Thursday, June 27, 2013

How Magazine Publishers Can Think “Inside the Box”

When I’m unsure about what to do with a cardboard box, I give it to a child.  She in turn puts it on her head, sits in it, and uses it as a rocket, slide, pillow and weapon, in no particular order.  And after her nap, she reinvents the game all over again, this time with video.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who cringes when invited into the boardroom with other acolytes to participate in a strategic planning session which will require “out of the box thinking.”  I learned my lesson early in my career when I suggested that the owner’s wife, who loved medieval, cultist things, be brought on board as the resident astrologer.  I mean, she read a mean horoscope and wore gypsy skirts and headbands.  I was following orders and thought, I thought, outside the box, but the blowback I received from the corporate powers was that I had somehow slandered her.  But, in a sense, none of this mattered because most strategic comments fall to the cutting room floor to be swept up curtly latter on by the janitor who knows what to do with trash.

Most of us have our merry tales of crawling around meeting rooms trying to sound like an unreconstructed lion or some other beast that might upset the status quo.  And then there are those “brainstorming” sessions.  I recall during a retreat with a New York publisher spending too much time listening to suggestions from men and women to either put the toilet seat up or down, depending on aim and strategic intent.  I won’t bore you with the list of deadly atmospheric metaphors that would make an eighth-grader blush.

In a delicious article that makes a grand case for plucking “brainstorming” from the executive quiver, the WSJ makes a case for behavioral science and why we should with pride and aplomb find our way back into the box.  The Journal published an adaption from Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results (Simon & Schuster), by Professors Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldenberg, at the University of Cincinnati and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, respectively.   

The authors suggest that advocates of “out of the box thinking” have it all wrong and actually have it backwards.  “Would-be innovators are told ‘to think outside the box,’” and go wild making analogies that have nothing to do with the essential product.  They suggest that playing word association games or chasing grand abstractions at a company retreat are pretty much a waste of time.  Their approach is to think about the essential business differently.  So get inside the box, deep inside the box.

They offer five techniques for doing this:  subtraction, task unification multiplication, division, and attribute dependency.  The technique of subtraction would mean removing essential elements.  The authors provide the examples of contact lenses, an exercise bike, a package of powdered soup, and an ATM.  The question: what do they have in common?  The answer: they all have something subtracted.  The contact lenses are without the frame.  The exercise bike is without a rear wheel.  Extract water from soup and you have the powdered form.  And so on.

The authors note that companies have discovered new product lines using these techniques.  Philips Electronics removed functions from the bulky DVD player and placed them in a handheld device.  This led to a new design standard not only for the DVD, but for the home-electronics market.

The professors offer Samsonite as an example of a company that used task unification to create new products, redesigning the college backpack so it was better designed to provide comfort for the students under a heavy load of books and electronics.  The heavier the contents, the more stress relief for the wearer.

Multiplication suggests copying a component, then altering it.   Though this technique has been used with razors, light bulbs and photography, it can also be used in services.  For example, the College Board, which designs the SAT, adds about 25 minutes of experimental, un-scored questions during the 225-minute test to test appropriateness of including them in later exams.

Division is a technique by which you separate the components of a product or service and then rearrange them.  “Instances of this technique abound, from airline check-in procedures that now have you print your boarding pass at home to the TV remote control whose functions used to be attached to the box itself.”

According to the authors, an excellent example of attribute dependency “is eyewear with transition lenses, which change from light to dark in the sunlight.  So, too, are windshield wipers that speed up as it rains harder.”  

I haven’t heard whether publishers and media companies are using this kind of approach to innovation.  If not, they should consider it.  Too often, the strategic conversation shuffles between the urge to centralize or decentralize the organization, with digital developments making this conversation all the more severe.  Wired magazine just celebrated its twentieth anniversary and that means we’ve been struggling with digital issues for at least that long.  I can’t think of any of the publishers I’ve worked with who got digital right early or even later on.  One reason for this, I’m sure, concerns asking the right questions.  And a willingness to get back inside the box!

