Saturday, April 6, 2013

Is There a Difference Between Kickstarter and Panhandling?

Why is it if you ask people to give you money on Kickstarter, it's (relatively) respected, but if you ask people to give you money on the street, that's called "panhandling"? I know what you'll say: "those bums are just going to spend that money on booze and drugs!" I'm sure some of them will. But hey, who's to say Kickstarter recipients aren't just snorting away the money people are giving them as well? Since donors are not really stakeholders in a Kickstarter transaction, is there really much accountability for the managers of crowd-funded projects to do what they say they are going to do with the money?
I'm not telling you, I'm asking you: Other than the little gifts and perks of donation that exchange hands, what's the difference between financing with Kickstarter and begging? Maybe there is a big difference, and I'm just not seeing it yet. Until then I won't understand why it's considered OK for a group of movie producers to beg for donations to finance a film adaptation of a cult TV show, for example, but not OK for a homeless man to seek the crowdfunding of passers by, to finance his own survival.
Really, both activities are OK by me. Desperate, worthy people often need to beg. And desperate, worthy indie projects may need to beg as well. But I still see no difference between the two methods of financing. Those aforementioned movie producers, in bypassing traditional methods of finance, are begging. And homeless people asking for donations on the street are just crowdfunding.
But, there is one major difference between the two situations. When you donate to a homeless person, that person gets 100% of the donation. Donate to a Kickstarter campaign and between 3% and 5% of it will go to Kickstarter itself, to pay for things like web servers to keep the site going, or maybe just mansions and yachts for the owners. Yes, Kickstarter is a for profit company. So while you may find yourself donating to a worthy project on the site, just out of the kindness of your heart, remember that up to 5% of that donation is going straight into Kickstarter's coffers.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

Jobs Reports

If you were hoping for a bad jobs report this month just so that it would hurt Obama's re-election chances, you are sick in the head. And if you were hoping for a good jobs report just so that it would help Obama's re-election chances, you are equally sick in the head. Break the obsession with politics as a spectator sport!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Who's Winning the Battle of the Social Networks?

Who's winning the battle of the online social networks? This screenshot, taken from a page I was just reading, speaks volumes:
The network externalities in the market for social media are perhaps too powerful for anyone to really compete with Facebook in the near future. Whether or not Facebook can fully monetize this dominance is another matter. Facebook's tumbling share price since its IPO indicates that investors are having some of the same doubts I have long expressed about the free-service/advertising-revenue model on which companies like Facebook are based. 
   As an investor, it's important not to confuse dominance over culture with profitability. Yes, Facebook has changed the culture of the entire world. But how much revenue does it have to show for it? Some, but not enough to maintain that IPO price. Perhaps Facebook has only grown to dominate because, to quote the Facebook log-in page: "It's free and always will be." Maybe the success stories of Facebook and Google, and other similarly monetized web-based companies are not the tales of the triumph of innovation they have been hyped to be, but are stories that prove something completely unremarkable: that people like to pay less for things. Yes, people like free stuff, people love free stuff. People will spend their time and energy to get "free" stuff. But there's one thing they won't do, and that's pay for it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hijacking The Collective Intelligence of the Web

I've been talking a lot lately about how the collective intelligence of the web will help value-creating enterprises rise to success, while letting unworthy enterprises fail. Well, here's one way that these unworthy businesses are trying to combat this: fake Yelp reviews for pay.    
Screenshot from Craigslist Los Angeles

Notice how for it to be convincing, the paid writers need to have active and established Yelp accounts. Very clever.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

