Will the Economy Ever Turn Up? Archive

UGC: Just a Loss Leader in the End?

Back in the late 1990s, dot coms were all about the land grab. The idea was the more eyeballs and shoppers you got- POOF!- the more valuable you were. Never mind, the advertising market wasn't quite there yet and you were selling bags of dog food at a loss. The common wisdom has been that this was irresponsible, and truth be told, none of these companies had any business being publicly traded. But, more than half of the companies started during this time, actually stayed in business-- incredibly high odds for startups. To many, that proves that the problem wasn't that too many companies were started and nor was it their unfounded business models. It was that too much money was wasted on each one, and that it was never a game the public markets should have been playing.

There was, of course, one very important benefit to that land grab and wasted millions in investment capital: All those free services and cheap bags of dog food did bring a ton of people online. And they stayed online, even as many of the companies that did survive did so by charging realistic prices and shipping if they were in ecommerce, or switching to premium services and subscription fees if they were in content or entertainment. In fact, throughout the post 2000s, nearly every Web startup pitching venture capitalists or reporters were all talking up their premium services and subscription fees. You can still see vestiges of it with The Wall Street Journal's stubborn resistance to giving away content for free and early Web 2.0 companies like LinkedIn that didn't wait for an ad market to develop, but rather charged fees for things like job posting and "InMail."

As the wet blanket of recession has settled around the Valley and startups have come under pressure to monetize what they've built, I've wondered when we'd see the same flight to subscriptions and fees. Instead we're starting to see something similar but with a Web 2.0 twist: The rejection of user generated content in favor of professional content that's more consistent, reliable and palatable to advertisers.

This is bold shift, as the whole Web 2.0 movement was predicated on user generated content and the engineer-centric idea that you could build an easy to use platform, everyday people would create content for free, and other everyday people would navigate it, consume it and push the very best up to the top. It was rooted in the conviction that you didn't need the kind of doomed content partnerships of the past between New York, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, because Web 2.0 was democratizing media and entertainment and ultimately that platform was the future, not the content gatekeepers.

This was clearly the most pronounced on YouTube, where the viral sensations like the Evolution of the Dance and the Grape Lady (ow! ow! owwwwww!) became the lexicon of an entire generation and the myth sprung up that everyday stars of viral videos would become household names with their own movies and HBO shows. (They never did.)  Sure there were whispered claims that as much as 50% of YouTube's views were actually of copyrighted material. Still, the company never would have sold to Google for $1.65 billion without UGC.

In other words, user generated content was to Web 2.0 what free-bags-of-dog-food was to ecommerce.  But flash-forward to 2009, and there's still no clear way to monetize user generated content, either from the sites themselves or the would-be stars.

Guess what? The Web has evolved to the point where you can monetize professional content. And that's why you see most of the smarter members of the Web 2.0 elite doing the very content deals they would have rejected a year ago. First, there was YouTube's rumored deal with the William Morris Agency, and now Slide has teamed up with the Valley-addict Ashton Kutcher and his company Katalyst Media. Katalyst also launched its site The Blah Girls at TechCrunch50 and produced 24-hours-at-Sundance with Kevin Rose last month, to mixed reviews.

Under the deal, Slide's FunSpace application on Facebook will be the exclusive distributor for Katalyst's reality show about its own company, KatalystHQ. Cheetos will sponsor the show. (What's that? ACTUAL REVENUES!? Between Cheetos and BlahGirls' sponsor Vitamin Water, Ashton's poor fans are going to need gym memberships, stat.)

Liz Gannes over at NewTeeVee questioned the logic in limiting distribution to an application within a site, even if it is the highly popular FunSpace on the highly popular Facebook. That was my first question too. But, Ashton's approach to all things Silicon Valley is very hat-in-hand, you-guys-are-the-experts, teach-me-your-techy-ways. He wants to learn what works as much as he wants to make each particular project a raging success. I think that's smart. And Max, with his metrics-watching obsession, knows what works online.

I talked to Ashton and Max yesterday, and while they noted the shift from UGC to professional partnerships was real, both said "loss leader" was too harsh a term for User Generated Content. They were both careful to extol UGC's virtues. Max talked it up as an unparalleled way for sites to get a volume of cheap and frequently highly viral content, and Ashton said that professional content had learned a lot from more on-the-fly lifecasting and the interactivity of user generated video. Indeed, the content of KatalystHQ is little more than Ashton's receptionist shooting video of life around the office.

But the inconsistency and unpredictability makes UGC nearly impossible to monetize. Said Max, "It's a much easier ad sale to do product placement in professional video where advertisers can control how they want it to be. They don't really want to rely on thirty second clips of people slamming into trees."  So UGC is a tool for bringing in users and content, but not very monetizable. Hmm...Sounds like the very definition of a loss leader to me...

