Bing Bids Adios to Bling

Bing trying to be cool is a bit like a librarian in a night club. If you aren’t inherently cool it’s tough to fake it or buy it. I admit it, I’m not cool – haven’t been since the Regan administration. I was at a couple of major conferences last week and the lack of diversity was staggering. Both very influential events were packed with uncool white-bread types like me. I even heard that another even better heeled gathering of the great and the good partied with featured guest rapper Flo Rida (I have a hefty side bet that most of the crowd thought his name was pronounced Florida). So I was disappointed, but not surprised, to see the recent sacking by Microsoft of two of the top marketing guys who were starting to make Bing a little cool, maybe slightly edgy. The cited reasons for the firings of Hadley and Carver were the usual corporate doublespeak of “violating policies relating to management of company assets and vendor procurement.” Put more simply: They were over achieving in the fun department.

It was certainly refreshing to see Bing take an aggressive strategy of linking their brand with cool trend setters like Jay-Z. The recent sack-ees also masterminded the Bing Bar at South by Southwest where a killer good time was apparently had by all. I guess the sackings were the hangover. The Microsoft fun express jumped the rails last week and the question that remains is will Bing go back to its library shelves or will it stay for last orders and a drunken taxi ride home. I hope they do try to continue being fun. Search is in danger of getting dull. Search used to be cool, and now all of the cool kids are the social media glitterati, while us poor search guys are looking for our library cards.

Typical Week of Online Strangeness

In a typical week of online strangeness, there are a few items that might bear further consideration or thought.

There Goes the Internet
An international team of hackers called anonymous is threatening to shut down the world wide web on Saturday. I’m fine with that. I could use a break just as long as everything is up in time for the first episode of Game of Thrones season two on Sunday.

There Goes the Data
Google is continuing to roll out secure browsing and search, which (according to them) is all about online security. The online marketing folks are starting to fret about losing access to referring keywords. For the uninitiated, when a searcher reaches a web page the search engine typically tells the web page which keywords were searched  to get the visitor there. If the searcher is logged into any Google product or browser, that data is not hidden. The biggest impact is in Search Engine Optimization as it is tough to figure out which keywords are driving traffic when those keywords are obscured by these changes. Interestingly, Google continues to send that data if the traffic is paid search. So your privacy is less important when you are clicking on ads as opposed to pages.

Chin Chin Click Click
I’m a Brit by birth and I still get to visit the old country on a fairly regular basis. Visiting from the U.S. was a lot like visiting from an alternate reality where we had developed the Internet and they were stuck in the rotary phone stage. As recently as a couple of years ago, I would be shocked to see the equivalent of 800 numbers as the main point of user interaction as opposed to websites or Facebook pages. Internet access tended to be slow, expensive and cumbersome. It now turns out that the U.K. is finally getting with the program. Over the past five years, Internet use has grown by 50%. Brits (like everyone else) are rapidly becoming consumers of mobile Internet through smart phones, and even online security fears are reducing. I have never known a people so devoted to their cell phones as the Brits. They are always on all of the time, so that doesn’t surprise me. The reduced fear factor is a bit more surprising as the Brits are inherently mistrustful of all business and the feeling that “they” are out to cheat you is very common. The mere fact that they are the most regulated and watched people on earth is apparently neither here nor there.

Search Like an Egyptian
In a move that would make any Ayatollah proud, an Egyptian court has attempted to ban Egyptians from searching for online adult content. As we collectively listen for the slam of the stable door long after the horse has bolted, I’d be much more impressed if Egypt would move to legislate against the real obscenity of honor killings where young women are legally murdered by their family members to revenge a perceived slight to the family name. On a related topic, a man has just been arrested and faces up to five years in jail in Indonesia for declaring on Facebook that God does not exist.

Facebook Still Searching
Every week or two a new story emerges about Facebook revamping their search to compete with the big G. Sure enough that plot line reared its ugly head again this week. Hard upon the launch of Google+, Google is clearly trying to get more social content into its results set. That’s not necessarily always a good thing. I’d rather have real results than coincidental social content from people I happen to know.

And Finally
If you have a low opinion of social media, help is at hand. For a little less than ten bucks a roll you can have your Twitter posts or Facebook timeline printed on bathroom tissue for your enjoyment when you have a few minutes to spare.

A Hole in the Ground … Zero

I recently arrived back from an extended stay in New York. Apart from reminding me how much I enjoy living in the “Silicon Vineyard” of Southern California’s tech corridor, I had a reasonably interesting and productive week gnawing away at the heart of the Big Apple. When I wasn’t doing the work stuff, I was doing touristy stuff. In New York, that’s a lot like standing in a fume-filled room while being jostled by strangers tearing up hundred-dollar bills.

