Saturday, December 29, 2012

Millennial Ticks, Non-Profit Shticks, and the Future of Mobile Giving

It’s been harder for me to skip around Salvation Army kettles this year because where I roam this non-profit seems to have brought out the dancers, the tuba players, and the occasional therapy dog to encourage me to part with my cash.  And it has worked.

I advise a number of nonprofits on the art and science of fundraising and think a lot about the subject.  Given the effects of Hurricane Sandy on my immediate and extended family and friends, the subject has become much more personal.  Over Christmas, I listened to some family and friends complain about what they considered the virtual absence of the Red Cross in their neighborhoods.  That most media outlets in the Greater New York area encouraged viewers to text $10 to the Red Cross for Sandy victims seemed to add salt to the wounds.

The Red Cross has been very public about its charter, contribution to Sandy victims, and how funds have been expended.   Consumers are understandably nosey about how donated fund are used.  I stopped contributing to United Way some years ago when I learned executives were flying first-class.  Other charities felt donor backlash when they misappropriated 9/11 funds, using them to buy computers and cover various unrelated overhead costs.

The New York media seemed to pay considerable attention to college students and young adults who were very supportive of Sandy victims.  These young adults would represent the Millennial generation, aged 20-35 years.  I became interested in how and to what degree this smartphone generation engages with nonprofits.

“The Millennial Impact Report” prepared by the JCA Group served as a useful introduction. The study, which is based on online surveys, focus groups, as well as input from non-profit professionals, examined how to engage Millennials from a nonprofit perspective.  The researchers caution that it is dangerous to overgeneralize about this demographic.  They are not necessarily favorably predisposed to nonprofit brands that they have grown up with.  The research suggests that Millennials tend to make decisions about charitable donations “in the moment” but are still keen to know about results.  Early research citing the narcissism of this generation and its lacks of civic-mindedness does not seem to be supported by this study.

Sixty-five percent of the more than 6,000 surveyed preferred a website for receiving information about a charity, followed by social media and enewsletters.  Respondents said that they looked for a strong call to action on websites and don’t like layers of descriptive content.  They want to act quickly and connect easily.

Millennials are heavy users of mobile apps but don’t think apps are particularly useful for nonprofits.  Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed had interacted with nonprofits on Facebook, largely through “liking” and “sharing” functions.  However, this generation donates negligible amounts through social media.  Use of video did not receive high marks except if it showed the organization at work.  Only 28% had interacted with nonprofits via Twitter.

Researchers note that Millennials prefer to make donations online, in person or by mail, in that order.  The study finds that the future for mobile giving faces an uncertain future. Only 15% of those surveyed report donating by smartphone.  Participants indicated that the $10 limit for smartphone donations was problematic.  Security is also an issue with mobile as it is with social media.  Therefore, a website optimized for mobile is essential.

Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said they made a financial gift to charity in 2011.  Forty-two percent gave to what inspired them in the moment.  Their biggest Pet Peeve: “I don’t know how my gift will make a difference.”

Help is on the way.  The Salvation Army, realizing that Millennials conduct business in a manner different than earlier generations, has added a Millennial position.

No news about the tuba players.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hockey Sticks, Mobile Licks and Measuring Arousal

If I had a hockey stick for the fistful of grandiose mobile predictions I have heard (and made) over the last decade, I would be able to start a National Hockey League franchise.  Unfortunately, the NHL is currently on strike, so I will leave this dead metaphor hanging in mid-air begging for icy mercy.

My brother-in–law just got a mobile phone and based on the Eternal Law of Device Penetration, this man is a Laggard.  Sorry Steve, but the family has done its best to convert you over the years, and you have only yourself to blame for coming so late to the party.  That said, this is about market segmentation, brother, and decidedly not about your character, per se.  But we will have plenty of time to discuss your behavior over the holidays.  But can it be that the smartphone celebration is already winding down?

It is hard not to embrace the hockey-stick metaphor.  PC sales have flattened as sales of mobile phones and tablets have soared.  The disruption of old media and old portals and old attitudes continues at a ripe pace and this can only be good news for mobile.  Henry Blodget, CEO of the Business Insider, reminds us that what is holding the business of mobile back is the business of mobile where we are still exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes.  Simply put, the effective CPM for the desktop is $3.50; for mobile. $0.75.  Certainly targeted, location-based and video ads are already changing these percentages and the increased interest on the part of marketers in “native” advertising is bound to move the mobile needle.  But as Blodget notes, the smartphone screen is still really small.

Folks at the IPG Media Lab have raised the right question at the right time:  “Are All Screens Created Equal?”  This research examines whether a device and or screen have an impact on the effectiveness of video ads.  Do other variables, including ad clutter, creative quality, type of video content, and location of consumption, play a role in video ad effectiveness?  The Lab looked at connected TV, linear TV, mobile and the PC at the IPG Media Lab in San Francisco.  Attention was measured by eye-tracking hardware, excitement by biometric bracelets; and ad recall in the traditional manner.

Screen type played a role in ad recall but the differences were not marked: PC (43%); Connected TV (38%); Mobile (35%); and Linear TV (27%). Arousal levels, measured by distinct moments of excitement in each record, were also fairly similar among screens: Connected TV (8%); Mobile (4%); Linear TV (7%); and the PC (7%). The researchers found that “attention levels are high particularly for screens consumers are most familiar with—TV and PC.”

The Media Lab reports that females tend to be more attentive while males show a higher level of excitement.  While TV performs well on attention and excitement measures, this does not translate into strong recall.  Not surprisingly, researchers have found that ad clutter undermines the ad effectiveness of TV.

In summarizing their findings, researchers suggest that, overall, “the much-hyped screen size did not play a role in ad effectiveness.”   But controllable facts such as ad clutter and perceived lack of creativity did.  Similarly, the most engaging content attracted the most attention.  And locations matters: “lean-back environments with less distraction, such as at home in bed, enhance attentiveness.”

This research is certainly not the final word on screen size.  But it might place a little more emphasis on clutter-free environments and encourage advertising agencies to conduct more creative testing, rather than dismiss mobile out-of-hand.

And one wonders what the “always on” smartphone metric might have to contribute to this conversation.

I don’t wear biometric bracelets, but am still very excited.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Hospital Health, Digital Stealth and When Software Isn’t the Solution

During the last month I have spent a fair bit of time in hospitals, but not as a patient.  The first occasion was to visit a friend from Italy who was stricken while in San Francisco and hospitalized.  This true Gentleman from Verona is now home in one piece, having left a part of his colon on the West Coast.  The second occasion was with a family member in New York, stricken with a similar complaint, but recovering nicely.

After  I was sure both friend and loved one would be alright, I paid more attention to my surroundings and how important digital had become healthcare, from electronically monitoring medications and potential interactions to bringing technology, such as X-ray equipment, to bedside for quick results.  In both instances, digital initiatives seemed to have compressed healthcare into a shorter time span and the long wait for tests and additional opinions was almost immediate.  The family member had to go to another floor for a CT-scan, but within minutes the doctor had the results on a computer terminal outside her room for immediate analysis.  And this was not a secret confab in some dark ante-room; I could actually ask questions.  In this instance, surgery was necessary but the run-up allowed the patient to be much more of a participant and I know this lowered her level of stress.

Most noticeable was the absence of paper, especially in New York.  Each nurse had a mobile computer terminal that he or she wheeled into hospital rooms and recorded on-site vital signs, anecdotal observations, and concerns from patient and family.  A software program translated the data into a content framework common to the hospital.

This effort to digitize medical records is the result of $4 billion in funding to 83,000 professionals and 1,500 hospitals that was a little known part of the 2009 Stimulus Bill designed to jumpstart the transition to Electronic Health Records (EHR).  So far, so good.  However, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services reports, anecdotal evidence aside, that this program is based on self-reporting and participants do not as of yet collect supporting documents that verify the actual shift to EHR.  So every new technology has a shadow side and this example might be the least of it.

Through September 2012, more than one billion dollars has been invested in digital health initiatives, primarily involving the smartphone, with apps that can check heart rate, pregnancy, suspicious moles, questionable pills, saliva, flu symptoms and so on.  Theoretically, smartphone apps can be used as a tool in everyday health care and for more exotic application.  The Washington Post reports that AliveCor is seeking FDA approval for an app that will provide an EKG by simply pressing an iPhone to the chest.