If You are Advertising, There Must Be Something Wrong With You, Part 2

I apologize that perhaps too many of my latest articles have covered the topic of advertising. I can justify that to myself because I feel, in today's world of almost unlimited "free" content online (either offered for free, or free through piracy), the issue of monetizing the web in a way that efficiently rewards producers of content (films, software, books, ideas, artworks) is and will continue to be one of the our great economic dilemmas. The current model is heavily based on advertising, and I feel that the monetization model of pay per click, "put everything out for free, because it's just going to be pirated anyway, then pray that someone clicks on the ads" will soon fail.
Why? As I covered in my earlier article on this topic, because if they haven't already, people will soon realize advertising has become a mark of bad quality for the advertiser. In the wired, social media fueled economy, word of mouth and the collective intelligence of the web are king. Not the word of advertising. Ask yourself, of the two following choices, who would you be more willing to trust?: a paid celebrity spokesman telling you that a product is great, or hundreds of user reviews online telling you a product is bad? If you answered the former, you must really like that celebrity.
But there's another more basic reason why advertising is a mark of bad quality. Advertising costs money. And money spent on advertising is money not spent in other areas, the areas of spending that, unlike advertising, help to actually create a good product or service.
Ask yourself the following question: When was the last time you saw a national advertisement for Harvard University? You know, just to spread the word: "Hey everybody, Harvard's a great school!" Probably not very recently.
Now ask yourself when was the last time you saw an advertisement for ITT Tech or other for-profit trade school offering community-college level education at 10 times community-college prices? I see them all the time, on TV and all over the web. These are the kinds of products and services that need to advertise: Scams, predatory lending and herbal "male-enhancement" supplements.
In other words, products and services that suck.
And speaking of sucking, advertising sucks. That is, advertising costs suck money, like leeches from an organization's funds. These funds could be used to help provide a better product or service. And in a world where social media has created 'roided up engines for the transmission of instant, global word of mouth, perhaps the better companies will find that money is more wisely spent on improving their products, rather than simply trying to convince people that their products are good. So if you see a company advertising heavily, ask yourself "why do they need to advertise so much?" and "where is the money coming from to pay for all these advertisements?" It could very well be that the heavy advertising company never counted on offering a quality product or service in the first place, and was just planning on pulling a fast one. And if you want to find out if a product is good or bad, often a quick Googling will suffice. Just watch out for those Google ads.

(Post script: Yes I am a total hypocrite for attacking the web advertising model from a blog covered in ads supplied by Google.)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Economics of the Worst Meal I Ever Ate

(I'll be the first to tell you that this article is based on my very limited, subjective experience eating once at a single restaurant, and my theories on the economic and political implications of this one meal are total generalizations based on extremely limited evidence; evidence based on a sample size of 1. Nonetheless, there might be something to my theory. Read on.)
When I ordered the very worst meal I ever ate, I was on a lunch break from jury service. I had left the downtown LA courthouse and walked a couple of blocks in a random direction looking for a restaurant. I  walked into what turned out to be a grubby, nasty place and ordered a hot dog and what they called "homemade mac and cheese", basically a pile of inedible, greasy, flavorless, stringy slop. I try not to waste food, but I couldn't make it through this. It was definitely the most disgusting, seemingly half-assed meal I have ever seen prepared.
   Disregarding the possibility that I came into the restaurant on a very very bad day, how would such a substandard restaurant stay in business? I'll theorize with two words: Jury Duty. Think about it, every weekday, thousands of people coerced by the legal duty to perform jury service converge upon the courthouse, and they all need to eat. Like me, many of them will just walk down a block in a random direction, stop at the first restaurant they see, eat there, and possibly prop up the fortunes of a restaurant that would otherwise fail. But this is not simply a matter of an increased volume of foot traffic outside. If that were the case, restaurants next to all highly visited areas would have lesser quality food, but that is clearly not true. A restaurant next to, for example a large office building that the same workers go to every day, needs to maintain high standards to keep those same people coming back. But this restaurant next to the courthouse would get a different set of suckers almost every single day. So where is their incentive to improve? Nowhere. Each day the restaurant could survive by pumping out disgusting slop for a new set of unsuspecting people called in for jury duty; people who will probably not set foot on that same block unless one day they get called back for jury service at the same courthouse. Also, word-of-mouth is inhibited. What's the use of telling your friends and neighbors about a bad dining experience in a completely different neighborhood than they live in? And while bad restaurants near the courthouse would gain benefits from this lack of word-of-mouth, the good restaurants would be harmed by this.
   So, because of the (perhaps absolutely necessary and unavoidable) government coercion of people to come to courthouses, I am putting forth the theory, (arrogantly generalizing based on my own reasoning and the evidence of one bad experience) that many bad restaurants near courthouses in large urban areas probably get the benefit of a distortion of the market. The jurors are a captive audience, and have little power to move that "invisible hand" away from such nasty, disgusting restaurants.
   Or do they? Perhaps the internet will come to the rescue. On websites such as Yelp, that an increasing number of jurors will have access to on their smartphones, website users can blow the lid off of the nastiness of bad restaurants such as this one, and promote the good ones. This however, depends on how widespread smartphone based restaurant reviewing becomes. It all depends on whether or not more Americans become mobile-device-addicted, whining foodies (like me). And on a completely different topic: would that be such a good thing?
   Anyone else out there had any interesting juty duty lunchtime experiences, good or bad? I've got to get more evidence.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gotomeeting's TV Ad: Slacktivism In Action