Of those tourist experiences, probably the best was seeing the stage production of “War Horse,” which is grueling but amazing. The worst was the Ground Zero memorial.  My son was visiting from college that day and we thought it might be interesting to take a look at the new memorial. When we arrived at the site, we were met with ten foot high walls, a long line of bored looking tourists, and a $30 entrance fee. I’m not easily shocked (ask anyone), but I was genuinely shocked by the way NYC is handling this.

9-11 is one of those things that unites an enormous number of people. I have visited the Vietnam Memorial, the beaches at Normandy, Arlington Cemetery — each a moving testament to the fallen, and none of them with an entrance fee. Charging a family of three (as we were) nearly $100 to witness and remember for a few minutes strikes me as cold blooded and in marketing PR terms, odd.  As it turned out, we decided to pass and move on to our next tourist engagement. The price was a factor for sure, but in part it was the sense of disgust we all felt for whoever is running a memorial that erects barriers and charges accordingly.

I have been at or near Ground Zero many times over the past decade or so. I’ve been there when the enormous sad pile of rubble was still there and the walls were still covered with improvised portraits of the missing. Each time I peered through one of the many viewing portholes to take stock of the progress. Each time it was an eerie almost mystic experience. It was never a formalized memorial, but the very fact that life was moving on and construction was under way was a memorial in itself.

I don’t know who is in charge of the memorial today; it’s probably the Port Authority in part and the developers. I’m sure the math makes sense. It’s a free market so why shouldn’t they charge what they feel the market will bear. But answer to that might be when we add in the billions of taxpayer dollars that went to the cleanup and restoration of the site so that they (whoever they are) could eventually build their memorial and stop anyone who has an interest looking in and reflecting upon the reflecting pool, the math just doesn’t add up. Even in raw marketing terms, it strikes me as a bad idea. 9-11 was our national tragedy. Indeed, it was the world’s, and I believe the world should have the ability and the right to look into that hole in our collective psyche and reflect without interference.

A Friend of a Friend of a …

This is getting a bit silly. I’m fine with the whole social media thing as far as it goes. I admit that I’m not a huge Facebook guy, but I blog, tweet and get LinkedIn. On the whole, I must admit I don’t like people, and as I get older I fear I’m getting more Andy Rooney-esque in my grumpiness. So it was with some glee that I read about the lack of applause that greeted a new wave of barbaric social media apps that debuted recently at South by Southwest.

The goal of these evil-doers (like Sona Banjo and Highlight) is to connect you, not with people you might actually know (the theory is that you already know and can presumably recognize them), but with people you don’t know who know people you do know. That sentence may need some work but you get my drift.

Here’s the use-case. You are at a bar or wake, and a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “Hi, I’m Kevin. You don’t know me, but I know Bob who is a contact of yours on <insert social network here>.”

So, this app presumes I will immediately bond, fall in love, and do business with Kevin for having the audacity to disturb my bar/wake experience. In an online world of goofy ideas, this one takes the proverbial biscuit. There is a word for this called spam. In the case of my extensive LinkedIn network, I barely know about two-thirds of my connections so this app could be really awkward. Conversely, I might be at an industry event where everyone is a valid connection under this mad idea.

There is one example where a similar app is doing great business.  It’s called “Grindr,” a hook-up app that helps strangers have intimate encounters with strangers.

Bad Apple Journalism

There is an old adage that “a lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on.” We recently witnessed a spectacular media example of this that has me still scratching my head.  The kerfuffle centers on the one-man show by Mike Daisey, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which was supposedly a journalistic expose of the working conditions endured in the Apple assembly factories in China.

The story was fueled by the death of Jobs and the phenomena of Apple’s massive market growth.  I read the original magazine cover story and saw the item on CBS Sunday Morning, along with dozens of other media outlets.   At the time, there was a flurry of denial and explanations from various Apple folk, but eventually the story faded away into the background noise associated with the rising manufacturing dominance of China.

Recently, the other shoe dropped.  It turns out that the theatrical production by Daisey was just that – theater rather than journalism.  He didn’t have the access he claimed and many of the interviews were dramatically enhanced to the point where even fact checking from 8,000 miles away by other media outlets proved the story’s lack of credibility.

An NPR magazine show that I have a particular soft spot for, “This American Life,” ran an hour-long retraction in which it dissected the story step by step, as well as analyzed how they got the story so embarrassingly wrong.   Of course, the product of all of this journalistic mess is a riot of crowing from the Chinese government and industry claiming that this proves Western media bias.