After my friend and loved one were in the hospital more than a few days, I began to worry about opportunistic infections.   While I was very satisfied with the hospitals in San Francisco and Nyack, New York, I’m well aware that the more digitized hospital services become, the more opportunity for abuse.  Professor Amitai Etzioni, George Washington University, writes in the Huffington Post about the digital fraud in the system, using the Health Management Associates (HMA) as an example (60 Minutes looked at this issue in its December 2, 2012, broadcast).

“According to its own ER doctors, HMA requires that 20 percent of people who step into the ER are admitted to one of HMA’s hospitals—and 50% of seniors.  When a person visits an HMA Emergency Room, company software loaded onto the ER computer automatically orders a bunch of tests, whether they are needed or not, before the person is even seen by a doctor.  When doctors try to discharge a patient from the ER, the computer intervenes, presenting them with a warning that a patient is a candidate for admission.”

My friend from Verona, an Englishman who speaks fluent Italian, was lucky enough to have a doctor in San Francisco who also spoke Italian.  At Nyack Hospital we happened to have a doctor who was a friend of our extended family.  That made all the difference.

The Institute of Medicine estimates that Medicare fraud and abuse range from $75 billion to $98 billion annually.  This number is not surprising because Medicare is required by law to issue payment within 15 to 30 days and there is little time to scrutinize invoices.

This is a problem crying out for a technology solution.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dictionary Cops, Literary Snobs, and Twitter Wrestles with Hercules

Not far from where I write this blog rests like a sturdy door stop Webster’s Third International Dictionary published in 1971 in the Philippines and given to me when I received a PhD in Philosophy a few years later.  Over the decades, I have opened this thirty-pounder usually when I wanted to get deep into etymology and learn whether a particular verb appeared in the subjunctive mood on Anglo Saxon riotous tongues.  These days such excursions over to the wild side of linguistic subtlety are few and far between, but I did pull out this old, respected and heavy beast during Hurricane Sandy, when we were reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and what it really meant to be pinned down at the safety level.  Reading Webster under a hurricane lamp is no laughing matter.

Webster is already halfway out the door because all its utility, history and girth are available in a variety of apps.  This dictionary technology has always been something of a useful fiction, suggesting in its sheer tonnage that there is something exhaustive and final about the creation.  We know dictionaries also serve cultural and nationalistic ambitions.  The Guardian newspaper recently reported that the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in the 1970s and 1980s intentionally omitted some words with foreign origins, a curious, petty and racist stance from the man sitting in the high chair overseeing a language that has remained globally vibrant by embracing, at least since 1066 when the French came calling, all manner of words from the global language tree.

Over the last five years, I have given to charities and libraries at least five hundred books, many of them novels I had used in high school and university teaching as well as for academic research.  The sting is less than I thought.  William J. Lynch Jr., CEO of Barnes & Noble, has said he doesn’t really read physical books anymore, an odd thing for an executive to say when his company still generates most of its revenues from physical books.  But it is far more compelling to embrace the Nook in public rather than be seen flipping through a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

I think it was the NPR program “On the Media” that suggested that the second disruption in the book business will be about entire book categories disappearing or shrinking badly, with literary fiction perhaps the most vulnerable.  The argument goes something like this.  Before America had universal education that would be in place, more or less, by the 1880s, Americans used the poetry and fiction of Hawthorne, Emerson, Whitman and others to forge a national identity.   I think there is truth to that.   I would add that it is in the language of Twain, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and H.L. Mencken, among others, that America found its voice, vernacular, humor, and language appropriate to the psychic terrain, the new geography, and national habits.

Not surprisingly, by the mid-20th century these writers and others had become enshrined in English departments across the country and literary criticism had become a teachable science with an army of adherents who decided to publish rather than perish.  I was a member of that brigade and that tribe.

Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, Herzog, Rabbit, Run, Sophie’s Choice, Invisible Man and other favorites had a relationship to American culture that is hard to replicate.  This doesn’t mean current writers have less talent; I simply suggest that literary fiction early in the 21st century is a less important part of our culture and national psyche.  And that trend is likely to continue no matter what screen we are using.

This doesn’t mean fiction is going away, though literary agents will feel the squeeze.  Publishers will focus on their constituencies.  HarperCollins just announced its Harper Teen Imprint, which will publish short stories and novellas, priced from $0.99 to $2.99.  With books and increasingly with magazines, we can expect more unbundling of content that will be distributed in information chunks depending on the desires of the customer.   Atavist, fueled by investment from Barry Diller and Scot Rudin, tells stories through digital apps, ebooks, and magazines with subscription offers.  Ebooks, such as Deborah Blum’s Angel Killer, are under 20,000 words, have audio, video and social features, and are available on all platforms.

Simon & Schuster has teamed with Author Solutions, a self-publishing firm, and created Archway Publishing in part to keep an eye on which self-published authors are rising to the top.  Changes in media, culture, technology and attention span will make it increasingly difficult for writers of literary fiction to find a publisher.  This is a situation that I’m presently facing with “Bunker Kills: A Sea Story,” based on Vietnam experiences.  Since traditional publishers offer relatively little marketing help for literary fiction, it’s tempting to self-publish, particularly if the category is a vertical with an identifiable audience.  And a sailor never leaves the sea.

And a favorable wind helps.  America needs to take a more jaundiced viewing of its military.  General Petraeus has been an absolutely godsend.  We now have permission to say in public that the emperor has no clothes.

We know from our cultural and political history that what begins in tragedy often ends in farce.  For this reason, I’m pleased to learn that a British group aims to revive the classics, retelling one-hundred Greek myths in one-hundred tweets.  The group will also have a go at Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

There’s a good chance Cliffs Notes will be disrupted.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Vertigo, Approval Whores and Mencken’s Sahara

A timely touch of vertigo spared me much of the eleventh-hour political electioneering and played nicely into my plan to avoid all political coverage for the final month.  Although it wasn’t Lent, I decided at the same time to uncouple from Twitter and start all over again by following only the Khan Academy.  At least once a day, my account manager at Twitter offers regular advice on how to grow my social universe.  I really do like Steve Martin but I just don’t want to follow him on Twitter.  After prayer and reflection, I did add Esther Dyson.

My Twitter-reboot task is not helped by the delicious piece by Jeff Bercovici at Forbes about how social media makes us all approval whores.  So beware the “humblebrag” who fishes for compliments but indemnifies himself against charges of fishing.  Or the “virtuebrag,” who seems to have come out in force after Hurricane Sandy.   I am getting hammered this morning, Veteran’s Day, for not reposting praises for our military on Facebook.  I guess my six years in the Navy wasn’t enough.

To get straight with the world again during this uncertain time, I decided to complete a novel, “Saturn Gets his Peter Back.”  The character is something of a phony esthete, a Baby Boomer, who thinks his life is literature and his abundant dreams provide a big data point for living.  Poor lad, he thinks a stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York is quite consistent with his internal compass.  Saturn, who floats somewhat out of orbit, suffers from a very common psychiatric malady: mistaking the Map for the Territory.   Saturn is a semanticist’s delight.  He confuses levels of abstractions, keeps discovering the “little man who wasn’t there,” and delights in over-verbalization or succumbing to the hypnotic effect of one’s own words.  My character has created a fantasyland with defined borders, rules of engagement, and secret handshakes.  Facts sit uneasily with this celestial body.

The first political piece I read after my novel sojourn was “Fantasyland” by Frank Rich, published in New York magazine, about the post-fact, post-science, and post-reality Republican Party living in a gated community.  “Freud couldn’t have imagined a clearer case of projection,” writes Rich.  Why is Rich writing my fiction?

Thanks to my growing Twitter universe, I discovered the Jezebel site and Floating Sheep, an online demographic firm that tracks the geography of racist tweets after the election.  According to the map posted by Jezebel, the bulk of these come from the South and really the Deep South, including Louisiana and Mississippi.  A lot of high school students were up late ranting. 

It is a hundred years between Frank Rich and H.L. Menken, the Baltimore essayist who wrote a scathing piece on the post-Civil War South in 1917 entitled “The Sahara of the Bozart,” but the descriptions of this region by these two writers are only different by degree.  Rich uses a scapel; Mencken a hammer. Example: “A Washington or a Jefferson dropped there by some act of God would be denounced as a scoundrel or jailed overnight.”  And: “It was in Virginia that they invented the device of searching for contraband whiskey in woman’s underwear.”