I've been Googling and Googling and can't find any reference to the "Kenyan Water Project" showcased on a recent commercial for the web-conferencing company Gotomeeting. I guess it was all made up for the commercial. (Gotomeeting, if you are reading this, and the commercial was actually based on something real, not just a hypothetical use of your services, please let me know). I can't quite put my finger on why it's so offensive to me that this commercial for Gotomeeting would use a fictional charity to sell itself. Here's the ad:

If it had been a fictional clothing company, or fictional donut shop, that would be par for the course. The fictional depiction of a use of one's goods or services has been a staple of advertising from time immemorial. But this is different. Perhaps it offends me so because it is a prime example of "slacktivism". Wikipedia defines slacktivism as 
"a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes 'feel-good' measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist." 
But this isn't just slacktivism. It is worse. This is slacktivism used to make money. This commercial is used to associate the company, Gotomeeting with fictional well-intentioned folks bringing fictional clean water to fictional Kenyan villagers, which in turn elevates the public's view of Gotomeeting, bringing the company not-fictional money.
So does the fact that this commercial showcases the non-existent "Kenyan Water Project" promote the clean water cause? Not at all. If anything, this feel-good commercial harms the real cause it hijacks, because the worst part of slacktivism is that it breeds complacency. Because who needs to start a real charity when there's a fictional one out there in TV land doing fictional good?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pictorial Evidence of the Benefits of Relaxed Drug Policy

The other day I was walking down an L.A. street and saw a man holding this sign (above), outside of one of the city's many (perfectly legal) medical marijuana dispensaries. He was working for a group protesting the dispensary's allegedly shady business dealings. The economist in me had to take a picture, as this was something one could only see in a region with relaxed policies towards marijuana: a public business dispute. When a product is illegal, as marijuana is for non-medical use in some states like California,  and banned outright in all others, negotiations and disputes must be held in private, away from the watchful eye of the law. This illegality brings about an entirely different way of doing business. In an illegal industry there can be no legal backing behind business contracts, and suppliers certainly could not  publicly call for a boycott, as it would alert the cops. To me, this openness is a step forward. If you stop and think about the methods of negotiation and conflict resolution available to people in the illegal drug trade, you might think so too. Here's a short list of methods that can be used to enforce contracts in illegal industries:
  • Stabbings
  • Shootings
  • Bombings
  • Good old-fashioned ass-whoopings
  • Leg breaking
  • Blackmail
  • Vandalism
  • Kidnapping
  • Etc. etc. etc.
Is it worth it to keep a drug illegal, when its illegality leads to a wider-spread use of the above-mentioned "negotiation methods"? Watching some episodes of Boardwalk Empire might help one mull it over.
I'm not denying that this is a complex issue. Drugs cause harm to society; one must only look to the devastating effects of alcohol and tobacco to see this. However, I think there's one thing everyone can agree on: boycotts are better than bombings.