Ken Doctor, writing in the Nieman Journalism Lab, provides a quiz:  The era of paying for digital access is about: 1. Getting more money out of core subscribers; 2. Getting new money out of new subscribers; or 3. Getting money any way you can.  Doctor acknowledges #3 is a “gimme,” but #1 and #2 are very different strategies.  “While most newspaper publishers are leaning heavily on their long-time core bases by promising and delivering all-access, Hearst Magazines is taking a contrarian turn in the market.  It’s a strategy that is largely at odds with peers Conde Nast, Time Inc. and Meredith, as well as most newspaper publishers.  It’s betting on almost wholly on new customers.”(

Unlike its competitors, Hearst is not focused on bundling print and digital products, although that may be an option in the future.  Rather, as Doctor notes, the company is seeking out and attracting consumers who want to read in the digital format.  And the proof seems to be in the pudding.  Recently, President David Carey announced that Hearst Magazines had reached one million paid digital subscribers.  While this number is about 4% of Hearst’s total subscription, I wouldn’t bet against Hearst reaching the desired 10% mark by 2016.  It’s a start.

In Doctor’s opinion, “Hearst’s strategy is the one to watch.”  I agree.  This strategy is consistent with demographic changes, tablet adoption, decline in retail magazine sales, and the necessity of breaking through the “analog dollars for digital dimes” syndrome.  Hearst is demonstrating that consumers will pay full price for magazine tablet editions.  If this trend continues, it would be a huge finding for publishers who have been trying to generate digital revenue through bundling and pay-walls with inconsistent results.  Hearst is demonstrating there is another way.   

Perhaps Hearst has used a version of the “subtraction technique” suggested by our professors; removing seemingly essential elements to get at some core strategic issues.  For the last decade, the magazine industry’s narrative was necessarily anchored in print because that is where the revenues were and are.  Digital was there, of course, made more sexy and promising by the iPad.  But the print and digital dance continued, sometimes featuring ungainly partners with vastly different footwork.

Perhaps Hearst has also done the industry a huge favor by demonstrating that a company can chart a new, bold and scalable digital magazine business centered specifically on the tablet that Doctor refers to as the linchpin, with 98% of digital magazine reading taking place on the tablet.  “For many, the tablet is truly becoming a replacement for the print magazine.” And the good news continues. Ad Age just reported that iPad magazine ad units are up 24% in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the same period last year.  

If our professors were in the room, they might also suggest Hearst executives could be wittingly or unwittingly invoking the “attribute dependency” technique, “making the attributes of a product change in response to changes in the environment or in the surrounding environment.”  The tablet has been with us since 2009 and although companies, including Time Inc. and Conde Nast, have had some success in this space, Hearst has shown us emphatically that consumers will pay a pretty penny for magazine content on tablet devices; on average, 30% more than the print edition.  It’s a start.

By keeping the bundling of print and digital in the background, developing ways to get new revenue from new subscribers and focusing on the tablet magazine edition as a distinct business and editorial entity, Hearst seems freer to respond, unhindered, to changing marketplace exigencies.

That’s good news for them and the rest of the industry.  Perhaps the professors are right.  The solutions are closer than we think. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Navy Abandons All-Capital Letters, Semaphore, and Morse Code

The Navy Times reports that the senior service will discontinue use of all-capital letters in official communication, a policy that has been in place since 1850, apparently due to the inability of the early telecomm systems to accommodate lower-case letters.  That wireless telegraphy has permitted use of lower-case since 1932 was not addressed.  After all, what are eighty-one years to a centuries-old institution?   And don’t GENADMINS (general administration) and MOVREPS (movement report) suggest a certain historical weightiness and grandeur that is not held by their lower-case cousins that have infected social media and non-seagoing brains?

One reason given for this change is that younger sailors think the All-CAPS policy suggests heavy-handedness and sounds as if the entire command structure was shouting at the fleet.  I don’t want to disparage this logic, but that is exactly what the command structure intended.  All-CAPS represented a loosely disguised Pavlovian signal to stand up and salute.  After all, ATTENTION ON DECK worked for me every time. 