Mencken’s pen drips yellow journalism and reads today like a hyperbolic screed, containing enough racial rant to attract warning signs.  But he put his finger on the cultural, political, and religious forces that concocted a post-Civil War Southern fantasy that is alive and well and amplified by social media.

Soon after Mencken’s tirade, we saw the beginning of a remarkable Southern literature movement led by John Crowe Ransom, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren and, of course, William Faulkner. The original effort was termed ‘The Fugitive Movement,” an effort to find identity in the New South.  This has been the most important literary development in American history.  I explored the theme of religious sensibilities in some of these writers in a thesis and a dissertation.  One gets the sense that the South has lost touch with its own literature, where many of the present day demons have been visited and slayed.

Time Magazine blogger Joe Klein is more polite: “The South, though a more complex region than ever before, won’t rise again until it resolves the issues that have marked its differences with the rest of the country since the land was colonized.”

And that ain’t just whistling Dixie.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

The William Shatner App, Channeling Celebrity & the Future of Political Discourse

I can’t tell you how relieved I am to learn that on the day after the election William Shatner has introduced a new iPhone app, “Shatoetry” that lets users compose text and play it back in Shatner’s voice.  The options are endless.  It could be a bugger-off message to your ex-boss/lover/dog-sitter.  He told Fox Entertainment News that “I can say anything.  I can even break up with your boyfriend.  I’d be delighted to.”

Time Magazine’s Techland notes that for “dramatic pauses, users select ‘Space Bubbles.’  Different colored portraits of the celebrity can be chosen for the background of each ‘shatism.’  And to listen to the final product, users press ‘shat that!’ and then can trade messages with one another via the Create and Friends option.”

Shatner’s fingerprints and excremental whimsy are all over this offering created by Blindlight Apps, a company that brings Hollywood talent and celebrity to the gaming and app worlds.  Shatner, his launch claims to the contrary, might have been told about the urban belief that his fecal matter is said to possess mystical powers and businesses have been built around that fantasy.  The Urban Dictionary offers a full range of Shat Mugs and Shat shirts.  Nothing yet, as far as I know, for the original Old English “bescatan,” meaning “befowled,” but that word isn’t exactly duck soup.

There was a time when everybody knew that “shat” is the past tense and past participle of the much more current and popular “shit.”  Our political discourse would be so such better if the understanding of grammar and linguistics was more, say, 18th century.  I will acknowledge that there is no easy transition from this messy grammatical chatter to the long, tedious ordeal called a presidential campaign, except to add that a Shatner- inspired “shat that” button on all political discourse might have added some earthiness and brevity to the conversations.

In the press release, Shatner says that “People all over the world have been listening to my voice for so long, but they only heard what I wanted to say.  I wanted to give people a means to express their thoughts and ideas using my voice.”

Both political parties have become much more adept in using social media.  As the two camps raise their game, perhaps they should consider licensing this product from Shatner Enterprises.  Such a move would not only allow constituents to put a representative’s words in their individual mouths, but it would add a much needed degree of authenticity.

Shatner refers to his disciples as “Shatoetists” and I expect his site will do more to advance modern American poetry than all Ivy League English Departments put together.

The Shatoetry App provides a Word Tray of inspiring words that users select to compose a message. Captain Kirk knows something about speaking in tongues.  The religious implications are profound.

After a twelve month political campaign and $6 billion price tag, the Political Word Tray must be full of words, fitting, brief, and beautiful, worthy in every way to be on the lips of politicians of every stripe. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Digital Churns: Zynga, Spotify & the Downward Dog

My boss told me some years ago that, if you hang around long enough, every business model will come back either as a bang or a whimper.  His bone of contention was whether a company should be centralized or decentralized.  He gave each type of organization a half-life of about six years until the dreaded consultant came to town and recommended, with great sobriety and cost, the other thing, whatever it happened to be.

I read recently that those launching new businesses should focus much more on the vision and less on the business plan.  I think this advice had its genesis in the Harvard Business Review and was retweeted until it became established wisdom.  It might be time to bring the consultant back to town.

I served as the business development guy at Hachette during the dot com run-up.  Since there were few rules during this prairie fire, I tended to meet with everyone who had invented the next big digital thing.  I soon learned that pets, used clothing, supermarket coupons, and death were the subjects that were getting a lot of attention from the newly formed digital elite.  I had worked at a boutique private equity firm and thought I had enough of a “cunning nose” for new business opportunities, but this was a brand new toy.  I finally decided that for these entrepreneurs to get through the front door, they would have to convince me before a meeting that their Cost of Sales (COS) did not equal or exceed their total revenues by year three.  The foot traffic slowed down to a crawl.  I never got to ask about Average Revenue Per User because it was always somewhere down the road.

The WSJ ran a piece a month ago about Spotify’s plans to launch in Canada (August 22, 2012, “Spotify to Launch in Canada”).   CNET’s Greg Sandoval dug a little deeper into the numbers and asked in his piece, “Is Spotify’s Business Model Broken?”  I have blogged in the past that I thought magazine publishers can learn something from Spotify and still do.  But I was struck by some of the key financial ratios Sandoval focused on with his keen eye and cunning journalistic nose.

Spotify’s Total Revenue for 2011 was $244,539,608; its Cost of Sales for the same period, $238,913,983, or 98% of revenue.  Unlike most of the pet sock folks I met over ten years ago, Spotify has real revenue and plenty of new markets to exploit. But at the end of the day, so to speak, the Cost of Sales and specifically the cost of acquiring new members and, conversely, the Average Revenue Per User (for 2011 at about 5.73 Euros) will tell the tale.  As Sandoval observes, the fly-in-the-ointment might be the royalty payment due even when the offer is free.

Money continues to pour into the venture game; $24.4 billion in 2011.  And at the same time we hear the diurnal lament or prediction that the disruptors of a few years ago will now start taking their place on the disruption stage.  This was certainly the talk, even in the mainstream media, about Facebook after its post-IPO stock price fell.  Forget about Facebook’s one billion users.

Equally interesting was Josh Constine’s October 5, 2012, piece in TechCrunch about “Why Zynga Failed,” a title delivered emphatically in the past tense.  As a kid, I spent enough time on a dairy farm and had no desire to relive my cow-milking blunders with the Farmville fantasy, though I have been tempted to invest my virtual wallet in Emus as a specialty crop.

Constine reminds us that in 2008-2009 Zynga was on top of the world with Facebook as a game portal, CPCs low ($0.27), and hockey-stick growth on the office wall.  He ticks off four reasons for this “failure”: games got too complicated; too many developers, not enough software gamers; CPCs have increased more than 3X since 2009; Facebook got sick of game spam; with Facebook taking a 30% cut, margins got smaller.  Whatever we might think about this prediction, Zynga’s stock has dropped to $2.48 as of this writing from $10 ten months ago.

A writer on the TechCrunch comments page even suggested an official Constine’s Law: “Internet advertising margins are proportional to the size of the user’s screen.”  As these things go, this is high praise, especially for a site that has received criticism by those who think it is too uncritical about tech startups.  Zynga executives might want to read some of these informed comments that charge the company is beginning to look a lot like AOL, MySpace and Blackberry, has based the empire too much on Flash, needs to develop more advanced games, and should bring back the original talent pool.  They might want to ignore those who suggest Zynga’s time had come and gone and management has “screwed the pooch.”

Pets, especially dogs, seem to have a deserved place in digital hierarchy.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Re-Visioning Digital Content: Time Inc., Forbes & The Atlantic

I mark the beginning of my digital education more than twenty years ago when an executive at Hachette USA (now owned by Hearst) asked me how to spell dot com.  He was on his way to give a luncheon speech about digital strategy and wanted to start out on the right foot.

In the late 1990s, Hachette was no different than most companies.  It invested in a number of digital startups, including (a digital subscription platform eventually sold to B&N), endured the internecine warfare between print and digital, and over time made the digital incubator part of the mainstream business.  Echoes of these strategies, disruptions, and hiccups can be found in most publishing companies of size.  It simply took publishers a long time to understand digital, get on the right side of the browser wars, figure out how to sell subscriptions at scale and develop the technical savvy to be able to deliver content to all platforms, such as Time Inc.’s All Access effort, an industry blueprint.