Monday, August 15, 2011

If You Are Advertising, There Must Be Something Wrong With You

Have you ever watched a "featured" or "promoted" video on Youtube? I haven't watched them very often, because from my experience, they usually suck. Why else would someone need to pay to get his or her video high up in the listings? Really good videos gain popularity organically. Ironically, at least for me, seeing that a video on Youtube is "featured" is the kiss of death, and guarantees that I will not watch it. "Featured Video" is the mark of a bad video that is probably trying to sell something. A video's mark of quality can only come from a large number of "thumbs up" ratings. This is a democratization of the whole marketing environment. You can see it everywhere on the web, not just on Youtube. Star and thumbs up systems provide a collective intelligence that can communicate to everyone which products and services are truly worthwhile. These collective rating systems are one reason that advertising is becoming less relevant in today's wired world. Though today there are more and better opportunities to reach your customers through advertising than ever before, advertising itself is taking a backseat to organically-spread word of mouth. Word of mouth rules, and now that there are automated ways to instantly and globally spread word of mouth, advertising has taken a new, secondary place. For example, if advertising misleads, word of mouth, or rather, word of type or click, can correct things eventually. If a company promises amazing results from a product, a consumer must only check user reviews on one of many websites to get the real scoop from people who have actually used it (though maybe also a scattering of fake reviews marketing people at the company have thrown in there). So this leads me to what I think is a new law of marketing in our viral world: if you are advertising there must be something wrong with you. I am being slightly facetious. This is an exaggeration. No matter how easily word of mouth can spread, companies will need to advertise. Some industries need advertising more than others. And even the best companies will need to advertise, at the very least to get the viral marketing snowball going in the first place. But if you take a look at who is doing the most advertising nowadays, you're going to see a lot of predatory lenders, shady herbal supplement companies and expensive trade schools, not so much reputable and well regarded companies. Many of the best companies may have found that they can thrive from the free advertising of web-based word of mouth. Perhaps our collective intelligence on the web will lead to a world where companies, (gasp!) must actually make a decent product to survive.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Web Advertising Bubble?

The Ugly Side of Web 2.0 Marketing: A Facebook Toilet Paper Poll
Recently I've been listening to Jeff Jarvis's "What Would Google Do?" on audiobook. I haven't finished it yet, so I will suspend my final judgment, I am enjoying the book so far, though sometimes the effusive Google worship gets kind of tiresome (not a fan of the phrase "Google Juice", barf). Don't get me wrong, I love Google too. I am writing this blog article on a Google platform, use their search constantly, Google Earth is amazing, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. However, in all my years of using Google, I could count on one hand the number of times I have clicked on a Google ad. And every time my clicks have arisen through simple curiosity, not a real desire to buy something. Though I don't have the figures, I know Google reels in an imponderable number of people to its ads, but I'm sure there are also countless others out there just like me, taking full advantage of Google's favors, but never repaying by clicking on an ad. But it's worse than that. For web advertising to fully pay off for Google, not only must there be a click, but an actual exchange of money, or else, in the long run, companies will not find it worthwhile to advertise with Google. If anyone out there is actually reading this article, I'm curious, and please let me know in the comments: how often do you click on Google advertisements? I really would like to know. With Google ads, for all they try to zero in on me with laser precision, with ads that I would find useful, often what is being sold just seems like crap, or a scam to me. Which leads me to what I shall call, pretentiously, "The Great Contradiction of Web Monetization". The great contradiction is as follows. Jeff Jarvis and people like him would be the first to tell you that the old model of marketing is dead. Thanks to the web, word of mouth can spread like wildfire or a virus. But, you cannot engineer virality. Viral word of mouth will only help sell a product that is truly valuable. So in our brave new world of viral phenomena, truly great products don't need advertising like they used to. Maybe they need a spark to get the wildfire going, but that is all. So, companies with truly great products will only end up handing Google a little bit of money, but after that, Yelp and Amazon reviews will take care of the rest. Because it is the real users of a product or service that truly spread word of mouth, not people who have only seen an advertisement, in a viral world, advertising becomes less relevant, not more. So what does that leave us with in the Google ad bar? Usually crap and scams, like I said. This does not bode well for a company whose revenue stream comes almost entirely from advertising. So what would happen if people everywhere just stopped clicking? I imagine Google would be in trouble. I am not forecasting Google's collapse, that's just ridiculous. They are too good at what they do, which is very many things. However, though Google's domination is widespread, their success is not inevitable. If in the distant future through some freaky combination of a collapse of values in the web advertising market and bad management, Google were to fail, I think a government bailout would be in order. This company has poured out its heart and soul to give consumers so many amazing free tools, that we have all felt the benefits of. They would deserve a bailout much more than the bankers.