To Cordillera Digital, and beyond…

Cordillera Digital

With Scripps and Quincy buying the Cordillera TV stations, the next few months become the last hurrah for my group, Cordillera Digital.

That means a talented team of digital professionals, and great people, entering the job market now or soon. They’re Twin Cities-based, though some may be open to relocation. If your company is hiring digital marketing talent, you’d be wise to check them out. If not, please help spread the word about these fine folks:

And, yes, me too.

What I would do with Gibson Guitar (repost)

I wrote this in May 2018, originally posted on LinkedIn, and have updated it a few times since then as noted throughout, most recently Sept. 20, 2018 — JS

Guitar enthusiasts and industry watchers already picked through accounts of the fall of Gibson Brands, Inc., into bankruptcy, looking for nuggets to suggest what will happen to the conglomerate’s core, namesake business: making stringed instruments. And they found some:

  • Henry Juszkiewicz, the corporation’s controversial owner/CEO, will be replaced but gets a consulting deal on the way out.
  • Holders of the surviving company’s restructured debt say they want it to return to its instrument-making roots and shed the electronics/technology acquisitions Juszkiewicz made trying to evolve Gibson into a “lifestyle brand.”
  • The bankruptcy filing indicates the company’s core guitar sales improved by more than 10 points year-over-year in 2017. Observers say the Gibson Guitar unit maintains an operating profit amid the debt and losses from the acquired businesses.

Most of this sounds like good news for the future of Gibson’s guitar making business. Some watchers would say the best news is Juszkiewicz’ exit. But I was never a pure “Henry hater.”

Since I don’t know him personally, I can’t speak to any of the discussion of his personality or leadership style. As an executive, I can grasp what he tried to do by moving into electronics. He would have been hailed as an industry hero had it worked, and it did have a chance. But you cannot discount dumb luck as a factor in the success or failure of any business decision. I even sympathized with his recent laments that traditionalists crushed any attempts at innovation in guitars, though I think the way he applied and marketed innovations came across as tone-deaf.

Still, remember the company’s history. Give Juszkiewicz credit for rescuing Gibson years ago from a different predicament that had dragged the core guitar manufacturing enterprise well into the mud. People can (and do) quibble about recent Gibson quality control, but take a look back at financial performance, as well as design and build compromises the company made, during the era of Norlin ownership. The 2019 lineup includes fewer of the oddities of the 2000s-early 2010s, and generally respects the time-honored designs and materials the Gibson brand represents (but the MSRPs for long-running models keep going up).

And I don’t think quality control in Gibson’s U.S. plants has declined recently, so much as build quality and consistency in instrument factories worldwide has improved by comparison. Asian- and Mexican-made instruments generally go on the rack at lower prices than U.S.-made models they mimic. If import build quality rivals domestic-made models, other than differences in woods and hardware used, U.S. builders wind up with fewer differentiators and a harder time justifying prices. Players associate the Gibson brand with high prices, now more than ever.

So … what if they handed over the keys?

Listen, the chances Gibson comes around begging me to be the next CEO are way down there with the chances Jimmy Page asks me to grab my guitar and go on a state fair tour with him in an old VW Microbus. I am not pining by the phone (what’s the internet equivalent of that … pining by Twitter?) for either conversation.

But I can imagine what I’d do if handed the keys to a new Gibson Guitar Co.:

