests the following four points:

  1. Take risks
  2. Disrupt our current business models
  3. Invest in long term value creation
  4. Invest in deeper relationships with customers

He concluded by saying we would see more change in the industry in the next two years than in the last ten.