Laura Lang, Time Inc. CEO, recently announced that the company would focus on global growth, growing paid content and creating a broader consumer content experience.  To help with the latter, the company had introduced Amplify, a new digital ad unit, some months ago.  Amplify “marries” editorial content with brand marketing messages.  Given the company’s ability to layer subscriber data with social and behavioral, this promises to become a very interesting platform.

Pat Corpora, a friend who ran Rodale’s book division some years ago, started most strategic meetings with the observation: “What you propose will cost twice as much as you suggest and take at least twice as long as your propose.”   He was usually right, but he might have to expand his time frame for digital.  Soon I’m going to write a book on the psychology of digital, focusing on the generational, societal, cultural and organizational impediments to the movement.  Inertia has enjoyed a long and successful career.

It is no secret that for a long time magazines looked at digital through the print lens and digital products became add-ons to the central business.  Some still do.  What is most heartening these days is that magazines are changing their business models and, God forbid, even rethinking the church/state nexus.  This is hinted at in the above remarks about Time Inc.’s effort to “marry” editorial and marketing messages.  This will help consumer marketers become more adept at marketing to digital consumers.

These Time Inc. initiatives bode well for the industry because the company is an industry leader and is surely its first citizen.  But it’s equally important to note that other companies, often smaller and more nimble, are making interesting structural moves by re-visioning content, sometimes in dramatic ways. GigaOM’s Matt Ingram tells us that there are five reasons we should pay attention to The Atlantic as the company pushes the transformation to digital.  They include: creating web native offerings rather than apps, new forms of content like the Atlantic Wire, and native advertising or more specifically, branded content that looks like what the content readers are used to.  

I have previously blogged about Forbes’ effort to re-think content.  Forbes has done this more substantially and more elegantly than any magazine or content producer I know.  And Lewis D’Vorkin is the Forbes evangelist.  In describing Forbes’ new home page, D’Vorkin explains that each magazine constituency “is represented in one of four equal modules, or as we call them, stacks.”  These include: the Journalistic Agenda:  Forbes is a brand that has meaning; the Social Agenda, which is based on Forbes’ Velocity, “an algorithm that weighs page views, sharing and comments;” the Individual User’s Agenda: personalization with serendipity; and the Marketer’s Agenda: brands are publishers, they create content, and are experts in their fields.  For marketers, Forbes provides a perfectly transparent AdVoice platform.  According to published remarks by Forbes CEO Mike Perlis, this platform will also have very high content standards.  They won’t be publishing just anything.   D’Vorkin has written that this advertising trend will shake up 100 years of journalism.  I think he’s right.  

Other magazines will find their way to this place.  There is a lot of experimenting going on.  Good magazine, launched in 2006 and shut down a few months ago to predictable headlines, is coming back to life as a community platform named  According to a variety of published reports, will leverage Jumo, a social activist platform acquired from Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes.

I have no idea whether this will work.  What I find interesting is the effort to develop a community, aggregate this muscle, and in turn create branded sponsorships around calls to civic and social action.  This seems an ingenious, viral and legitimate “social” way to bring brands into the conversation in a manner that will extend the brand and help underwrite the business.  The effort might take the form of branded challenges.  Apparently IBM, Toyota, and UPS are interested.

I’ve sat through too many meetings where the very thought of using what is called “deep advertising content” was dismissed out-of-hand.
Three cheers for the companies that are re-visioning content and re-thinking their business models from the ground up in elegant and profound ways.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mighty Text, Mobile Diaries, and Spotify for All

Google has teamed with Sterling brands and Ipsos to investigate consumer attitudes and behaviors associated with certain digital activities, specifically when using multiple screens.  The study involved 1,611 participants who recorded 7,955 hours of media activities logged in a mobile diary over a 24-hour period.

That consumers use multiple screens is not news; nor is the observation that multi-screen behavior has moved mainstream.  I think that this study is particularly valuable because it adds behavioral and psychological weight to our multi-screen habits.

The study finds that the “majority of our daily media interactions are screen-based.”  In fact, 90% of all media interactions are screen-based: smartphone, PC/laptop, tablet, television.  Conversely, 10% of all media interactions are non-screen-based (radio, newspaper, magazines).   And context drives device choice, including time available, goal, location, and attitude and state-of-mind.  Not surprisingly, the research adds weight to findings that might be obvious.  Computers keep us productive and informed; smartphones keep us connected; tablets keep us entertained.

According to the study, there are two modes of multi-screening; sequential usage and simultaneous usage.  The former describes moving from one device to another at different times to accomplish a task.  The latter describes using more than one device at the same time, for either a related or unrelated activity.  Sequential screening is common and largely completed within a day.  Top activities while in this mode are Internet browsing, social networking, and online shopping.  The prevalence of such usage suggests that businesses save their shopping progress between devices, such including “shopping carts” and “signed-in” experiences.

Smartphones are the most frequent companion devices during simultaneous usage.  The research indicates that “content viewed on one device can trigger specific behavior on the other,” suggesting businesses might not want to limit their conversion goals and calls to action.  Smartphones are the centerpiece of daily media use and serve as the most common starting point for activities across multiple screens.  Therefore, mobile is a business imperative.

I’ll leave the specifics of this important research on that note and reflect on the growing importance of the smartphone in other contexts.  I’ve been going to mobile conferences for at least a decade and every year the bar for mobile advertising revenue ticks up a notch--$20 billion in 2012?—and that reality seems never to come to pass.  I’ve long thought mobile advocates were beating the wrong drum.  Someone might yet solve the mobile advertising dilemma, but nonetheless the reason the smartphone is in ascendency is its growing importance in the enterprise and transaction zone, as the above research makes clear.

Qualcomm recently announced the North American regional winner of its 2012 QPrize venture investment competition.  Mighty Text is “an android-based application that enables people to send SMS messages from their computer or any device via the cloud.  It syncs directly with the user’s Android phone and number, making life easier for people who send and receive text messages and get phone calls while in front of a computer.”  Mighty Text gets $100,000 in venture funding and a chance to compete for another $150,000 attached to the QPrize Global Grand Prize competition in early 2013.

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOM sees more than another tech prize winner here.  She notes that this “IP testing app and the nine other finalists are also a microcosm of Qualcomm’s views about what mobility can bring to computing and how to design for mobile.”  In her opinion, mobile isn’t a separate platform.  Rather, everything should be built to tie back into the mobile device.  She concludes that for Qualcomm this is a “fundamental shift in worldview and some companies like Spotify and Mighty Text get it and some companies are struggling, such as Facebook.”

By way of full disclosure, I have consulted for Qualcomm.  That said, it’s hard to disagree with Mr. Higginbotham’s conclusions.  Certainly the various app stores have only added value to the smartphone in the enterprise zone.

Perhaps equally important is her remark about Spotify.  Hamish McKenzie has waxed eloquent at Pandodaily about a Spotify for magazines, suggesting publishers break up the magazine bundles and present stories on an individual basis with a large dose of social.  If you add sponsored subscription bundles and a content/data arrangement with carriers and advertisers, you might have scale and a business model, one article at a time.

Did I mention the smartphone? 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Peter Pan, the Old Man, and Brands that Last Forever

Over the Labor Day weekend, I watched a DVD by the late psychologist James Hillman on the Puer and the Senex, with the former referring generally to the archetype of the eternally young, as in Peter Pan, and the latter to the hide-bound, rule-waving elder, man or woman, who wants the rest of society to stay within the lines.  From a Jungian perspective, these archetypes describe psychological modes of being as well as types of behavior.  We saw these archetypes on display at the recent Republican Convention;   Clint Eastwood, an aging, angry, scolding Senex talking to a chair; and Representative Paul Ryan, sketching a trajectory of the high-flying Puer, who shaved an hour off his marathon time.  Whatever sins might have been committed at the convention, any runner will argue that this “sin” was as mortal as they get.  Runners never forget their marathon times.  Running a marathon in under three hours is as difficult as Congress passing a balanced budget.

In his presentation, Dr. Hillman mentioned Clint Eastwood’s role in the movie Gran Torino, in which the actor portrays a disgruntled Korean War veteran who openly resents the changes in the ethnic make-up of his Detroit neighborhood, especially the influx of the Hmong Americans.  For Hillman, Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, is Senex to the core, even when he softened his view towards the Hmong. Kowalski is “executed” in a manner consistent with his warrior culture and cunning.  His character cannot really think or get out of the box.