But I grant their point that the shift hardly means that the move to democratize content is over. It's very possible there is still a genius way to monetize UGC, we just haven't found it yet. Remember how long it took the industry to come up with paid search ads? Back when Google was founded, many VCs deemed it too late to an already mature market with no good business model. It's also very possible a huge star does arise from YouTube and actually does cross-over to traditional media. But just like in the post-March-2000-era, companies need to focus on where advertisers want to spend money now, versus trying to sell them on the future. The future, simply put, will still be there when the economic crisis is over.

But why should we believe ties between Hollywood and the Valley will finally bear all that much-promised fruit? Max pointed to nearly every broadcaster voluntarily making content available online, the surprising success of Hulu, and viewers increasingly choosing the Web as the place to consume even long-form content. "A year ago, I think (Slide's sassy head of business development) Keith (Rabois) would have spit in the face of anyone suggesting a content deal with us," Max said. "Now you can't argue against it." The wake up call for Ashton? Five years ago, if you made people chose to get rid of their TVs or computers, most of the ones he knows would have said computers. "Now, you ask the same question and hands down everyone would get rid of the TV. You don't need it anymore."

When I teased Ashton about his third splashy Valley press tour in just a few months, he added, "By the way, I'm not going away so people can brace themselves for that."

Is a deal with Twitter next?

Prediction: LinkedIn Engagement Metrics Will Soar in 2009

I did something this morning I haven't done in a long time: I spent an hour on LinkedIn.

Anyone who reads this blog, watches TechTicker, or has read my book knows I have long been very bullish on LinkedIn as a company, and occasionally the site has proven a God-send for tracking sources down. But in a world where Facebook and Twitter meet most of my connecting needs, the only uniquely powerful application for LinkedIn in my view is job hunting, and I haven't had to look for a job since I've been a member. So while I've played around with the Answers application and go to the site once a month or so to sort through invitations, I've never had much reason to spend a lot of time there.

So what changed today?

We've Been in Idiot Land a While Now, Scoble. Get Comfortable.

Robert Scoble has a heartfelt post today that sums up his frustration with noise becoming more important than substance. Well, welcome to journalism in the Internet age. Actually, welcome to journalism period. It's just more pronounced in an age when we can measure how stories do and tend to place value on them solely for that reason. And it's in no way limited to Tech. If it were, CNN wouldn't be reporting on Paris Hilton.

This was a huge personal frustration when I was at BusinessWeek covering startups before they were hot again and important, but unsexy, technology trends like open source software. I would spend months breaking a story with huge impact, only to be dwarfed by traffic for a story that just rehashed the latest Apple rumor. To BusinessWeek's great credit, they still run those unsexy stories prominently, because the BusinessWeek brand of delivering all the news business people need is just as important as sheer page views. (Ahem, they also renewed my columnist contract for another year. Thanks, John Byrne!)

But is this the same in the blog world? Where the whole business is predicated on page views?

'Tis the Season of Disasterous Unintended Consequences

As I've said before, I'm starting to get irrationally freaked about the downturn and just how much worse 2009 could get. But my fears of every employer of ours going insolvent, and Mr. Lacy and I ending up in the poor house are-- by any stretch-- a long shot. Even the worst case scenario is likely some belt tightening, which we've done before and can do again. (Tip: Short Diane Von Furstenberg if this occurs.)

But there is something else I'm very scared about, and it's all too rational: Unintended consequences of government intervention. The TARP bailout was merely the beginning to a drunken spree of spending, regulation and scapegoats that'll continue at least through first quarter of 2009, and I'm betting even longer. It's a mad-dash to soothe the stock market, which is irrational at best. And you know what happens in mad-dashes? People fall and trip on scissors.

First, consider, a cautionary tale from the last bust: Here's a great piece in the Wall Street Journal by Mike Malone, one of my very favorite authors. (In fact, Infinite Loop is the best book written on Apple IMHO. Not too late to get one for your favorite fan boy for Christmas....) Malone's piece echoes several of the "Nontrepreneur" chapter in my book, and a good many columns I've written about the very real problems venture capitalists are facing, although I tend to point the finger at Wall Street more than Washington. As usual, Malone makes his points in elegant style.

And now a cautionary tale for 2009. Paul "It's only fairly apocalyptic" Kedrosky likes to come up with doomsday scenarios, and sadly in 2008 a lot of them were right on. But this situation he describes in our video below is one of the scariest. (Hint: ZOMBIES!)

