Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This follows my recent post about how a new TV interface from Apple could decimate the television landscape.
Even though Steve Jobs never talked about changing the face of search with Siri, its natural language interface.
But doing so would certainly be a riveting Hollywood screenplay in which Jobs, the uber-innovative, uber-inventive CEO, ultimately gets revenge on a corporate rival he views as a “copy cat.”
In this fictional script, that rival would be Eric Schmidt, one of the top executives at search giant Google. It’s Google, after all, that’s breathing down Apple’s neck with its rapidly expanding Android phone platform – a platform that, according to Jobs and his lawyers, mimics Apple’s breakthrough iPhone technology.
Putting this Oscar dream aside, there’s intensifying competition heating up between Apple and Google, even though Jobs is –sadly – no longer on the scene.
Indeed, even though Google has had voice-enabled search for some time on iOS and Android devices, Schmidt has said it’s possible that Siri could be a real and radical game-changer.
Schmidt may be right. And if he is, then Google will be facing a serious threat as Apple reinvents Google’s home turf of search.
With a “personality” that displays a unique understanding of humanity, Siri’s digital chromosomes enrich the user’s experience. This sets it apart from Google’s more mechanical offerings, and shows why Apple’s consumer-obsessed culture is so different from Google’s corporate DNA, which is as robotic and algorithmic as the “Android” name suggests.
There is rich irony here, as Apple disintermediates the greatest disintermediator of all time. When Google’s superior search service started, it practically single-handedly reduced the brand-driven experience that consumers had thereto relied on with directories and a fully editorialized Web. Google replaced those channels and home pages with 10 blue links. And in the process, became users’ destination of first resort 13 times per day.
And Apple has always been a curator extraordinaire – developing collections and exercising famous (and occasionally notorious) judgment to determine who deserves to be in its directories of songs and apps.
In all fairness, Page and his team are now trying hard to enrich the user experience by aligning their YouTube brand with media companies like Disney, and doling out big dollars for proprietary programming. The hope here is that YouTube can create dozens of lucrative user-friendly / user-favorite Web channels featuring comedians, sports stars, musicians and other entertainers. The company is building stocks of its ‘own’ media weapons in preparation for the coming war.
But, as always, it will be hard for Google to win the hearts of consumers when it comes to content; and it will be especially daunting because Apple is already so completely connected to users.
Meanwhile, with its enviable consumer connection, Apple will undoubtedly extract a toll from media companies, who still want to bathe in the warm digital light that emanates from the inviting and engaging brand Jobs built. And, as it has in every other media category, Apple stands to capture an outsize share of profits for delivering content into a magical consumer experience.
Jealous much, Google?
This post was originally as a contributed piece to Fortune. It is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Tech’s top firms — from Apple and Google to Amazon and Netflix — are vying to reshape media with different game plans. Here’s what they each need to know.
Digital media has the power to change the world. Actually mastering this 21st century business (and art) is unbelievably hard, however. That begs the question: The top media companies all know they need to make changes — but how do they find the right change and execute well? Let’s look at this question through the lens of six key players in the digital media revolution.
Apple (AAPL): Transform the rest of our digital experience.
It may seem arrogant to give advice to the one company that has surprised everyone again and again by being light years ahead of the industry — as well as the consumer. Yet, in a new era of leadership, the most important thing for Apple will be holding on to Jobs’ core values and strength. As corporate leaders go, Jobs was always the best change agent on the planet, and he was never willing to accept the status quo. That’s why Apple is a perennial leader when it comes to devices and distribution for premium media content like music and movies.
The Apple crew must extend its golden touch to the rest of the digital media device world. It’s time to supply the living room with a first-class TV experience; and to seamlessly flow all entertainment between the mobile, iPad, TV, and desktop worlds. AirPlay, iCloud, and AppleTV aren’t all the way there yet. Apple’s next challenge is to make devices that leap forward and bring entertainment and applications wherever I am, and to know me as one person across all of these environments. To do so — and to do so well — will take a huge imagination. And, even without Jobs himself, it’s clear that if anyone can do it, it’s still Apple.
Facebook: Be everywhere the consumer is.