Hillman, whose psychology is apolitical, suggests that with all the idealization of the Puer, with his or her legions of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, the Senex, known for stubbornness, avarice, and resistance to change, will likely win the day.  We see this played out daily in our political theater.  President Obama’s promise of Change ran headlong into the Senex, who knows how to deal with the golden age of fantasy.

If the Senex and the Puer represent psychological modes or perspectives, they can also be seen to represent brands which, when successful, are also archetypes.  This is what makes them abiding and generally long-lasting.  I was thinking about this aspect of brands when reading about the late Helen Gurley Brown and her remarkable transformation of Cosmopolitan magazine and eventual international expansion.  This is certainly one of the most important magazines success stories, from both an editorial and business perspective, of the last fifty years.

While the Senex and the Puer might be battling it out on the national stage, it’s an open question whether brands can retain their historical permanence.  Douglas McIntyre has blogged about ten brands that will disappear in 2013 (www.24/, including RIM, Avon, Suzuki, American Airlines and others. The sweet smell of private equity money is present here and very little nostalgia.

I’ve heard over the years that somehow magazines brands are more resilient than so-called commodity brands because they carry our personal and cultural archetypes; in other words, our essential meanings.  Christine Haughney and Noam Cohen writing in the NYT Media Decoder conducted an unscientific reader poll of what magazines they missed (   Gourmet, shut down three years ago, “was the dearest of the dearly departed.”  Spy, Talk, George, and House and Garden also made the list.

I was at Hachette when George magazine was launched with John Kennedy as publisher.  I had a business development role at the company but little to do with George.  But I made my views clear on the magazine; I thought it lacked a business model.  The magazine lasted two years after Kennedy’s tragic death in 1999.

George was very much in the Puer tradition, a marriage of Kennedy mystique and celebrity politics; an arc of brilliance and an Icarus-like fall.  The magazine struggled before Kennedy’s death and was impossible after the fact.

Most magazines, whether they have a short lifespan or not, have archetypal roots and done well are grounded in in our culture, memory, and mythology.

In this regard magazines are indeed brands with a difference. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Digital Dawn, Advertising Born, and Forbes to the Head of the Class

The word on the street is that, purchased from Primedia by the NYT in 2005 for $410 million, will be sold to for $270 million.  Ten years ago, sounded like a great idea.  Put 500 content specialists in a room to write about every special interest under the sun from cross-stitching to how to throw a knuckle ball and you surely have a winner.  About’s entre into content farming might have seemed like a good idea until Google’s algorithm change hurt site traffic.  The company’s business model was also hurt by declining revenues from cost-per-click and display advertising, a trend not unique to this business.

Jeff Bercovici at Forbes astutely describes as a company “caught between its past and its future.”  I recall at a luncheon, right before the NYT acquisition, a Primedia executive talking about the endless business prospects in the content verticals.  As someone who has cut his teeth in the verticals, I thought he was absolutely right.  The verticals would survive any digital onslaught.

Recently the NYT’s David Carr, addressing the recent dismal news from the Audit Bureau of Circulation about the almost 10% drop in newsstand magazine sales, refers to this downturn as “existential.” “Magazines, all kinds of them, don’t work very well in the marketplace anymore.”  Even Cat Fancy is down 23%!

Magazine publishers have experienced all sorts of “digital dawns” during the last fifteen years, from the dot com fantasy, to the browser wars, to the tablet age and have muddled through reasonably well, thanks in part to the power of the magazine brands.  During my stay at MPA, we struggled with the definition of a magazine that always seemed to begin with the phrase: “a magazine is branded, edited content,” as if that would be a defensible last line of defense.  But what if other reputable brands entered the content business with reputable offerings that found particular favor in social media?

It’s a natural, and perhaps inevitable, psychological bias that we view business opportunities through an existing lens.  Magazine publishers have almost necessarily been caught between its digital past/present and the future, forever enshrined in the phrase, “exchanging analog dollars for digital dimes.”  This doesn’t mean that publishers have not made huge advances in the digital arena.  It’s that the disruptions we have faced to date might pale in comparison to what is around the corner.  That is the gist of a recent article by Lewis D’Vorkin at “The advertising trend that will shake up 100 years of journalism.”

According to D’Vorkin, this trend is a product of the marriage of social media and content marketing.  He defines the latter as “brands using the tools of digital media and social sharing to behave like original content publishers.  They want to break out of the silos (full and partial-page display ads, 30-second spots and Web banners) that both traditional and new media forced them into.  The idea that a company—as a brand and a marketer–can be an expert content creator and reach an audience by disintermediating reporters is confusing, threatening and scary to an entire profession that had its way for a century.”

Forbes has entered this brave new world with a product called AdVoice, “a fully transparent way for marketers to publish and curate content on and in our magazine.”  SAP, Microsoft, Dell, Merrill Lynch and others have published on this digital platform; Toyota, Northwestern Mutual and United Airlines have done so in print.  D’Vorkin notes that Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, and Gawker have offered content marketing opportunities.  Of course, social marketing campaigns are at the heart of the Facebook business proposition.

This seems to represent a fundamental shift in the Forbes business eco-system; and not just another platform chasing available advertising.  At the heart of this enterprise is the belief “that there are five vital constituencies in the media business, each with a different agenda.”  According to D’Vorkin, these include the voices of the Forbes brand, the journalist, the consumer, the social community and the marketer.  “In the digital era, each can produce content at will in an effort to be heard.  That leads to a corollary principle: content is content, and transparency makes it possible for many different credible sources to provide useful information.”  Go to the Forbes home page to see how this delineation plays out.

Congratulations to Forbes for an enlightened content strategy that gets us out of the church/state cul-de-sac and into our new world order.  This is a conversation well-worth having.


Sunday, August 5, 2012

Greek Cautions, In Vogue, and Out of Fashion

I’ve been reading around in Greek literature for a psychology class.  I keep bumping into works that seems to still resonate in our language and culture, and not only during the Olympic season:  Hubris, Nemesis, and Hamartia.  All have currency in our language except hamartia, which means falling short.  In his Poetics, Aristotle defined hamartia as a “fatal flaw” brought about by ignorance or a mistake.  I don’t think the eight badminton players booted out of the Olympics for cheating can hide behind the idea of hamartia, perhaps because hundreds of millions of people worldwide were watching their comic and slow-motion antics in real time.  At this time, their motivations seem closer to mendacity.

It would be tempting to transition now to the story of the New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer, who admitted to fabricating quotes for Imagine, a book about Bob Dylan, but Aristotle would probably not approve of a predictable commentary, already abundant on the web.  Most writers and editors have fallen short at one time or the other.  I did when I was a new and young editor of Bicycling magazine.  By virtue of an advertising and promotion deal with Olympic sponsor, the Southland Corporation/7-Eleven stores, Bicycling had a closer relationship with the 1984 Los Angeles Games than would usually be the case.  It was a very good event for cycling as Americans won nine medals.  This narrative was later tarnished when we learned that some cycling team members had “blood doped” to increase red cell counts.  It was Sports Illustrated, the Rolling Stone, and others that made this story public.  Bicycling was too cozy with the sponsor, the cycling federation, and the good news Olympics.  My editor, who was at the Games, was slow to bring this to my attention and I was slow to act on editorial and management issues.  I fell short of the mark.

Like most Americans, I have followed the Penn State scandal with horror and sadness.  I learned the other day that the football stadium in Happy Valley seats more than 106,000 fans or around three times the population of State College, where the university is located.  It is now easy to see this as a massively grotesque and symbolic overhang, representing the collective Football Hubris that was in plain sight.  But that was not my opinion on numerous trips to State College to visit family and friends and work on projects with PSU professors.  I bought into the official narrative.

Jack McCallum is one of my favorite Sports Illustrated writers.  McCallum wrote a piece about Coach Jerry Sandusky after his curtain call as coach before a game against Michigan State, November 13, 1999.  He would then move on to the Second Mile charity.  McCallum wrote: “If Sandusky did not have such a human side, there would be temptations around Happy Valley to canonize him. Saint Sandusky, leader of linebackers, molder of men.”

