Reminders of why I wound down Small Initiatives

The past several days had a way of reminding me why I wound down the types of part-time consulting I did most often as part of Small Initiatives.

My Scripps job keeps me hopping, now more than ever, as we rethink what it means to be a local news media company from this point forward. That rethinking also makes the job far more interesting, mostly in good ways. I am certainly not being denied the strategic responsibilities I coveted so long.

Meanwhile, consulting tasks people most frequently asked me to do when I ran SI — and about which I still get questions most every day — frankly become less interesting by the minute:

Web site design/architecture: OK, this work can be highly interesting if it's the right kind of site and project. Unfortunately, for me, they rarely are. Instead, I get inquiries about small businesses needing to sell or service online, or start-ups needing a brochure Web presence or light content management. Those kinds of problems have been solved so thoroughly, so well at this point that I don't bring enough unique value to justify my time or rates.

Have you seen Intuit's TV spots for its small business Web site builder? You get 30 days free then it costs $4.99 a month for a decent template-driven brochure site, all search-engine optimized. Yes, Intuit will gladly upsell a custom domain name and other services to improve its margins, but why would an independent consultant try to compete at these price points?

Want e-commerce? Talk to Yahoo! or Amazon, and forget about a custom build unless, well, you are Yahoo! or Amazon.

At the highest end, top-grade graphic design and user experience work requires more immersion, more time spent refining skills, than I can do. Even if someone gift-wrapped an avant-garde project, at this point, I'm not the best person to execute on it.

Content management systems, and hosting/administration of same: I am a technologist only as self-defense, not by training. Sure, I've implemented Web content systems, kept them running for clients, and tried to optimize for performance and reliability. Had fun the first time I got a big system working; now, not so much.

Meanwhile, content management and hosting also fall in the “problem-solved/case-closed” category. Need a solo blog/social status/mobile publishing application? See WordPress. Need a robust, flexible, capable, extensible, well-supported Web content/commerce system for a wide swath of use cases? One word: Drupal. No charge for that advice. You're welcome.

(Scripps followers might have thought I would suggest Ellington or Django applications, but no. Those, too, are fine systems and tools, but not as flexible, heavily used, or well-supported as Drupal. Mind you, I stand by our decision to purchase Ellington for Scripps sites almost four years ago, and it still performs well for us. That, however, was a different era in the history of both suites.)

Does that leave any gigs I would take? Yes.

I remain highly interested in short-term consulting on overall Internet-focused business strategy. That can take the form of strategic evaluations, strategic planning sessions, training, and user experience assessments (both in a business-strategy sense and more technical heuristic evaluations). And I can still provide general advice on Web design, content systems, hosting etc. — even help screen service providers in those specialties. I'm just out of the business of “putting up Web sites” for people.

Regardless of my navel-gazing, I was not Small Initiatives' best revenue producer the past two years, anyway. Ka gets that title, for her consulting work in banking, credit unions, insurance and small business strategy. Since we mothballed SI and split out our blogs, she has added posts that demonstrate her expertise in these areas, including a new one this weekend: How's that corporate responsibility working for you? (She's also on the hunt for that next great career step post-consulting, Knoxville friends; tough economy or not, if you know of anything suitable, contact either of us.)

Areas of strategic focus for news media

A friend from a newspaper industry association asked this morning what I thought were the most important problems, issues and opportunities facing our ragtag fleet.

Here's what I said — all aimed at the whole U.S. newspaper industry, not any company in particular:

  • We need to organize ourselves in ways that emphasize journalists and salespeople in the field, deemphasize or automate production processes, and reduce management layers as much as we can, such to make room for that emphasis.
  • We need to create new value, and promote new value propositions, for advertising in all media forms — in large part by recapturing a market position as providers of creative services and aggregators of commercial messages and local deals.
  • We need to establish the role of news content and relevant local information in mobile/handheld platforms, even at the expense of the roadmap for the mainstream Web.
  • We need logical, sustainable processes for new product development and deployment that coordinate with and feed on resources from newsrooms and sales organizations, while maintaining appropriate strategic independence from them.
  • We need to learn the fields of business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing for ourselves. We sat on a dominant marketing vehicle for decades but never learned how to sell our own value propositions.

I also advised that we won't learn these things by sharing war stories in panel discussions or over beers at industry events. Our industry is by training and experience rather insular, full of managers prone to investing in “best practices” consisting of a few compelling PowerPoint slides from a peer company's unproven experiments.

Outside expertise and the willingness to listen would help more than any of that, although sometimes only a beer will do.

What in all this would make me click?

The adjacent image shows what can happen when weak news subject matter leads to a disjointed report, and a worse promotional link.

The headline plays up how respondents to a new poll say Wal-Mart is the institution that best symbolizes America. The text below, which we newsies call a “teaser,” cites two completely different poll findings, about taxes and Twitter. The thumbnail photo alongside? George Clooney.