More than any other company on the Web — even Apple — Facebook has changed the nature of digital experiences. It’s already established itself as the dominant social operating system for consumer audiences. And yet it has the potential to go much, much farther. If you need more proof, just this month Facebook announced that it will be facilitating the spread of mobile applications, not to mention linking into them — finally bridging the gap between Web and app. It’s invading Apple iOS’ and Google Android’s territory, providing the cross-application linkages that have always unequivocally been the job of an operating system.
Increasingly, Facebook has the opportunity to wire consumers, applications, data and devices together. But for Facebook to do this, Mark Zuckerberg will need the kind of imagination that Steve Jobs had. Indeed, Zuckerberg will have to imagine a whole new ecosystem, this time one where Facebook facilitates all connectivity. He’s proven he can execute already. But can he take on a vision this big?
Google (GOOG): “What got you here won’t get you there.”
This trademark phrase from Wetpaint COO Rob Grady is particularly apt in Google’s case. Google is the undisputed king of finding answers to questions — as long as they’re being asked from desktop and laptop computers. But when it comes to applying its great search strength to mobile environments, tablet devices and communications, Google is still lost. While the Android operating system is clearly one of the winners, it doesn’t give Google the essential financial success in mobile that it has on the desktop. Google needs to reinvent itself. It needs to make a bold “burn-the-bridges” move, adopting a Reed Hastings-like philosophy that the company cannot rely on search alone. Only, in Google’s case, it’s even harder.
Here’s why: Hastings had already clearly identified the next wave’s product at Netflix (NFLX) — streaming video over the Internet — but Google has to find a new vision altogether. This is not to say that Google needs to exit the search market by any means. But, instead, it must reinvent its own search portfolio, the way Intel (INTC) reinvented the microprocessor generation after generation, always allowing its newest chip to put the last one out of business, before the competition did. Indeed, Intel’s sustained success was built, in part, on destroying what worked and replacing it with something that worked even better. Google’s new vision should surely have three components: mobile, search and social. The good news is that, thanks to Android, Google already has A+ platforms to build on the first two.
But search needs to get beyond the query box, and the mobile device can be more than a phone plus PDA. Google’s challenge — and its opportunity — is to reinvent it as a completely connected device that is woven into the fabric of daily living. It should know where I am, who I’m with, and what I’m doing — or at least have some educated guesses. It should make the next interface leap that helps us leave the thumbs behind. And, it should be a digital companion that picks up on environmental cues and helps me live my digital life. Siri has opened our imagination; but Google has amazing voice recognition, algorithmic and platform strength to accomplish these things. Now it sorely needs to understand people. That’s the most pressing — and most problematic — task for Larry Page and his team in 2012.
Amazon (AMZN): Fully bridge digital media and commerce.
If Facebook is the ultimate platform for social connectivity, it’s pretty clear that Amazon should be the ultimate platform for media and commerce. Amazon has already made amazing progress in redefining itself. It started as a bookseller, became a retailer, began representing other retailers and, most importantly, has morphed into a media and device company. And, as if that’s not enough, its Web Services power tons of other companies that make the Internet fascinating.
That said, a scattershot approach won’t help Amazon become the single defining platform that bridges digital media and commerce. Amazon has tremendous assets in its catalogue, in terms of both physical and digital goods. And it also has devices that give it a unique channel to the consumer — for the time being, at least. But to fulfill its true potential, Amazon needs to extend its platform all the way to commercial transactions, wherever they happen.
Beyond digital goods, Amazon should be working on digital currency and customer management; an acquisition of Square would be a tremendous accelerator here, and it would ultimately help Jeff Bezos and his team power transactions wherever in the world they take place. What Facebook is to our social transactions, Amazon should be to our commercial ones — an OS for commerce. Indeed, Amazon has the opportunity to provide OpenTable-like services, for all commerce, not just for the restaurant industry. It’s already got the goods and the customer relationships. <ow it just needs the focus on the bigger opportunity.
Yahoo (YHOO): Decide what the brand really stands for.
On one hand, Yahoo is the most impressive all-digital media company there is. It has tremendous access to a huge audience of consumers, a broad product portfolio, an unrivaled heritage as a first-generation superstar and a unique reach into Asia. And yet, it’s also the most disappointing digital media company in the marketplace, so much so that its brand increasingly stands for nothing in particular to most of its audience.