This is what happens when we slap-dash regulations and bailouts to pacify voters and mob-investors. I don't know a single expert, journalist, commentator or luminary that said the bailout plan was well thought out. But at the same time there was high-pitched screeching when it wasn't immediately passed. This is just one unintended consequence of the "YOU HAVE TO DO SOMETHING!" school of governance. Do you know how many we haven't even seen yet?

I started my career covering regional banks and you can't overestimate how much the fabric of America is woven into them. The U.S. Government certainly can't afford to bail them all out. Already we're stretched so thin, China is downgrading our credit rating for the first time.

I know, I know, not exactly happy Christmas wishes. The above video is far more suited for Halloween.

I Only Need 8 Jillion More Page Views to Make Rent. Call Your Friends!

In my continuing rant on how most of us are going about blogging monetization all wrong, we get this gem from AdAge.com this week. The headline trumpets that News-Oriented Websites Have a Future. First reaction: Oh thank God, my profession is saved.

We all know traditional media is hopelessly screwed, right? Right. And most of us know that online arms of traditional media agencies aren't really picking up the slack, creating a pretty worrying scenario. Especially because the last few years for media have already been looking like Fall 2008 looked for Wall Street, and now we're entering an undoubtedly horrible year for advertising with no Olympics, no election, no good one-time catalyst to give us a boost.

There is a future for media. There is a business model there. But I think I speak for most journalists when I say we're starting to feel like Moses's people wandering in the desert for 40-years. So was this headline from AdAge a coming attraction of the promised land? Hardly.

Ok, I'm Starting to Freak...

I can't put my finger on it. But in the last week, I've suddenly started to freak out about the economy. Suddenly I'm convinced we're in for years and years of pain, and Mr. Lacy and I will be lucky to keep either of our jobs, our house, our car....wait....we have a shitty car that's paid off. Still, that's the kind of irrational panic I'm talking about.

OK, so why wasn't I more panicked, say, when the rest of the world was? It's the difference between clinically as a reporter seeing how bad things were likely to get and processing the panic on an emotional level. Plus, as a business reporter I can't really invest in individual stocks, so the Wall Street stuff wasn't hitting home the same way. And we have a pretty sane mortgage on a house that according to recent comps hasn't deteriorated in value since we bought it. And as a contractor, I have some idea of what I'm making through the next year, barring any huge tragedies. Also, as a contractor, my revenues are pretty diversified between a few sources. I could lose one of my jobs and it'd be rough, but still be OK. And frankly, having weathered the dot com bust in San Francisco at a time when Mr. Lacy and I were far more junior in our careers and unconnected in the Valley, I felt like it might not be pleasant but we *could* weather anything. And if we did, hey, we'd be better off on the other side. Volatility equals opportunity right? Plus, I have a few cool new projects I'm working on that generally have me super upbeat.

Did something happen to cause this sudden change? Not really. In fact, Mr. Lacy avoided any layoffs (unless things get far worse) and I avoided one at Yahoo (ditto previous parenthetical) and got my BW contract renewed. (They have a fetish for late columns perhaps?) Maybe it was seeing so much other carnage around me, as thousands of others lost their jobs last week, but I've somehow lost the ability to be rational about it all. Hey, isn't that a sign of a bottom? Please? I had such a mini-meltdown midday that Geoff sent me this:


Elsewhere in the world of cute animals, this site is the only thing that cheered me up amid my odd Wednesday economic panic. Isn't it funny how a down economy makes us so cynical that the animal-picture-meme-du-jour has even turned in angrily on itself? Whoever writes that blog, you're my new recession buddy. Please keep posting pictures of animals trying too hard to look cute and mocking them so I can make it on days like today.

Part insightful analysis of what ails Silicon Valley and part madcap journey to far flung hubs of aspiration and innovation, Sarah Lacy takes us around the world in 180 pages to find the fascinating people who are creating the new wealth in a new world of start ups and ventures that America ought to be paying a lot more attention to.
Brilliant. Crazy. Cocky.

New Book

An unforgettable portrait of the emerging world's entrepreneurial dynamos Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky is the story about that top 1% of people who do more to change their worlds through greed and ambition than politicians, NGOs and nonprofits ever can. This new breed of self-starter is taking local turmoil and turning it into opportunities, making millions, creating thousands of jobs and changing the face of modern entrepreneurship at the same time. To tell this story, Lacy spent forty weeks traveling through Asia, South America and Africa hunting down the most impressive up-and-comers the developed world has never heard of....yet.

Excerpt »

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Srah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is an award-winning reporter who has covered high-growth entrepreneurship for more than fifteen years. She is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of PandoDaily.com, the site-of-record for the startup ecosystem. She lives in San Francisco.

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