  • Follow the Clayton Christensen line, and be “patient for growth and impatient for profits.” Christensen says this in the context of describing disruptive innovation, of course, and Gibson’s far from a brash startup. Still, the reasoning applies: Gibson exists in a slow- to no-growth industry, and will be coming out of bankruptcy owned by debt holders who certainly will expect those debts to be serviced. Only a profitable company has resources to pay its debts and shareholders while investing for the future.
  • Meet personally with as many bricks/mortar and online retailers as possible in the first 90 days. Guitar Center/Musician’s FriendSweetwaterAnderton’sSam Ash, of course, but also top-tier independents. I get the impression the company needs to work on relations between it and even the biggest Gibson enthusiasts among retailers. In cooperation with those retailers, I would try to learn from pricing, sales, service and marketing data how to go to market with product lines that are most likely to succeed, and improve merchandising and service.
  • Meet personally with the leaders of Fender, Ibanez, Yamaha, PRS, and other major guitar makers. Each brand has staked its position, but in an industry that has little growth at best and secular decline at worst, the big makers need each other. Fender Play is a smart move to build interest in learning and playing guitar among young people (Peavey just started a similar program), but Gibson could provide more effort and investment toward that goal.
  • Spend as much time as I could looking over shoulders and learning the details of sourcing and manufacturing processes — today and yesterday — from the company’s best, most experienced techs, not necessarily from VP-level operations execs.
  • Revitalize the marketing team and develop a new marketing plan top-to-bottom, including: Clear delineation of Gibson and Epiphone value propositions; refinement and clarification of the product lines; modernizing media planning and buying; investing more in digital content marketing, P.R., and event marketing. (“Only a Gibson is good enough” may have been a clever tagline once, but these days it has a little too much slapback echo on it. Too many out there would say, “Only a ’59 Gibson is good enough,” reinforcing the image of a company well past its glory days.)
  • Find a way to honor and celebrate the history and tradition of Gibson guitars while innovating in ways that make sense for today’s players. At face value, this resembles what Juszkiewicz and his product people tried to do: they kept the classic body styles and materials, but added robot tuners, adjustable zero-fret metal nuts, and printed circuit boards instead of traditional wiring, pots and caps. Robot tuners and zero-fret nuts purportedly added player-friendly functionality but players found the tuners fussy and had mixed opinions of the nuts (better once Gibson started making them of titanium instead of brass, but many players still prefer Corian or bone). The circuit boards? They’re widely considered to be a cost-cutting innovation (though I found a forum postfrom 2015 that gives an inside view on the PCBs, indicating they were never intended as money-savers), and plenty of players swap them out for aftermarket “’50s-style” wiring harnesses. To me, introducing innovative features to a tradition-minded customer base means being extremely selective about where, when and how. Almost all of Gibson USA’s 2015 lineup came out with robot tuners and zero-fret nuts, and a corresponding price hike, and the message boards foamed over with grumbling. The company responded by dividing its product lines between “traditional” and “high performance” features, but the cost difference between the two remains out of whack vs. relative perceived value of the two lines. Meanwhile, a much bigger innovation challenge looms: how to replace increasingly scarce and regulated tonewoods with more sustainable, cost-effective materials that deliver the expected look, tone, and feel at a manageable price. No matter what traditionalists say or think, tonewood material sourcing must evolve, and every guitar manufacturer will have to find a new path as well as an effective way to communicate why.
  • Gibson needs to find a bit of marketing leverage from guitarists’ reverence for gear from its golden age. Yes, the Custom Shop makes painstaking reissues of all those storied old ’50s Les Pauls. But what if Gibson also selectively engaged in the used marketplace, expanding its Repair and Restoration unit to buy up a few pieces of vintage gear and carefully restore them for resale? Forget about the 6-figure vintage Bursts and other untouchable museum pieces. But south of that heady price range, we see so many collectible and/or player-grade vintage guitars that just need a little factory-authorized TLC. What a fantastic show-and-tell for the restoration unit, even if it’s only a half dozen axes a year. This initiative would be much smaller than enough to affect the vintage/used marketplace, because that’s not the intention — it’s all about giving a hat-tip to proud tradition while demonstrating subject-matter expertise in repair and restoration.
  • And here’s a total lark: Buy Heritage Guitars but keep that brand distinct, made in the old Gibson Kalamazoo plant. Maybe add a Gibson Custom team there — my understanding is Heritage does not use all the space. This move adds boutique-builder credibility and shows that respect for tradition. (It works only if Heritage sticks close to its, um, heritage, which may be in doubt. And it works only if Heritage either runs at a profit or is close to it; the last thing the new Gibson needs is a margin diluter.)

Insiders might look at my list and dismiss it as hopelessly naive. It might be. I’m on the outside looking in, have never built a guitar from scratch nor run a company that did. I just want to believe Gibson has a bright future, but who knows?