Navy brass must be familiar with the Buddhist notion that “you can’t move small enough.”  Or slow enough.  To their credit, Morse code was put on the dustbin of history as far back as 1999.  Though I place myself in the vanguard of progress, I feel a tinge of sadness and regret because I had to learn that alchemical language when I served and am not pleased that others in my specialty aren’t required to master this arcane art.  I can’t tell you how many pleasurable discussions, via flashing light and Morse code, I had with strangers on other ships in the early morning hours in the Gulf of Tonkin about whether it was practical or even desirable to collect a bucket of water line.  To be able to render in Morse, across countless sea miles, to another ship on station, the code ZWC, meaning a personal message to follow, was almost worth the price of enlistment.

Sometimes we were more serious.  It was not uncommon when the ship was “running dark,” especially when we were in joint exercises with other vessels for turn signals, such as “Turn 270 degrees,” to be executed via Morse code delivered on the masthead lights.  I have racked my brain but can’t remember any collisions of note.

Those who refer to Morse code as a “language of distress” must have heard an overweight Steven Segal beating out a desperate SOS on the steel cage of his own making.  But even the critics of this horse and cart technology will acknowledge that a one-hundred-and-sixty-year run was not bad for this 1939 invention. The French Navy, full of Gaelic pomp, said farewell to the code with these immortal words, getting very close to a Hallmark moment: “Calling all.  This is our last cry before our eternal silence.”

In its own, historically-efficient way, the Navy has gradually deep-sixed the technologies and practices that seemed radically old-fashioned, even though it was precisely these practices that made Mister Roberts, Away All Boats, and The Caine Mutiny so popular to another generation.  One of the last vestiges of that romantic past is semaphore, the use of hand flags held in precise positions that represent letters of the alphabet to deliver messages, usually at close quarters, between ships.  This discipline was especially useful during replenishments at sea where close, visual communication is essential.  The first semaphore message was sent in 1867.  I have heard reports that semaphore is still being used during replenishments, but it is also a dying art.  Flags appear now as bunting and ceremonial art, especially when COMSERVPAC comes aboard.  Sorry, Commander Pacific Services.

But there is at least one lining in this cloud.  In 2007, the Semaphore Flag Signaling System (SFSS) was introduced, a proposal to carry Internet Protocol (IP) by semaphore flags.  Sadly, this proposal was made public on April Fool’s Day.  I’m not LOL.

But I’m not fooling.  I have completed and will have in the market by this fall a novel that captures the original ALL-CAP Navy grandeur, based on my service during the Vietnam period.  The Navy is proudly coming back in ALL-CAPS in USS BUNKER KILLS: A SEA STORY.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Product Placement: Between the Lines in Iron Man 3 and the Chinese Sequel

It is becoming increasingly clear that we are what we wear, carry, breathe, advertise, post, boast and declare in the willing public ear.   

I embraced this lusty ethos some time ago when I was editor and publisher of Bicycling Magazine.  When appearing on the Today Show, Good Morning America and CBS This Morning, I must have looked like an advertiser’s wet dream with my Trek carbon fiber bicycle, Bell helmet, Specialized cleats, Louis Garneau jersey, Cannondale shades and just a hint of rain gear from Gore-Tex.  I had a handler who made sure my minor case of color blindness did not cause any fashion missteps under the harsh light of morning television. With delicacy and British understatement, I dropped these labels into the 8 am segment of the American imagination without losing a step.  In the vernacular, I was right on the money.  Subliminal, more or less, sells.