The temptation to over-egg the pudding to come up with a more dramatic and interesting story (perhaps to bolster the particular political angle of the author) has traditionally been mitigated by the editorial process.  However, in the modern media world where the fact-checking process is often regarded as undesirable overhead, this kind of “truth-quake” will get more and more common.

Somebody pass me my iPad.  I need to research this.

Odd Placement

In a wasteland of average TV programming, there are a few standouts that I never miss. First is the BBC version of “Top Gear,” the absolute best car/guy show on television. The other must watch is “Walking Dead,” a compelling drama set against the unlikely backdrop of a zombie apocalypse. If you aren’t familiar with either, buy season one of “Walking Dead” and season 17 of “Top Gear” and you will not be disappointed.

The BBC version of “Top Gear” has an exact copy on Spike TV. It’s clearly produced by the same team that has lifted the winning U.K. formula wholesale, and most of the time it works pretty well. How are these very different shows tied together? It’s simple: product placement.

The other day, the U.S. “Top Gear” guys spent a breathless 20 minutes reviewing the new Cadillacs. The U.K. version will find something they don’t like even in a $250,000 super car. The U.S. “Top Gear” team could find nothing, but simply wonderful, marvelous things about the cars. I agree they are good-looking and apparently perform well, but the uncritical worship fest was crow barred into an otherwise very entertaining program. It was frankly embarrassing.

A couple of hours later, I noticed (again) that the “Walking Dead” had acquired another sparkling new Hyundai SUV. In a show that invariably involves one of the protagonists making a high-speed getaway from zombies, those escapes have been made in a Hyundai recently. I have nothing against Hyundai, but if I were choosing a zombie-proof car it probably wouldn’t be a Hyundai – maybe a Hummer or an Escalade or a tank.

The other noticeable thing is that even given the pressure of living inside the zombie apocalypse they still manage to keep the Hyundai shiny and clean. I did some investigation and apparently my instincts were right that the Hyundai’s existence was a result of product placement.

The placement is just a bit odd. In the first season (before the show was cool and successful) the non-zombies used a beat up and stylishly antique collection of trucks and buses. Clearly, it was a design choice. The old cars were cool and appropriately post-apocalyptic. The addition of an eternally clean Hyundai is jarring to the eye and detracts from the show’s authenticity.

At the same time, the inclusion of a flawless Cadillac in a car magazine program that presents itself as cool, edgy and well informed inserts an enormous naked plug into the mix.  Makes you wonder where the line gets drawn…or maybe there isn’t a line after all.

A Very Sirius Moment

Last night was cool. Not in a “Oh look, that dog looks like her owner” cool, but “OMG! teenage-girl-squeal” cool. I was on the Howard Stern Superfan Roundtable Show on Sirius satellite radio. I have been a dedicated fan of the King Of All Media pretty much since I arrived in this fair country. I admit that, especially a few years ago, he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But in my experience people who don’t like him have never actually listened to him. His consistently smart, funny and dry read on life in general and pop culture in particular has me horribly addicted.

In any event I was escorted into the Stern Mega Plex and found myself in a room with three other fans who were complete strangers, a computer screen of callers and an hour of national satellite radio to fill. It was amazing. The show flowed well and we got great calls (most of whom loved what we were improvising). The time just flew by. We had way too much fun. For those of you not in the Howard cult I can best liken it to four diehard sports fans getting together over microphones to chew the fat over the most recent games of their beloved team. We speak the same language, get the same dumb references and finish each other’s sentences. It was a bit weird on occasion.

Here’s the media angle. I firmly believe that apart from the Stern component, Sirius is a busted flush. Several years ago, before Howard announced he was leaving terrestrial radio and the FCC for Sirius, I was convinced that he was going to jump to satellite. I told my “stock guy” Howard is going to satellite and I wanted in. My guy thought that Sirius needed him more so I bet on Sirius. I rode that stock from a buck to $11 and bailed just in time. Sirius is now languishing around $2. The company’s problem: (as always) the Internet.

Sirius started as a technology play long before 4G and immersive Wifi. Back then (in the late 90s) the idea of launching an expensive satellite to beam music to drivers was cool. Now it’s absurd and getting more absurd every day. The irony is that although I have Sirius in two cars (to hear Howard when I drive) I mostly listen to Sirius on my iPhone or through the horrible Sirius desk streaming utility. The world of (nearly) commercial free streaming of music has gone way beyond Sirius. My personal preference is for Pandora, but there are many others. Pandora now includes comedy that makes Sirius entirely redundant apart from Howard. Sirius does have various sports content franchises and some avid sports fans will subscribe for that. However, in my mind, Sirius is the house that Howard built and when he’s gone they will be, too.