Maybe Gibson can’t change enough to come back strong. Maybe the guitar really is over. In either case, the next CEO will just manage a slow downward spiral. Or maybe those new owners/debt holders will go all Alden on Gibson Guitar. I’d hate to be CEO of that, so I guess it’s off to tour with Jimmy.

What's wrong with online customer service: an example

It should not be difficult, slow or aggravating to use the website of a leading virtual fax service (eFax) to cancel a $16.95/month account. But it is all three.

For starters, you can't just fill out a form and cancel. Ugh! Anytime you enter a customer service web interface and find that canceling or downgrading an account requires either a phone call or an online chat session, beware. You are being “upsold” or “retention sold.” (Newspaper companies, my old stomping grounds, maddeningly do this all the time. Want to subscribe online? Sure. Want to put in a vacation hold? Sure. Change your address? Absolutely. Want to cancel? WTF?)

Lots of lessons about what not to do in my chat transcript with eFax, which follows. Note that this is not the entire conversation — I did not include two false starts with chat hosts who pointed me to a dead web page and then suddenly logged off. This is just the final attempt:

Please wait for a site operator to respond.

You are currently number 1 of 1 in the queue.

Thank you for your patience. You are now chatting with 'Lee'

Lee: Welcome to our sales chat. How may I help you?

Jay: I need to cancel my account, and no one seems to be able to do it for me. The site directed me here to sales chat, and I started with another rep. That rep pointed me to a Cancel page that is supposed to initiate a DIFFERENT chat, but the link to initiate that chat is broken. It does nothing. Please help me cancel my account!

Please wait while I transfer the chat to 'Craig H.'.

You are now chatting with 'Craig H.'

Craig H.: Hello, Jay. Welcome to eFax online support. I am Craig H., your online Live Support Representative. How may I assist you?

Jay: Your chat system is screwy, for starters. But let me explain: I need to cancel my account, and no one seems to be able to do it for me. The site directed me here to sales chat, and I started with another rep. That rep pointed me to a Cancel page that is supposed to initiate a DIFFERENT chat, but the link to initiate that chat is broken. It does nothing. So I logged back into sales chat and explained all this and that chatter transferred me to you, where I once again have to explain all this. Please help me cancel my account! I simply no longer need it!

Craig H.: I apologize for the inconvenience.

Craig H.: I will be glad to assist you with the cancellation request via this chat session.

Jay: My efax number is xxx-xxx-xxxx

Craig H.: Could you please provide me your registered email address and billing zip code for verification?

Jay:, xxxxx

Craig H.: Thank you for providing your information.

Craig H.: Please give me a moment while I pull up your account.

Craig H.: In the meantime, please type the number corresponding to your reason for cancellation:

Craig H.: 1) Moving to another provider

Craig H.: 2) Bought a fax machine

Craig H.: 3) Business or role changed

Craig H.: 4) Short term project completed

Craig H.: 5) Financial reasons

Craig H.: 6) Problems with faxing or billing

Craig H.: 7) Dissatisfied with quality of service

Craig H.: 8) Too costly

Jay: 4

Craig H.: Jay, as we'd like to keep your business, I can offer you a discount and also waive your subscription fee for 2 months.

Craig H.: After the free period, pay just $12.95 per month. This plan includes 130 inbound pages monthly and extra pages are just 15 cents each.

Craig H.: There is no contract and you may cancel anytime. Shall I switch you to this savings plan?

Jay: No thank you. I don't need it anymore

Craig H.: OK, before I close your account, we now have an annual plan that will let you keep your eFax service for just 14 cents a day.

Craig H.: You make one annual payment of just $50 and pay nothing more unless you exceed 30 pages per month. Extra pages are just 15 cents.

Craig H.: This deal won't be available once your account is closed. Can I switch you to this savings plan which lets you keep your fax number for just 14 cents a day?


Craig H.: OK, I will go ahead and cancel your account.

Craig H.: Is there anything else I may assist you with?

Jay: No, just please send me confirmation that the account is canceled.

Craig H.: Sure, an e-mail confirming that your account has been canceled will be sent to your registered e-mail address.