Those heady days seem such a long time ago.  I was playing in a sandbox with few tools and restricted movement.  These days the entire shoreline is fair game.  The traditional separation between Church (editorial) and State (business) seems to be breaking down and media companies are aggressively pursuing initiatives such as content marketing, brand journalism, and native advertising.  I just read that the New York Stock Exchange launched a project called The Big Stage, developed by Digitas, intended to highlight corporations in a photo-rich setting.  For example, “Animal Pharm” recounts the efforts of drug company Zoetis to fight animal diseases.  The actual content was produced by Time Inc. Content Solutions, which is outside the Time and Fortune Magazine operations.  Content Solutions are paid by companies to produce brand journalism.

To their credit, media companies are working hard to define these new content categories and make sure they are labeled clearly so consumers won’t be confused.  Forbes and The Atlantic deserve particular credit for this effort.  And given the pressing need for increased digital advertising revenues, there is no reason to think the push into brand journalism or content marketing will slow anytime soon.

But if you want to experience the crème-de-la-crème of product placement, go to the movies.  I saw Iron Man 3 over the weekend and, due to exposure to what seemed like hundreds of products, some of which barely related to the narrative line, I will have to see the movie again to get a fuller sense of the rise, fall and rise again of these Marvel comic book archetypes.  Or maybe not.

I recall attending movies as a kid in North London and looking forward to the newsreels, the obligatory pre-roll where we learned of the British Empire’s grace and foresight in giving up large swaths of the African continent.  At my multiplex, the obligatory pre-roll of coming attractions lasted almost thirty minutes, during which we were mainly bombarded with large images of a 67-ounce Coke bottle and that new, partially crushed, bowtie-shaped Budweiser beer can designed primarily for party animals with thin waists.  The bombardment was so focused, intense and relentless that I had to excuse myself and buy an $8 tub of buttered popcorn.

By the time Iron Man 3 showed its face, we were sufficiently schooled in the art of product placement that classical concerns such as the narrative thread and the all-important denouement seemed like yesterday’s news.  That our heroes drive an Audi R8 and S7 should come as no surprise.  Or that they wear Matsuda Eyewear and Aviator glasses and Fred Perry shirts; stay in touch through TCL mobile phones; drink Budweiser; read Forbes magazine; and exploit the technology in a limited edition Dora the Explorer watch.  It is not as if the director decided first on the products to be placed; then built the story around these branded items.

The poet T.S. Eliot reminded us a hundred years ago about the importance of a willing suspension of disbelief.  He was talking about readers immersing themselves in literature, though he might as well have been talking about product placement.  With Eliot in mind, we will accept in Iron Man 3 the branded gardening tools, Bloom’s Special Fertilizer, and the Green Light Fire Ant Control.  We will stay with the poetic logic and assume these products will contribute to the pyrotechnics and the overall quality of the film.  We will accept the presence of the IRB 120, an ABB Industrial Robot.  After all, there’s a lot of heavy stuff to move around in this film, and one more robot will hardly be noticed.  

But we will have to stand tall with those online voices, some mocking in the extreme, who find the placement of the Oracle Exadata Server, including a close-up of the actual server model number, to be decidedly over-the-top.  After all, this product is used for data warehousing and online transaction processing.  It’s not likely to be found in a panel truck in Anywhere, Tennessee.  As products go, this baby is no lightweight placement.

At this point, I can express gratitude that we were not watching this film in China, where they added four minutes to the ending so the producer could drop in a plug for Duo Li Duo, a Chinese milk product from a dairy in Inner Mongolia that apparently gave the Iron Man his power.  Even the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party paper, called the Chinese version pointless.  Perhaps this is also because no one, not even the Communist Party, could believe that our Iron Man hero would go to China for a life-saving medical procedure.  

Now that is over the top!

But I am worried when the one voice of sanity in this product placement circus is the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Perhaps we should feel blessed that a purported movie sex tape of Gwyneth Paltrow/Pepper that was to be broadcast in a fictional Home Depot, in proper product placement mode, courtesy of the villain, with presumably all the appropriate handy tool references, was left on the cutting room floor.   This fan-fiction is courtesy of Complex Media.

Thank goodness the director had the foresight to forego the sex and keep us numbingly amused with wall-to-wall product placements.  At the very least, the movie theater is still safe for our children.