Of late, attention has been focused on Yahoo from a financial point of view. But whoever eventually buys the company must look beyond integration, splitting and cost cutting. Instead, the acquirer will have to figure out what to do with Yahoo’s core. And it all comes down to one key question: What can Yahoo provide to its audience to earn their attention every day?
To date, the hook has been email. Yahoo Mail is responsible for about 75% of Yahoo’s media traffic. But Yahoo Mail isn’t growing. In the last year, it shrank slightly (<1 %), according to data from comScore. So, for Yahoo, the choices are to innovate in communication to leapfrog Gmail, Skype, and the lot; or else to do the hard work and start figuring out again what Yahoo really stands for. The company has great roots. It has a natural brand for serendipitous discovery, for fun and interesting news to make your day. The bottom line is that Yahoo should be able to execute on both the options listed above, hopefully without waiting for the financial dust to settle.
Washington Post (WPO): Re-inventing media’s most ravaged category.
If we had to name the most ravaged sector of media, it would certainly have to be newspapers. Don Graham recently said the industry is “collapsing.” But, he’s not just watching it happen; he’s actively and energetically intervening. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way Graham and his team are up for re-inventing the category, especially as I’ve talked to other organizations that are nearly paralyzed. Instead, WaPo is applying the greatest growth trend of the Internet — social media — to its business. With its inordinately valuable and trusted brand at stake in the Washington Post, the risks are clearly high. Rather than acting out of fear, Don and his Chief Digital Officer, Vijay Ravindran, are taking aggressive advantage of opportunities to engage, grow and retain their core audience. At the same time, they’re downshifting to the younger audience that just isn’t buying newspapers. The Washington Post Social Reader is the flagship example, and it’s a bold move to jump ahead of the consumer and create a new experience for people that they didn’t know they needed, all on the social Web. [Full disclosure: My company Wetpaint works with the Post.]
We will see other awesome and amazing talents emerge in digital media over the next decade. These greats-in-the-making will help build on the staggering changes that technological change has wrought.
Earlier this month, John Donahoe, CEO of eBay (NSDQ: EBAY) and its subsidiary Paypal, was interviewed at the D8 conference. It was a flashback to see him speak: I had worked under him 15 years ago when I was a freshly minted undergrad just hired into the San Francisco office he ran for Bain & Company. A strapping and charismatic up-and-comer, John was known for his bold visionary talks and his strident walk.
But at D8, I didn’t see that confidence. He spoke of eBay’s connections between buyers and sellers as though he hoped we’d believe it was a new trend; meanwhile far from his Santa Clara headquarters, Gilt Groupe and Groupon are reinventing e-commerce. On Paypal, he looked backwards to the innovation of getting financial services online, rather than forward to the app revolution. Overall he looked staid, the way eBay and Paypal now look to me – entangled by their legacy, unable to cut the cords to freely enjoy the new boom around them.
With that in mind, I’d like to offer Paypal the chance to get ahead in an area that still has room for wild success. Media desperately needs help to become financially viable – and consumers will need to foot part of the bill to make it so. It’s clear that others see the opportunity here: Facebook surely wants to spread its Facebook Credits currency to take over the world the way ‘Like’ has; and now word comes that Google (NSDQ: GOOG) is readying Newspass in its bid to capture consumer payments for media. But more than these other companies, Paypal, with its huge footprint of consumer accounts and years of web experience, is in the catbird seat to be media’s savior.
I wrote recently that there is an easy formula for consumer spend on media:
Desire + Relationship + Ease = Spend
With ad revenues going less far to foot the bill for published content, making media profitable will increasingly mean turning to consumers to pay for content and experiences. And consumers open their wallets in proportion to how badly they want it (desire); how well they know the other parties (relationship); and how little work it takes (ease). This is why there is such a strong future in bite-size media consumption: for all the talk about paywalls and subscriptions, it is far easier to get payments of a buck or two. Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) demonstrates the value of bite-size with hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues from apps alone, far exceeding any leading online publisher’s subscription programs.
But while Apple is the king of creating platforms for desirable experience, its eminence is limited to its domain of devices, just as Facebook is confined to the social network. And publishers need to up the desire, relationship and ease for their whole online audience. Enter Paypal. Paypal works across the wide open web. With 219 million registered accounts and trust among users and merchants alike, Paypal has an outstanding position to work from. And so Paypal’s great opportunity is to enable quick consumer payments for media with fast, easy, lightweight universal payments.