Jay: OK

Craig H.: Thank you for contacting eFax online support. I hope you found our session helpful. Goodbye and take care.

Why I still say 'interactive' instead of 'digital' et al

Sorry, nits. Meet your picker.

It bugs me (yes, puny play on words intended) to hear leaders of legacy media businesses refer to their “digital” strategies or products, meaning all their online/internet/web/social/mobile stuff.

How did “interactive,” as the adjective of choice for such stuff, lose favor? It is both more accurate and more aspirational.

I run the interactive business for a group of local television stations. TV, in case you have been off the grid for the past decade or so, is now almost fully a digital business.

Before this job, I helped run the interactive team for a chain of newspapers. By the way, they, too, are almost purely digital businesses right up to the point where plates go on a press and ink meets paper.

If I say, “I run digital businesses for my company,” that should thus mean, “I run my company.” And that's not true.

If I say, “I run interactive businesses for my company,” you might reply, “But your [sites|apps|pages] really aren't all that interactive.”

That's the aspirational part.

Being digital just means you use 1s and 0s instead of hand tools, chemicals or mechanical devices. Once you convert to digital technologies in every key element of your business, you check off that box and move on to something else.

Being interactive means growing one-way mass-media communications forms into multidirectional, multithreaded, continuously evolving conversations. Interactivity comes in infinite degrees, so you never get to check off the box that says it's done.

So don't talk to me about your “digital strategies” unless you include things like exciters for digital TV transmission or kerning pairs in Adobe InDesign for digital construction of newspaper pages. If you want to talk about interactive strategy, I'm all ears.

If 'Do Not Track' happens, what's Plan B for targeting?

Despite plenty of conversation and posturing, we're a long way from regulations or even standards for a “Do Not Track” registry as pushed by the Federal Trade Commission.

If “Do Not Track” were to come about, would that be the end of many of the ad targeting forms we have seen evolve on the web, in email marketing and elsewhere on the Internet?

I doubt it.

Geographic targeting gets better with each new consumer conversion from proxied dial-up accounts to broadband. If you visit a site using home DSL, cable or fiber access, or use the mobile web via a 3G or 4G connection, chances are the broadband Internet provider sends along a host name that at least reveals what town you're in, if not what part of town. This targetable — though not personally identifiable — bit of information goes to the site even if you use a browser that successfully anonymizes you and your computer.

What about interest targeting? Before a site knows to serve you ads based on expressed interests, you have to express those interests to the site. On purpose. That by its nature circumvents “Do Not Track,” much the way businesses can still solicit their current and even former customers by phone even if they are on “Do Not Call” lists.

Behavior targeting — serving you a message based on your recent online behaviors, such as sites visited and search keywords — might seem most vulnerable to a “Do Not Track” system. I think, however, it would find serious trouble only in the unlikely event DNT were to gain near 100 percent adoption.

Otherwise, what would stop developers of ad serving software or ad networks from employing statistical sampling methods? Using sampling on a large enough volume of inventory, shouldn't an ad net be able to extrapolate big-enough behavior segments from the observed behavior of even a small percentage of people who do not opt out using DNT?

I leave it to others to debate the ethical, business or technical implications. I'm only saying “Do Not Track,” for whatever comforts it may provide people who sign up, doesn't seem likely to end any of these major forms of online ad targeting. What am I missing?

In news production, a return of the hunter and packer

TVNewsCheck looks into Deseret Media's news production approach and finds a model it implies is novel — but that, in fact, we in the industry have tried before, though we might have widely spread opinions about that memory.

Deseret's news organization pumps content into a Salt Lake City newspaper, television station, radio station and affiliated websites. Deseret CEO Clark Gilbert, not long ago from the Clayton Christensen-bred consulting stable, won raves for his keynote presentation, a stark problem exposition, at the recent Borrell Associates conference on mobile strategies for media. He certainly appears willing to shake the company's structure to its core, including its journalistic workflows.

The news approach attempts to separate newsgathering — the inputs — from news preparation and distribution — the outputs. The role most closely related to a traditional reporter's job description now focuses on gathering all the components of a story. The role most closely related to a traditional editor (newspaper) or producer (broadcast) now focuses on processing the components into a story for each use case: print, broadcast, interactive.