Not knowing any better, one might ask: What does Clooney have to do with Wal-Mart? What do either have to do with taxes or Twitter?

The Associated Press story behind this teaser describes results of a poll commissioned by 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair, asking Americans' opinions on a broad swath of trend-spotting subject matter. The poll's lack of focus gets a big chunk of the blame — out of all those questions, what do you focus on first? Then I'd wonder why The AP chose to write a lead paragraph focusing on two unrelated findings, then a headline about something not mentioned for three paragraphs.

Clooney? He's in paragraph 7. So either humans at The AP or machines at Yahoo! picked out his mug to run with this story.

I'm scratching my head. Generally, I find “mood-of-the-nation” polls particularly weak subject matter, since the topics pollsters choose seem geared more to ensure good-for-the-pollster-business pieces like this than any actual understanding of people. But I saw this teaser only because it runs at the moment atop Yahoo!'s “Most Viewed” list.

I can, thus, draw one conclusion about the mood of the nation: we apparently are in the mood to read stories about polls trying to measure our mood.

Blogress report

It takes a while to move around several years of blog posts and several more of static documents.

I managed to install a bit more of a design on JaySmall.com, notify Google of the changes, get server redirects working to preserve the old Small Initiatives content, get Ka's blog going on its own, and install some Drupal modules that make writing and editing easier.

Perhaps most important, SID made his way here, in a, like, groovy color-halftone form that brings some of my old world (newspapers and print design) to my “now” world (interactive media).

Much more to do, in my own sweet time.

After SI: The next phase

Early this year Ka and I incorporated Small Initiatives. She was engaged in long-term consulting to modernize an insurance agency, and I had accepted a couple of new clients for Web development work. We wanted the structure and protection of a corporation, and felt we would need it for the long haul.

Since then, we both finished our MBAs, her gig ran its course, and I became deeply involved in comprehensive restructuring in my day job that will occupy mindshare I might otherwise spend on clients. Meanwhile, the ceaseless paperwork and bookkeeping requirements of an S-corporation made the whole thing more stressful than useful.

As such, we happily dissolved Small Initiatives, Inc., effective a few days ago.

Ka and I will finish out work for current consulting clients, but have no plans to seek new long-term ones. We both remain open to speaking/presenting/discussion engagements, just nothing requiring long-term commitments of precious free time.

We will gradually phase out SmallInitiatives.com in favor of separate blog/personal sites at KaSmall.com and JaySmall.com. Hers is further along than mine — less data to migrate — and we'll post here when each site goes officially live. I would be far more concerned about loss of search optimization benefits if we received more than our current sprinkling of traffic.

(Ka, I suspect, looks forward to the day she flies free of restrictions on her ability to post political opinions, which she suffered while our posts were “blended” on the SI site because of my journalism background and employment at a news media company. I never blog on politics, but broken out of the SI shell, she just might.)

We'll also gradually retire the smallinitiatives.com domain from our e-mail addresses. You can already reach her at ka [at] kasmall [dot] com, and me at jay [at] jaysmall [dot] com. And humans know what to do to make those addresses work, right?

Papers and paid content: Watch your headlines

Headlines and snippets popped up in blogland yesterday that seemed to say just more than half of American newspaper publishers are gunning to implement paid content strategies on the Web.

For example:

The bloggage emerged from meetings happening at the American Press Institute yesterday and today, focused on revenue models for and around content. In those meetings, Itz Publishing and Belden Interactive presented results of their recent industry survey. It included several questions about subscription, micropayment and day-pass models to charge consumers for access to news content. I'm attending, so I heard the whole presentation.

The coverage pushes down, or ignores entirely, the fact that the survey had 118 respondents, unweighted, not a valid representative sample of all American newspapers. Publishers were not always the people responding, and in some cases, representatives of newspaper groups responded in aggregate on behalf of multiple papers.

Further, the question that yielded the 51 percent metric actually had only 68 respondents. It wasn't a question about whether paid content would work. It asked what papers' time frames were for attempting to implement any form of paid content online. 51 percent of respondents had a timetable at all within the next two years. The rest were undecided.

In my view, the better question to focus on would be whether publishers are considering paid content programs at all. All 118 survey respondents answered that one; 58 percent said yes.

In no way, however, should any of the survey results be reported to reflect the whole industry, especially on such a volatile issue as paid access to news. I think even the Itz/Belden folks would agree.

Link bucket: More on this whole Internet thing

Links with longer shelf life and less cholesterol than fried butter, as if that's hard:

After the sale, deliver the promise

I sat in stunned amazement last week following a service call with an agency management system sales rep. The call pertained to billing, technical support, and user group experience issues for a recently converted insurance agency.

