Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

The recent stoush between POTUS and Twitter on fact-checking and his alleged use of violent invective has rekindled the debate on whether, and how, social media should be regulated. It’s a potential quagmire (especially the issue of free speech), but it also comes at a time when here in Australia, social media is fighting twin legal battles – on defamation and fees for news content.

First, the issue of fact-checking on social media. Public commentary was divided – some argued that fact-checking is a form of censorship, and others posed the question “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (who fact-checks the fact-checkers?) Others suggested that fact-checking in this context was a form of public service to ensure that political debate is well-informed, obvious errors are corrected, and that blatant lies (untruths, falsehoods, fibs, deceptions, mis-statements, alternative facts….) are called out for what they are. Notably, in this case, the “fact” was not edited, but flagged as a warning to the audience. (In case anyone hadn’t noticed (or remembered), earlier this year Facebook announced that it would engage Reuters to provide certain fact-check services.) Given the current level of discourse in the political arena, traditional and social media, and the court of public opinion, I’m often reminded of an article I read many years ago in the China Daily, which said something to the effect that “it is important to separate the truth from the facts”.

Second, the NSW Court of Appeal recently ruled that media companies can be held responsible for defamatory comments posted under stories they publish on social media. While this specific ruling did not render Facebook liable for the defamatory posts (although like other content platforms, social media is subject to general defamation laws), it was clear that the media organisations are deemed to be “publishing” content on their social media pages. And even though they have no way of controlling or moderating the Facebook comments before they are made public, for these purposes, their Facebook pages are no different to their own websites.

Third, the Australian Government is going to force companies like Facebook and Google to pay for news content via revenue share from ad sales. The Federal Treasurer was quoted as saying, “It is only fair that the search ­engines and social media giants pay for the original news content that they use to drive traffic to their sites.” If Australia succeeds, this may set an uncomfortable precedent in other jurisdictions.

For me, much of the above debate goes to the heart of how to treat social media platforms – are they like traditional newspapers and broadcast media? are they like non-fiction publishers? are they communications services (like telcos)? are they documents of record? The topic is not new – remember when Mark Zuckerberg declared that he wanted Facebook to be the “world’s newspaper”? Be careful what you wish for…

Next week: Fact v Fiction in Public Discourse

C-Suite in a quandry: To Blog or Not To Blog…

Should CEO’s be on social media? That is the question many boards, PR advisers, marketeers and C-Suite occupants are faced with these days. Partly driven by existentialist angst (“I Tweet therefore I am”), partly a desperate act of “me too”, many CEOs are in a dilemma about how to engage with the new media.

While it might sound like a good idea to have a CEO blog, in the wrong hands or used inappropriately, it can come across as inauthentic, too corporate, or just crass.

The use of CEOs as “personal brands” is nothing new – think of Richard Branson, Anita Roddick, Steve Jobs, Jack Welch etc. And while social media has the potential to extend the CEO’s reach to customers, shareholders and employees, it also abhors a vacuum. If companies do not take control of their public persona, their customers and employees (supporters and detractors alike) will fill the void for them.

I am seeing this debate play out in different ways:

First, there is a difference between a personal brand and a business brand, so it is important to establish boundaries while recognising how the CEO’s personal standing can be used effectively to complement the corporate presence.

Second, having the CEO recognised as an expert can enhance personal influence but may not directly benefit the company if it is not relevant to the business – does Warren Buffet’s prowess on the ukulele boost instrument sales, or help the share price of Berkshire-Hathaway?

Third, if CEOs do choose to outsource their blog content, make sure it is genuine and aligns not only with the CEO’s personal values but also with those of the company, customers, shareholders and employees.

Finally, CEOs or Boards struggling with this topic, or those worried about whether to take the plunge into social media would be advised to consult Dionne Kasian Lew‘s new book, “The Social Executive”, which is sure to become an essential guide on the subject.

 

 

 

#SoundCloud app update fails Product Management 101

The Golden Rule of Product Management is ‘under-promise and over-deliver’ (otherwise known as ‘managing expectations’). If anyone needs a case study on how NOT to release a new app upgrade, SoundCloud is proving to be a rich source of material…..

Background image via SoundCloud - post-production editing by the author

Background image via SoundCloud – post-production editing by the author

Last week, SoundCloud broke the Golden Rule by releasing a new version of its iOS phone app before it was finished. It did so without telling its customers in advance – not even the paying subscribers. Only after a considerable backlash on Twitter and Facebook (and a growing number of 1-star ratings in the iTunes Store) did the company start addressing customer complaints, via a rather anodyne blog. Based upon user comments, this response has failed to placate subscribers. While SoundCloud admitted that the shiny new release was not the final product, it was unable to give any indication when the rollout will be completed.