In fairness to McCallum, he was quick to write on November 8, 2011, after the scandal broke: “Jerry Sandusky fooled a lot of people over the years-including me.”  He recalled that Sandusky didn’t seem at all joyful about what he was doing.   Penn State might have been on the moon.  It was a “perfect place for a predator like Sandusky.”  The author was not the only one to feel like a “jerk” after the truth came to light.

Everyone associated with this scandal seems to have fallen short in one way or another.  McCallum’s narrative is actually far less extravagant than some of the pieces coming out of the Philadelphia newspapers at the time, though it’s clear that the mention of sainthood sticks in the writer’s craw.

As writers we live in a hyperbolic world and are tempted, in the words of Flannery O’Connor, to draw large and startling figures, an observation she offered with her usual pinch of irony.  I’ve read with interest and sadness the saga about the Vogue article by Joan Juliet Buck published in March, 2011, about Asma al-Assad, wife of the President of Syria.  The Daily Beast and Newsweek have done a masterful job on this story.

This would not have been such a big story if the Arab Spring and government retributions had not begun in early 2011.  The public response was withering.  Vogue pulled the story, entitled “A Rose in the Desert,” from its web site, fired Buck and offered an apology.

Mrs. Assad probably would not have been the subject of the Vogue “Power Issue” if she wasn’t very attractive, born and educated in England, and according to French Elle in 2009, one of the best-dressed women in the world.   Paris Match suggested she was an “element of light in a country full of shadowy zones.”  The PR firm behind the Vogue story said that the President “speaks English and his wife is hot.”  She was ripe for celebrity treatment.

Author Buck claims that Mrs. Assad duped her, presumably expecting the focus of the interview to be more about Syrian culture, antiquities and museums than politics.  Joan Buck does note in her article some of the darkness of the regime, such as a prison on wheels, but the article overall suggests, in Tina Brown’s words, that the author drank “the Vogue Kool-Aid.”  In my time at Hachette, then publisher of Elle, I had an occasional whiff of that wine. 

James Hillman, one the most interesting psychologists and philosophers of the last fifty years, published an essay, “Aphrodite’s Justice,” shortly before his death in 2011, about the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  In his view, we cannot separate beauty from morality, “since beauty works as a calling to better things, pulling at the heart to love, to the mind to imagine more vividly.”

Aphrodite is not only just another pretty face.  Nemesis is part of her constellation and stands ready with a kind of righteous anger, to return order to the cosmos. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Editorial Piety, Brands in the Sandbox, and Data as Design

I joined the magazine editorial ranks when the church/state axis was a whole lot clearer than it is today.  Yes, we paid attention to the editorial cost per page and the price of dropping that fifth color on a favorite graphic, but we were largely word girls and guys and would get to the business stuff in due time.  I will be forever grateful to the keeper of the financial keys at Rodale, for sharing all those gnostic secrets about magazine financial levers and ratios.

The chatter during a recent Linkedin Independent Publishers Forum about vendor-supplied content suggests the church/state battle lines are still sharply drawn.  Participant Andy Kowl, who advocated rethinking the content model, wrote that he felt he had been “digitally tarred and feathered.”

If I still believe that magazine editorial content, delivered in print, on the web or mobile devices, holds specific value because it is brand-stamped and curated through the intelligence of savvy editors, I must also acknowledge that other content, especially in the verticals, makes a medieval church/state discussion a little less neat and predictable.  Of course, we have an editorial trade association that keeps magazines reasonably honest by separating advertorials from editorial content, but even this distinction has become fuzzy and business requirements often become the tail that wags the editorial dog.

But I’m not that interested in this somewhat virtuous dustup.  Rather, I am more interested in digital content created by marketers that is engaging, provides value and adds to the online experience.   I will acknowledge that I am a late convert to what is generally called content marketing, having long thought it a diminished, if not bastard, form of what I produce.  I was frankly surprised to learn from Outbrain, a content discovery platform, how extensive, and above-board, this practice is on the part of marketers.  In a report entitled “The State of Content Marketing, 2012,” Outbrain notes that “Content marketing continues to be one of the rising stars of the online marketing worlds as brands from American Express and Proctor & Gamble to GE and General Mills use it alongside more traditional strategies to reach their target audiences.”

Senior-level brand managers and agency executives surveyed while they judged the 2012 Effie Awards report that 100% of brand and agency marketers use content marketing; 87% of respondents cited video as the most common form of content created.  Not surprisingly, social media is the most popular channel.  Outbrain found that “marketers employ content marketing efforts to drive brand awareness and target top of the purchase funnel rather than for generating leads.”   This is one of the key strengths of magazine advertising: reaching the consumer when she is ready to make a purchase decision.

Now this is all very interesting, but what does content marketing look and smell like? examined content marketing strategies of GE, General Mills, and Sears.  Fundamental to all these corporate marketing efforts is the idea that if content isn’t good enough to share, then they have failed in their efforts.  The companies carved out consumer interest areas within their portfolio that they think consumers might be interested in.  Sears, the country’s largest supplier of fitness equipment, built on that strength with its Fitstudio effort that includes a library of content, making decisions in ways not unlike traditional editors: what type of content would most interest, inform, and engage readers.

General Mills through, a site consisting of straightforward editorial content, marketed to the Millennial audience through food-related web sites, Pinterest, content vertical, search engines, and blogger-relationships.  The branding is behind-the-scenes.  General Electric, through sites like Ecoimagination and Txchnologist, are more straightforward brand initiatives, with GE being a little more data-driven.  The company seems very sophisticated about understanding why a consumer moves from one piece of content to another.    

While the branding around these efforts vary—some are readily apparent; others mentioned in Terms of Use or About Us--none is trying to put one over on the consumer.  These companies have a sophisticated understanding of content and have found that paid or branded content has a place along the editorial continuum.  Sharing is rising to the top as the key measurement metric.

In many ways, these companies are becoming content publishers and curators themselves.  The people writing the blogs are very knowledgeable about the verticals.  The marketers are quite sophisticated about measuring consumer engagement and in ways seem more advanced than some publishers in their use of social media metrics, particularly sharing.  All have vast libraries of useful content.   

It’s not a new insight that content models are changing, though we are still early in this disruption cycle.  But it is not only the big marketers that are getting involved in this transformation of content; non-profits and independent media organizations are also in the hunt.  I read a very interesting article at by Jeremy Lehrer with the catchy title “How a Web App Can Help Non-Profits Tell Better Stories and Raise Cash.”  I was drawn in because I am doing some consulting for a non-profit, exploring how to marry content and cause marketing in ways that are ethical, interesting and measurable.  Or to put it another way: how does one link storytelling to social enterprise?   

Enter Sparkwise, a project from Tomorrow Partners in San Francisco, a free, cloud-based, open-source service that combines visualized data with video, audio, text feeds to create a moving story featured in widgets.  At the heart of this offering, now in beta, is making stories easier to tell through visualizing data.  Sparkwise provides a platform that integrates open access to big data with art and everyday metrics.   Data should always be visual. 

One benefit of this platform is that it is completely transparent; for non-profits this would mean that the results of its efforts will be front-and-center, updated in real time.  We are inundated with data, most presented as flat, ponderous and unremarkable.  Sparkwise brings all this blandness to life.

When I was sitting in the editorial high chair, I saw content marketing as something just short of treason.  Now I am a little less righteous.  Editors and publishers can learn from marketers that are consumer-centric, technology and data-driven, and are re-envisioning content along a dynamic continuum, not unlike the consumers they chase on social media platforms.

Equally important, revenue is flowing out of traditional advertising into content marketing.  Perhaps this will take some of the sting out of the angst editors might be feeling. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Armani Suits, Digital Health, and Where the VCs Roam

Research has told us that men don’t like to visit the doctor.  That might be true for the rest of the country, but certainly not in New York.  I welcome visits to the specialists that have carved my body into special interest sectors, not because they are particularly good at their trade, but because when in their offices I get to see the latest Armani fashions worn by the young and the beautiful who might have just stepped off Project Runway.  These beauties are the well-groomed, iPad-laden, pharmaceutical representatives who drag suitcases-on-rollers that are stuffed with drugs for the physician to hand out to patients as if the gifts were Halloween candy.  I have been caught with my hand out more than once.