What Will It Take: The Impulse Click
Media doesn’t rank highly in terms of the necessities on Mazlov’s pyramid. And so the essence of consumer-paid media is impulse, and the critical enabler of paid digital media is the “impulse click.” That click starts the brief moments/long window of consumer intent. For Paypal that means, it needs a button that completes the sale before the impulse fades – and needs to spread that button throughout media. If it delivers on that, Paypal can play as critical a role in the fast-growing digital media economy as it did in the person-to-person commerce revolution of Web 1.0.
To do so, it will take five key upgrades in ease and structure. Here’s what they are:
1) Lighter authentication: For a $50 e-commerce transaction (from which the merchant earns just a few dollars of gross margin), a transfer to the Paypal website and fresh login and password entry may be called for, but that won’t do for a $0.99 purchase of media bits, where the lack of ease would be a deal-killer. Recognize the user automatically for most bite-size purchases, as Facebook does for sites using its new open graph technologies. For a transaction of less than a buck, and considering Paypal’s preeminent capability in fraud prevention, it should be able to manage risk to make this effective.
2) One-step confirmation: Apple has set the bar for how easy it is to transact: on my iPad, I tap the “buy” price and then supply my password. That’s all that’s needed or appropriate for this transaction. And no one has done this on the web at large. If Paypal does, it will lead the industry in ease – and help media publishers in the process. The current process usually requires three or more pages and requires not only login with password, but confirmation of accounts to fund the transaction with; backup funding options; and often classifying the transaction. The interface is slow and kludgy, vintage 1990s, while the web (and user’s expectations) have had massive upgrades since then. It’s time for an experience overhaul, Paypal!
3) Simple billing: Offer fewer options to make it simple. Instead of bank cards, credit cards and different guarantees, keep one default payment method on file and just bill to it without asking for anything less than $5. For impulse purchases, the consumer needs to complete the transaction before the impulse fades.
4) Use the phone: For universal payments and quick setup, bank and credit cards are too cumbersome. But consumers young and old with good credit and poor alike have one thing in common: mobile phones. Paypal should acquire Zong, which would contribute an instant way to bill cellphones with minimal hassle that smart sites like Facebook are already taking advantage of. With this simplified experience, Paypal then is ready to offer its payment system on every device possible. As consumers are increasingly consuming content from their mobile phones, Paypal needs to be where the consumer is – available to apps on every platform possible.
5) Offer attractive revenue share: Platforms like Apple’s require that publishers give up 30% of revenues or more; Paypal’s heritage in banking and payment processing comes at it from a much lower pricing level of 5% plus $0.05 per transaction. For its bite-size payment system, Paypal should get adoption from every major publisher by holding to this structure for its most profitable transactions, and taking no more than 15% of other transactions; while using its massive scale to negotiate fees with credit/debit and cellphone providers on the back end. By competing on price to win adoption by publishers, Paypal will be expand its footprint to get more cost leverage.
If Paypal does these five things, it can supply a payment system that is so good that it will enable digital-media companies to charge and collect frequently for premium experiences and content. For Paypal, this will enhance its offering and help it win a huge share of the emerging paid digital media category. But more importantly, this will hasten our progress toward a profitable future for the digital-media industry. And I think that sort of change-the-world accomplishment is exactly what is missing to get John Donahoe as charged up again as I remember him.
It’s been a week of dancing for Apple and The New York Times as they played hokey pokey with an app that offers a new, fun way for consumers to experience media: First, Steve Jobs put the acclaimed Pulse News app into his Worldwide Developers Conference talk, then took it out of the app store, and then put it back in again, but only after the developers took The New York Times out of it.
But as fun as it is to watch them dance, I can’t help but notice that The New York Times missed the opportunity right in front of Sr. VP Martin Nisenholtz’s eyes: the Pulse team is exactly the kind of talent that the company should be acquiring, not shunting. The Pulse founders made an app with a great consumer experience for media, did it in just a few weeks, managed to get the attention of the premier technology tastemaker in the world, Steve Jobs, and even made some money.
Message to Martin: Instead of cutting them down and pushing them into someone else’s arms, make nice and go hire (or acquire) the Pulse team. Or, as my mother once said to my older brother when he was dating someone she actually liked, “There are better men out there than you: You better marry her before someone else does!”