For the uninitiated*, SoundCloud is to audio what YouTube is to video. It allows customers to upload audio files that can then be shared with and downloaded by the community of users. It is entirely powered by user defined content:

  • content created and uploaded by content creators, and
  • content curated by users (via re-posts, playlists and social media interaction).

Audio content takes the form of:

  • music, mixtapes, podcasts, radio programmes and spoken word contributions.

Social media content takes the form of:

  • likes, feedback comments, and data on the number of plays, likes, downloads, followers and re-posts.

Many content creators are Pro Users, who pay upwards of $70 a year for the privilege. In return, they get a platform for hosting and distributing their content, and access to a global community of listeners. However, unlike other music streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, SoundCloud does not charge listeners (yet), nor does it carry 3rd party advertising or sponsored content (yet).

Although SoundCloud has been highly successful (thereby contributing to the decline of MySpace?), it faces a range of competitors – from Twitter Music and Bandcamp to Mixcloud and 8tracks (as well as the aforementioned subscription streaming services).

In recent months, there has been some industry speculation about SoundCloud’s next business move, mostly in relation to increased monetization. There has also been some commentary about copyright infringement, a new cookie policy, and access to SoundCloud’s back-end data by major record labels. Leaving aside the usual conspiracy theories (Big Brother is listening in on you), future commercial relationships with major labels could mean that record companies with more marketing budget than talent may be given preferred access to listeners’ accounts and activity, in order to promote the next generation of Lady Gaga wannabes. And this prospect has no doubt contributed to some concerns among the user community, especially content creators that fuel SoundCloud’s platform.

From the start, SoundCloud has done a couple of things really well (in addition to the widgets for embedding sound files in 3rd party websites, and a few other technical tools): first, it has made it easier to discover new music; and second, it has enabled thousands of independent and unknown musicians to get some public exposure. The mobile app has now seriously compromised both of these features, because a lot of the existing functionality has been removed or suppressed pending the ‘full’ release (admittedly, these functions are still supported on the desktop version).

In short, the new app release has created the impression that SoundCloud is focussing on listeners (rather than content creators) and plans to make it much easier for major labels to connect with consumers, thereby squeezing out the independent musicians, producers and labels who have helped to make SoundCloud successful in the first place.

*FOOTNOTE: Declaration of interest – I maintain a Pro User subscription to SoundCloud under my nom de musique.

ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Credit is due to ‘Do Androids Dance?’ (itself a beneficiary of the SoundCloud user community) for continuing to cover this developing story

Pricing for the Digital Age

Understanding the 4 Ps of marketing (Product, Price, Place, Promotion) has traditionally been critical to commercial success.

Theory has it that if you produce the right product for your target market, at the right price, make it available in the right place, and give it the right promotion, the market will buy it.

The model has worked well for both goods and services. But how is the model holding up in the digital arena?

In the Digital Age, a combination of technology, different transaction models and new marketing tools means that the Product (content), Place (internet) and Promotion (social media) not only co-exist, they are so inter-twined that in some cases they are almost one and the same thing: for example, a Justin Bieber video clip on Vevo, an in-app purchase for Angry Birds, BBC news headlines on Twitter. The boundaries are blurred between the content, the means of production, and the point of distribution and promotion.

So, how do content providers approach Pricing? If that’s the main point of differentiation, how do they compete on price (even though we sort of know that competing on price alone is often a race to the bottom, where nobody wins)?

In fact, even though the price of digital content sold via services like iTunes and Google Play is set by the content owner, they generally have to price according to set price bands and at specific price points determined by the retail platform – and often for particular territories (thanks to the practice of geo-blocking). The alternatives are to sell direct (which means creating a separate sales and distribution infrastructure) or via 3rd party platforms (which may not have the market presence of iTunes or Google Play).

With so much content available for “free” (as long as customers are willing to submit certain personal information, or are prepared to tolerate advertising) the current wisdom suggests that you have to give (some) content away in order to attract customers who might be willing to pay for it (over time). But is that a long-term strategy for success?

In my experience, pricing in the Digital Age is all about the 4 As:

  • Actual Costs – what are the costs of design, development, production and distribution (plus overheads)?
  • Acquisition Costs – what does it take to get new customers (and not just “followers” and “likes”)?
  • Adhesion Costs – what makes content “sticky” (and what will it take to keep your customers once they start paying)? Is it frequent new content? Is it service quality? Is it establishing brand loyalty?
  • Alternative Costs – what choices do your customers have (both traditional and non-traditional competition)? What are the switching costs?

Finally, when competing on price, especially if it’s not a like-for-like comparison, where are the acceptable customer trade-offs between your product and a competing service (e.g., do you know the customer drivers and the purchase decision processes)? What do your customers think they are paying for? Just because you place a high degree of value on some aspect of your content (e.g., exclusivity) does the customer value it the same way?