Newsroom leaders, in richer days, experimented with this separation of the “hunter-gatherer” from the “packer-distributor” tasks. And one form of news organization lived almost entirely by it in the 1970s and 1980s: news magazines such as Time and Newsweek. But you don't see the characteristic gang-bylines on very many newsmagazine spreads anymore.

I always understood that the news magazines shifted away from this model because of its expense and inefficiency. But I never worked for one so I'm hoping some of my media pals will read this and either confirm or set me straight.

Montana now fully tuned up

With today's launches of Operation Tune-Up on in Missoula and in Kalispell, Cordillera Interactive finished its rollout of new site architectures to all seven sites Cordillera runs in Montana.

We will pause and sigh, relieved, before moving on to more site launches the first weeks of October, November and December.

We stepped up our game nicely in Big Sky Country, and that's just for starters. Op Tune-Up sits very early in a long cycle of new product development and enhancements.

Cordillera is not a big company, and we do not operate in top-25 markets — but the work our corporate and local teams do, on projects like Tune-Up and everyday operations, stacks up against anything I've seen in the big towns. Makes my job a lot of fun!

More Cordillera Tune-Up sites

Cordillera Interactive launched two more Montana site rebuilds this week in its Operation Tune-Up project: in Billings and in Helena. Here's the before (left) and after.

The changes under the hood matter most in this project, as I described last week: lighter page weights and scripts mean faster load times and fewer nagging browser incompatibilities. Visually, we cleaned a lot of things up, but the differences should not be jarring or confusing to an occasional visitor.

We'll finish Montana sites quickly then move on to a series of launches in early October. As always, I welcome comments from my friends in the user experience and Web programming fields.

A big week for Cordillera Interactive

I have not shared much here about my new role leading Cordillera Interactive. I have wanted to, but had very little time to share stories of our rapid progress on this blog.

This week, we have something I'll pause to shout about.

Back in spring, we started a project to update the designs and underlying HTML/CSS architectures of our TV sites. We named the project Operation Tune-Up.

Starting yesterday, we moved Operation Tune-Up out of the lab and onto its first site: in Great Falls, Montana. We still face a couple more days of inevitable debugging and clean-up work. But you can see the effects of Tune-Up on the home page, story pages and most index pages.

Thanks to Joey Martin, CI's senior director of operations, and his folks nationwide (with a special hat-tip to Neil Wagner in Billings, who also provided the terrific graphic design) for a successful launch!

We wanted big improvements in three key elements of the site user experience, and we think we got 'em:

  • Site pages, especially the home page, load much faster. That, alone, justifies the project.
  • Site content is easier to find.
  • Stories are easier to read. in Billings is on deck for Tune-Up, and we'll start that launch process as soon as we winnow down the clean-up list for Great Falls. All Cordillera sites get their own Tune-Ups before the end of the year.

Would I invest our limited resources in a Web tune-up if I felt the Web were dead? Maybe not, but I don't think it matters. My objectives in any interactive redesign project roll up into two main principles:

  1. A redesign should make the next redesign faster and easier to execute. At some point, the pace of user interface innovation on the mainstream/consumer Web may begin to slow, but for now, the end of one design project still seems to signal the beginning of the next. So we have to cut the time and resource requirements to keep up.
  2. A redesign should make it easier to collect, store and distribute all kinds of content assets using today's, and tomorrow's, communications forms. Get it from anywhere, anyone, anytime. Put it anywhere, with anyone, anytime. Seems simple, really isn't, but we should push to make it simpler with every project.

If we succeed at both of those, and the Web does die, we're still OK — ready for smartphones, tablets, car-dash systems, home media centers or virtual carrier pigeons. Whatever we learn along the way, we can and should share with our paying customers — advertising clients.

Hope you like the new!