For the mathematically inclined here’s a back-of-envelope value analysis. I pay about $40 a month for Sirius pretty much exclusively for Howard. With his new and reduced schedule that amounts to about 48 hours of content. I pay about $100 for about 300 cable channels (including several premium packages), which in theory amounts to about 200,000 hours of programming options and another $40 for Internet and $8 for Netflix. In reality, I probably consume about 90 hours of TV, 30 hours of Internet and 4 hours of Netflix per month. That’s roughly a buck per content hour. In comparison I pay $40 for 12 hours of Howard or $3.30 per hour. Put another way, 21% of my content spend goes to just 12% of content consumed. One goofy, out spoken guy and his team drives twice the relative value of the rest of all media consumed.

If you ever wondered why Howard Stern is the King of all media, it’s the math.

Yuuup!!!

A couple of years ago, one of my sons, who are my leading indicators in pop culture, turned me on to “Pawn Stars” and I was instantly hooked. Then I found “Storage Wars,” then “Real Pawn,” then “Storage Wars: Texas,” and “Auction Hunters.”  The list goes on.  I can’t help it. It’s a hopeless addiction.

I can’t exactly explain the fascination, but it’s hypnotic. Incredibly, in January, “Pawn Stars” and “Storage Wars” ran 46 and 57 times, respectively, and there are more than 30 series in this category (half of them are on my DVR) and the list is growing. These copycat programs pose an interesting problem for advertisers: The knock off is typically doing OK, but not as well as the originals.

For example, the original “Pawn Stars” gets 2 million viewers, which is huge for cable, but the copies only gather about 30% of the original. Given how cheap these shows are to produce, even these numbers make it pretty compelling media.  TV loves to copy a winning formula, i.e., “American Idol,” “X Factor,” “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent.”  It’s interesting to note that Idol, the longtime market leader, is significantly down in viewers this season.

All of this means that in some cases it’s possible to assemble a similar magnitude in reach by patching together the wannabe copies cheaper than the flagship property, which has to give Richard “The Old Man” Harrison and Austin “Chumlee” Russell something to think about.

Ad(verse) Effects

The other day someone was lamenting to me that they felt “targeted” online.  They felt someone was watching them and trying to figure out what to advertise to them.  Well, duh!  There is an entire army of dedicated technology and media folk trying to do exactly that, and it’s going to get worse, quickly.

The people at Facebook recently announced some interesting changes to their advertising policies.  It used to be that if you were a brand you were limited in how many of your followers Facebook would let you reach out to. In effect, irrespective of how many likes a brand may have they were limited in how many they could reach with advertising messages to about 15%.

Facebook filters out most of the ads as not highly relevant.  But in the new world, Facebook has declared ads to be “messages” rather than ads, and brands will be able to reach closer to 80% of their likes.

It appears that Facebook is moving from being averse to advertising to becoming more “message friendly.”  Back in the old days when Yahoo was slathered in pop-ups and banners, a key reason for Google’s success was its lack of advertising. Today, premium cable and TV shows offered on iTunes thrive because they are ad free.  I would much, much rather pay a buck an episode to watch “Walking Dead” commercial free than have the zombie mayhem constantly interrupted by car and beer commercials.

A key reason for the rapid growth of Facebook at the expense of MySpace (which was heavily monetized) was exactly because it was nearly commercial free.   As Facebook moves toward its IPO it is clearly moving to embrace the evil advertising dollar, and it will be interesting to see how its users will tolerate being even more heavily targeted.

The Other Kind of Social Marketing

I have an absurd marketing encounter that I’d like to share. I was at lunch the other day with one of my sales guys and my lovely wife, and just as we finished the meal a gentlemen from a nearby table came over and introduced himself.

He operates a light aircraft taxi service and I guess he had heard us talking about our recent trip to Vegas and figured we might be good candidates for future business. His approach was marvelous.  He had an accent somewhere between Borat and The God Father.  He gestured to my substantial waistline and said words to the effect that when we fly, we can even fit fat guys like you.  In fact, he said he could fit four guys my size and fly to Vegas in an hour and a half for just $800.

His selling point wasn’t quality of ride or convenience or even price point … all of which might have been good.  No, his angle of attack was similar to that of one of my team members who famously remarked that “I dress well for a fat guy.”