Because I leave the office with expensive goodies, I don’t mind waiting that extra thirty minutes so my doctor can partake of the latest windfall from GlaxoSmithKlein, the pharmaceutical giant that probably won’t be slowed down by the recent $3 billion fine from the DOJ for inappropriate promotion of certain drugs.  The company will just hire more runway models.  Or perhaps sign up another television celebrity like Dr. Drew, who reportedly got a cool $275,000 for promoting Glaxo products to his afternoon audience a few years ago.  Thank goodness for Dr. Oz.

The Affordable Healthcare Act, recently upheld as constitutional by the Supreme Court, probably won’t get Armani suits out of the doctor’s waiting room and therefore can already be considered a success.  Perhaps more interesting than the 2,000-plus page tome that describes in numbing detail this Healthcare Act is the wonderful work ProPublica is doing tracking this beautiful but dark underside of medical marketing.  We owe a debt of gratitude to ProPublica reporters Charles Orstein and TracyWeber, who have exposed the financial ties between doctors and drug and device makers. offers a data base through which you can check and see whether your doctor is receiving money from pharmaceutical companies.  Through this data base, I learned that my favorite urologist in 2010 received $6860 from Pfizer for consulting.  I’ll give him a pass on the $165 for meals.  The reporters note that in 2011 a dozen drug companies spent $761 million for doctor speaking fees and consulting, with speaking fees comprising a large percentage of this total number.  Weber and Orstein encourage consumers to do the research and have this conversation with their doctors.  A speaking fee doesn’t necessarily mean a doctor is in the pocket of a drug company.  But they are very large pockets.

I read a Reuters blog by Ezekiel Emanuel stated that, in 2008, 17% of office-based physicians and 9% of hospitals had electronic health records (EHRs) and few than 10% used electronic prescriptions.  Then came the little known Health Information Technology provision in the 2009 Economic Recovery Act. This basically gave physicians and hospitals financial incentives for adopting EHRs.  If they didn’t, Medicare payments would be reduced starting in 2015.  There were the usual protests, but by December 2011, EHR use among office-based physicians nearly doubled to 34% with e-prescribing exceeding 40%. Hospitals responded just as positively with 35% adopting EHRs.

Emanuel writes that “going electronic will allows physicians to more closely track patients, especially the chronically ill, enabling a seamless exchange of data across multiple physicians, hospitals and other providers.”  The writer observes that this initiative has taken the focus away from developing new forms of coding and ways to bill the patient and placed it on improved patient care and enhanced coordination among physicians.

I have written in previous blogs about Qualcomm Life’s efforts to place the smartphone at the center of patient care, christening it the “Pocket Doctor.”  This has huge implications for health care because the company has the capability and partners to build a vast wireless health ecosystem.  Entrepreneur and medical doctor Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, designed to stimulate competition in health care,  is eloquent about how technology has finally made is possible for individuals to truly take responsibility for their own health.  That day might come sooner than we think.

While the chatter around the Healthcare Act was at full pitch, I was paying more attention to what is happening in the Venture Capital space that might impact the industry.  Gigamon points to recent and ongoing investments in digital health as worthy of serious attention because health care is ripe for massive disruption and democratization.  C. Steven Burrill, CEO, Burrill & Co., suggests that “the increased funding in digital health reflects the growing awareness of the transformative power their technologies bring to health care.”

And these technologies are small, large and numerous, including: wearable body monitoring products, personalized therapies via mobile devices, software that turns a smartphone into a clinical-quality ECG-reader, platforms for healthcare cost comparisons, wireless sensors that track activities, digestible tracking sensors, HIPAA-compliant and secure mobile messages, management software for home health care, and numerous EHR platforms.  Full details are available at

It’s interesting that, with all the bombast about the Health Care Act, technology offers enormous promise to change the field, one doctor, hospital and patient at a time.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Perfect Chunk, the Twitter Pulse, and Why I Feel Depressed

When Twitter came along I thought I died and had gone to heaven, linguistically speaking.  As a practicing poet who had endured countless hours of graduate school misery to compress what I was writing into poetic bits that could be approved by the higher ups, I had finally found my calling. Even better, the process was institutionalized on a global basis.  The world would be my oyster.  Here was this Twitter thing, sounding very much like the song birds outside my window, through which I could upload 140 characters in poetic chunks.  For a moment I felt very modern, writing poetry in chunks of metadata that were searchable and, even better, would last forever.  I’ve read that chunky content in this weird tablet world is the next big thing and, no, it has nothing to do with the soup.

I am deeply saddened and embarrassed when I get the occasional lament from my friends at Twitter saying: “We have missed you at Twitter.” Well, truth be told, I have missed you as well and tried my best.  Didn’t I begin my tweets, appropriately, with short takes on the Northern Cardinal, the Downy Woodpecker, and the Red-Bellied Woodpecker?  Not a Common Tern among them!  I upped the ante and tweeted about the Red-tailed Hawk who savaged our local squirrel population.  Then I provided some night music with tweets about the Barred Owl who waits patiently for the mice to appear, offering no more than a lullaby of ooh, ooh, oohs to put us to sleep.

I guess Twitter has not made a lot of money monetizing my data.  But now that I have digested a fascinating research piece from UCLA and HP Labs, I am ready to have another go.  The paper by Roja Bandari and company, entitled “The Pulse of News in Social Media: Forecasting Popularity,” argues that despite randomness in human behavior, “it is possible to predict ranges of popularity on Twitter with an overall 84% accuracy.”

The focus for this study is news articles that by definition usually have a short lifespan.  Therefore, the task is quite daunting.  The researchers’ goal was “to discover if any predictors relevant only to the content exist and if it is possible to make a reasonable forecast of the spread of an article based on content features.”  The study collected data from Feedzilla, a news feed aggregator and developed an algorithm.  Popularity for a news article on Twitter was measured as the number of times a URL is posted.  They considered four article characteristics: the news source that generates and posts the article; the category of news; the subjectivity of the language in the article; and named entities mentioned in the article.  The researchers collected 40,000 feeds during a nine-day period in August 2011.  They refer to the average tweets per link or article as the t-density score.  Their analysis showed that technology, health, and fun stuff ranked the highest in t-density.

Perhaps even more interesting is the HP Lab team finds that the “top news sources on Twitter are not necessarily the conventionally popular news agencies and various technology blogs such as Mashable and the Google blog are widely shared in social media.”  But brands still matter.  Researchers found that one of the most important predictors of popularity was the source of the article.

We know from Twitter evangelists Jimmy Lin and Gilad Mishne that its users create approximately a quarter billion tweets and more than two billion search queries a day.  The two evangelists studied churn in tweets and real time search queries.  Churn is simply a measure of changes in term rank over time.  The researcher found that there is more churn in tweets than in search queries and that must be good for the business.

The folks at wrote the headline: “Twitter Slowly Unfolding Its Search Ambitions.”  This would include the recently unveiled expandable tweets and hashtag-based pages.  Having learned from Google about text search, Twitter’s ambitions will include more images and video.

The other day the NYT had an article on how depressives surf the Web.  Not surprisingly, they are compulsive, switching frequently among multiple application, from games, to chat rooms to file downloads.  Of course, they also show anxiety about email.  Perhaps they have a Mother Complex.  At any rate, this is called Flow Duration Therapy.  What good is a disease without a name?

Our friends at the Missouri University of Science and Technology gave us this study. One possible solution proposed is the creation of a software program that would tell us when our Internet usage is showing a pattern that might signal symptoms of a depression.  A perfect solution!

Psychologists refer to the “availability bias” to explain why people make certain decisions.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Professors at Stanford University and the University of British Columbia, respectively, use this phrase to explain why people don’t always make rational choices.  Others have used this theory to explain why so many people jumped on the Facebook IPO.  It wasn’t necessarily because of the financial proposition.  As Rebecca Waber notes in her recent Harvard Business Review Blog, the critically important factor for many investors likely was "Facebook’s ubiquity and its starring role in so many people’s lives.”  Because so many of us use Facebook every day, the company likely loomed larger in the mind of investors than its balance sheet warranted.  This is the “availability bias.”