After outlining the issues, the rep shared his concerns about the inability to empower customers with access to the appropriate departments for support. He added his company had recently contracted with a consulting firm to help improve the service experience. Consultants spent two days following sales reps around to define and recommend a strategy – are you kidding me? Two days? That's it? Let me add this – no one contacted the agency who was a new customer. From my perspective, the efforts points to a revenue-driven strategy, not one focused on a holistic customer experience.

If your company is serious about improving the customer experience, take the following advice:

  • First and most importantly, respond to customer correspondence same day or no later than 24 hours. At a minimum provide a personal acknowledgment of the correspondence, not an automated thank-you-for-contacting-us message.
  • Ask your customers, both new and existing, about their experience with the company – and not just in a Survey Monkey format. Face-to-face offers better resolutions to more complex service issues and proves your sincerity or lack of.
  • Quantify the number of support calls placed, resolved, and open by type, time to resolution, and who resolved the issue. Tracking calls is efficient and smart but if you need a consultant to help you interpret the results your issues are beyond outside help.
  • Customer training is the most critical component for any new product you offer. Some topics can be packaged but every customer has different levels of learning acumen.
  • Have a go-to department or group if your company is multi-divisional. Put yourself in the customer's position and direct them to who you would call for problem resolution. By the way, make sure the department responsible for fielding calls is prepared.
  • If you don't get the deal, ask why, if, and how the sales experience impacted the decision.
  • Don't be insincere in efforts to hear the customer out. My conversation ended with the rep providing me with his confidential phone number to billing, which by the way, was printed on the customer invoice.

Today's economic conditions demand service differentiation. It isn't a “build it and they will come economy” and the customer isn't ignorant. Most understand service is the true competitive advantage. Failing your customers means you set them up for failure. Last minute fire sales and special deals won’t save a sinking product line of a revenue-driven company. Unless you focus on the customer, your company may find itself as the fire sale of the day.

Collusion for pay wall/collision with brick wall

First, Tim Rutten makes the case that saving “premium” journalism means an act of Congress — specifically, an antitrust exemption so papers can collude on paid content pricing on their Web sites. Then, the reaction.

Steve Outing, for example:

“He's joking, right? U.S. newspapers, many with a history of profit margins in the 20-30% range for many years, suddenly should be allowed to collude because they've had a rough couple years? That's outrageous. The marketplace and disruptive technologies are forcing newspapers to change or die. So they have to change, reinvent themselves for the digital age. Let’s keep government out of this, unless it's in more useful ways such as supporting the expansion of broadband to all, giving media players large and small a level playing field.”

And from Michael Masnick at Techdirt:

“It's difficult to think of anything to say to people who think these ways, other than “good luck.” The real world doesn't believe in such limitations. If the newspapers collude and come up with a pricing scheme where the lowest option starts at $10 per month — fine. Just go do it, and then let's see what happens. Because talking about it is getting pretty silly.”

Masnick predicts “smart” news organizations, and/or individuals, would break off from a colluding pack and soak up the traffic it sheds.

As someone who spent most of the last 15 years pulling newspaper companies into the digital age, I do not always agree with people who presume our industry cannot and does not innovate. It can. It does. Newspapers' best digital properties, you gotta admit, are pretty good, pretty competitive. The ranges of size, of best and worst, and of experimentation out there, all run very wide. I doubt the whole industry would move lockstep in any direction, especially toward digital paywalls.

Pay walls amount to a business decision: choosing your market. Newspaper publishers who put Web content behind pay walls choose to exit the advertiser-supported market for content, and battle instead in the consumer-supported market.

Can't you do both? No, apparently. Every example I see of erecting pay walls so diminishes traffic vs. market potential that advertising becomes, at best, a second revenue stream behind subscription fees. (That may not be true of WSJ.com, but not all WSJ content stays behind the wall.)

Meanwhile, the major search engines might still crawl and index your pay wall site, which you'd think would help. But they'll insist you provide their consumer searchers at least the first page free when they click through. That adds complexity to your technology model while diminishing your subscriber base in exchange for trickles of drive-by traffic.

In cases where Web proprietors start with content behind a pay wall and later decide to set it free, new advertising revenue quickly outpaces the old pay wall revenue because traffic grows that much.

Where are the news pay wall success stories that would inspire confidence in the consumer-supported market?

Innovation's more than a chip shot

I love this line of reasoning from Jeffrey Phillips. He remarks how his four-times-a-year golf game belies very low expectations of performance, then this:

“The comparison I want to make to my very part-time golf game is to the part-time efforts most firms put into innovation. If you want to be good at golf, you'll get instruction, play frequently and learn the nuances. Similarly, if you want to be good at innovation, you'll get instruction, work with a pro, learn the tools and use them repeatedly and constantly. Innovating occasionally is like golfing periodically. You may get in a few good shots, but you won't be consistently successful.”