'Too critical' makes an odd criticism

Terry Heaton posted a gem about how his sometimes-brutal advice for media can be perceived as “too critical”:

One of the first essays I wrote on this journey was called “Is TV News Giving Away the Future?” I published it in May of 2003 and got a lot of heat for criticism of third-party ad networks running TV station websites. When I look at the “false assumptions” published then, most are still in play today, and there’s even a new wrinkle in the concept: Most media company groups now function themselves as third-party ad networks, so a central thesis in my overall philosophy — that third-party ad networks work for the good of the network but not necessarily for the good of the properties on the network — has been ignored completely.

Heh. Terry, they may say you're too critical. We certainly do not agree on everything (disclosure: Heaton works for AR&D, which counts my company as a long-time client, so we've had our share of give-and-take). But I'd say the “too-critical” tag reflects an industry that has embraced too much political correctness about its current and future state. Sometimes street fights settle more than leather-chair exchanges of P.R.-speak. I'm certainly tired of companies trumpeting “slowing declines in advertising revenue” as if they'd found a cure for the common cold.

Heaton's post recounts his argument that “the flexibility for revenue growth is at the property (local) level.” It would seem to favor high local autonomy for interactive product roadmaps within media conglomerates.

I'm not sure I would say it's the flexibility as much as the touchpoint opportunities that matter locally.

Much of the flexibility to win at street level comes from focus, from strong signal with low noise. I believe that means using the power of a larger company to consolidate strategic, tactical and operational responsibilities for product lines where they have common threads across many local deployments. You know, economies of scale.

Let local teams adapt product lines to meet local needs, sure, but not just for the sake of being different. Oh, if only I had back every dollar the companies I have worked for have wasted the past 15 years allowing local Webmasters to write bespoke content systems, or commerce systems, or cute-baby-photo-rating systems, in miserably unsustainable isolation. And the multiples of those dollars spent to migrate, convert or wind down the inevitably disappointing results.

Meanwhile, the iPhone looks and works much the same everywhere it is sold (subject to quality of AT&T's service, natch). So does Microsoft Word. So does Google. Local variations in these technology products almost surely represent far less than 10 percent of the overall user experience. Last I heard, the companies that provide those products are doing OK in all our communities.

In short, the more efficiently a conglomerate uses its product resources, the more it can spare for customer relationships, those touchpoint opportunities.

Incumbent local media do have the advantage of local direct sales relationships, as Heaton and Gordon Borrell have discussed, but they are based on the shorthand dialects of legacy media advertising. The keepers of those relationships — sales account executives — often recoil from introducing new products, a new dialect, into them. That's human nature. The legacy products remain easier to sell to existing customers, at higher gross dollar amounts and much higher margins than anything the “interactive department” can show.

All stipulated. We're great at problem exposition, right? So what's the answer?

Where many observers might argue the incumbent media entities need to fire up R&D arms that invent new products in all the current and emerging interactive categories — and fast! — I have long maintained our industry will lose if its bias is to build solutions internally (and lose faster if every local property tries to build “the next Google”). Instead, I believe we need to adapt our business development practices to a world full of partnership opportunities.

If pure-plays can invent and deploy the right product to meet a given marketing need of small/medium businesses, why must we insist we could build a “me-too” product better, or blind ourselves to the threat entirely until another chunk of market share goes away?

Almost every company that represents the pure-play revenue in Borrell's data will, or would, entertain reseller partnerships with incumbent local media, as an alternative to building its own sales forces especially in markets smaller than the top 25. Incumbent media can resell best-of-breed interactive and mobile marketing solutions profitably. Plus, the incumbents do still have significant distribution clout via their legacy, offline operations, and will for many years to come.

The sum remains greater than the parts — as long as we don't stupidly expect things to stay that way without changing some of our behaviors.

If a local media operator can claim to sell products on par with best-of-breed marketing platforms, online and offline, then we shift the game back to differentiators that actually matter: our people, our relationships, our client service, our commitments to the communities in which we operate.

I wish I could say we have big leads in all those “human-touch” areas. We don't. Anyone who has ever tried to change frequency on a newspaper home delivery subscription, or called in to place a private-party classified ad, knows we do not exactly shine at customer service. But we have a more realistic chance of becoming the best on the human side once we equalize the technology race via partnerships. We have little or no chance if we choose to fight our battles on the technology front itself.