The “availability bias” might have implications for how we engage, consume, and invest in social media.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Pagers, Silver Water and the Future of Mobile Health

Small advances please me greatly. I learned on NPR this morning that NYU’s Langhorne Medical Center is phasing out the iconic pager that has been tied to doctor’s waists for almost sixty years to be replaced by the smartphone. Privacy concerns and cost slowed down this transition. Lethargy might have played a part.  I’ve had two successful operations at Langhorne and know doctors there who think pagers remain the perfectly appropriate technology not likely to end up inside a patient.

But it was time. When a technology becomes a butt of jokes and parody, such as in 30 Rock with its pager salesman and in the sci-fi series Dark Angel, it’s time to retire the beast. Presumably the Langhorne Medical Center has figured out how to improve frequent weak cell phone coverage inside the hospital corridors.

I think the health and fitness fields offer tremendous opportunities for advanced mobile technologies. But, as we know, every development has a shadow side and for the medical field the shadow is in the testing.  Recently I went to a new doctor for my annual physical. In addition to the blood work and the like, he ordered a stress test and an EKG for me, though I had given him a detailed history of my running, cycling, and endurance training.  I told him my history with Bicycling Magazine, Runner’s World, Scuba Diving, Men’s Health and Prevention to emphasize that I had been monitoring my health and the field for thirty years. I had no family history of heart disease and no symptoms.

As luck would have it, my May 2012 issue of the AARP Bulletin arrived with an article entitled, “7 Medical Procedures You Don’t Need.”  Leading the list were EKGs and stress tests for people without symptoms. The other six include (with some editing): bone scans for men under 65; antibiotics for mild/moderate sinus infections; Advil and Motrin for those with high blood pressure or kidney disease; CT scans for uncomplicated headaches; dubious diagnostic tests for suspected allergies; and CT scan, X-Ray, and MRI for lower back pain.  This data comes from a study by the American Board of Internal Medicine and forms the basis of their Choosing Wisely Campaign. Full details can be found at

I assume good will on the part of most physicians and understand they are protecting themselves from malpractice. But I had a hard time swallowing advice from a New York physician who suggested I flush my sinus cavities with silver water. And the advice from a New York allergist, well-known to television audiences in the area, who pressed me to take monthly immunoglobulin  shots for allergies even when tests showed I had no antibody deficiencies. I finally found a physician who provided a low-cost, low-tech cure.

Few media companies of consequence don’t have a doctor on board to parse the unrelenting barrage of medical advice we receive from an array of journals, universities and trade associations. Consumers need help. The recent suggestion that men should not routinely be given the PSA test for prostate cancer has caused confusion and alarm.   

There appears to be an app for every pain and body part.  PriceWaterhouseCoopers estimates that there are more than 10,000 medical, fitness and health-related apps available for download. Jokes about pager use aside, we know that 95% of doctors with smart phones are using apps to assist in their work. Given the growing shortage of primary care physicians, it seems that the healthcare industry will inevitably make better use of mobile phone technology.  In India, a pilot project involving 50,000 consumers who get medical checkups over mobile devices shows promise.
The medical field does not lack information; we are inundated. What the field lacks is integration and particularly wireless integration. 
Qualcomm Life, a wholly owned subsidiary of Qualcomm Inc., is offering some tantalizing possibilities. (Full disclosure: I have consulted for Qualcomm QMT in the past).

Qualcomm Life is building a vast wireless ecosystem—in effect a platform that will include devices and apps, gateways, cloud-based connectivity, and access for patients, healthcare professionals, and payors. The platform is designed to meet HIPAA requirements and data security standards developed by the payment card industry.

Given Qualcomm’s knowledge of device manufacturers, carriers, and network development, the company will have something to say about the future of mobile health with the consumer as much a partner as patient. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Angel Words & Demon Words & Those that Make Us Smart

As a long-time poet, I am a firm believer in the “angelology” of words and that poems originate in the psyche and my conscious self does little more than provide a final shape.  This is a Romantic notion, of course, harking back to the Italian Renaissance, and in our current world of SEO and rich metadata, this idea seems decidedly quaint.

When I was a graduate student. a professor suggested I read Hemingway night and day, both for style and content.  Since he was a Hemingway scholar, I knew this recommendation was in part rhetorical and even theatrical.  After all, hadn’t he occasionally come to class dressed as his favorite author, one time rifle in hand?  Neither was loaded.  But I took his advice and read Hemingway.  When all the chest-thumping about his unadorned prose is done, Hemingway has much to teach us about the language of abstraction. He couldn’t stand words like honor, glory, courage and heroism, preferring the concrete names of northern Italian towns and villages.  He stood with Shakespeare’s Falstaff, who, in a conversation of Prince Hal, the budding Puer about honor, replied, “Honor is he who died on Wednesday.”  Perhaps even more damning in Shakespeare’s grim wit, honor had no skill in surgery and couldn’t take away the grief of a wound.

It will take more than a university professor, even with rifle in hand, to preside over any orthodoxy in word choice and language style.  The cat is indeed out of the bag and trending on YouTube.  Still, words matter and can kill or least annoy, as every recipient of wayward smartphone conversations will attest. One doesn’t have to spend much time on the Web looking at some version of worst word sites to realize that there is still much language out there that still can’t take away the grief of a wound but that can provide a form of water torture, with an affected Valley Girl Lilt, as nagging as splinters under a nail.

I’m not talking about George Carlin’s seven dirty words or sites like, that explores the relationship between language, emotion, meaning, sound and feeling in the mouth as criteria to measure against the comfort level of the Decider.  Here, moist, slurp, bulbous and yolk are not likely to make the cut.  But these words are unlikely to interrupt my reverie to the degree the more innocuous do:  whatever, absolutely, awesome, basically, anyways, amazing, bling and dude et al, delivered at volume on speaker with bi-coastal sincerity and theatrical hand-wringing.  After all and after a certain age, we all want to become grammarians, a guardian of syntax, residing in that Senex consciousness where rules are made and enforced.

I’ve been working with nextPub, the publishing industry’s tech incubator, as it prepares to launch and market in June, 2012, the PRISM Source Vocabulary (PSV) Specification, which defines robust metadata taxonomies and controlled vocabularies that can be used to configure federated source content/rich media repositories. In this spirit, I’ve been trying to learn more about how content can be defined and structured so that it can be most useful across various channels and platforms.  This is poetry of another kind, hard-edged and smelling of nouns, more like the Imagists than the Romantics.
I read an article by a group at Trinity College, Dublin, that addresses the importance of targeted content “slices” for changing consumer demands and needs.  One obstacle to this is a reliance “upon bespoke, proprietary content” that lacks description and metadata.  I finished the article but all I could think about was the use of “bespoke” in this context.  Call me old fashioned, but I immediately thought of Shakespeare and Coleridge and the archaic use of “bespeak,” meaning to speak about, to complain, to order, to foretell and the like.  Just how did one of my favorite words or a version end up in an Irish Content Management System?

Putting on my grammarian’s hat, I acknowledge that “bespoke” is a version of “bespeak” and means custom-made, usually in reference to apparel.  For centuries, it has been very British and very upper crust. You ordered a suit or pair of shoes ahead of time and they were spoken or bespoken for, like a hand in marriage.

My thanks to the WSJ for recently publishing a front page article on why “bespoke,” that once had a narrow, somewhat snooty definition, has entered the vernacular and is as likely as not to show up on the next SAT.   The Journal notes that there are two dozen “bespoke” businesses in New York City alone, from bookstores to barber shops.  In the mergers and acquisition world there are “bespoke deals.” Hungry?  Look for Bespoke Crackers.  Live in San Francisco and want a custom bike? Go to Bespoke Cycles.

I served as editor and publisher of Bicycling magazine for a decade and never found the phrase “custom bike” wanting.  The phrase immediately conjures up scenes of northern Italy, from Milano to Venice, populated by Colnago, Columbus, Cinelli, Campagnola and others who know something about hand-made bicycle frames and parts.  Bespoke bicycles sounds just too English and pedestrian and seems much closer to “bangers and mash” than a Mediterranean dish.  And, yes, this too is part of my Italian fantasy made necessary and inevitable by my British birth.

The Journal concludes with the observation that “bespoke” is becoming downright ordinary. A word that for centuries has been the province and differentiator for generations of Saville Row tailors has become the leading adjective to describe literally hundreds of business categories, feeding the insatiable hunger for key word dominance, market edge and business advantage.

As my British friends would say, before the word made the sorry list: Brilliant!