by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume IV, No. IV
For the Week of February 7, 2000

This Week's Clue: An AP for the 21st Century

This Week's Clue: An AP for the 21st Century

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

Take a Bad Site and Make it Better

Vendors Seize B2B Gold Rush

Learning from My Mistakes

Clued-in, Clueless

The Associated Press was formed in 1848 to share resources among the day's information gatekeepers (daily newspapers) and buy talent no one paper could afford on its own. Its 20th century analog was the network, where first radio and then TV stations pooled their resources to buy talent no one station could afford.

Both these business models have survived into the 21st century, and remain viable on the Internet. The AP offers sites its content through iSyndicate , which finds homes for all sorts of branded content. All the TV networks have used the power of their ad inventory to build networks of Web sites worth billions of dollars.

But to a large extent the bottlenecks of the past no longer exist. I didn't need an expensive printing press to publish the words you're reading. You didn't need a TV network to point you to them. 

But it is true that for many good writers the freedom of the Internet remains a freedom to be poor. When you go into business to do what you want you no longer do what you want - you're in the business of having others do it. Writers have to choose between spending time on marketing, bookkeeping, and career management or writing. Many, like me, choose to write, and by using a-clue.com as my marketing vehicle I've personally done quite well. 

But the fact remains this is an underdeveloped asset. You're great readers, but there could be more of you if I spent some time and money pushing this thing. You may notice there are no ads here. Well, who has the time to sell ads, not to mention invoicing and collecting on them? After writing these words, and the other columns I write based on my work here, I barely have time for my share of the housework. My career is drifting on the whims of those who choose to publish me. 

It doesn't have to be that way, but until now no one has made me a better offer. I was taught in journalism school that a journalist was someone who worked for someone who bought ink by the barrel. Maybe we update that now to buying bandwidth by the T-3, but if so has anything really changed? Is that all we can expect?

I don't think so. I think it's time we went back to the future, back to the Associated Press model, but updated for the needs of today's true gatekeepers - writers and other content producers. I'd sell this thing in a heartbeat to a company that offered to sell my ads, run my affiliate programs, and market this letter to the largest possible audience. I'd also like someone who could code better HTML, give me a spirited discussion list, help me add a paid list as an adjunct to this effort, and represent me for speeches, books and consulting work. 

Those services would be worth a hunky chunk of my gross income because that income could become quite gross indeed if the services were executed properly. But I want more. I want a piece of the action. I don't want to sell out to this outfit for cash - I want stock. I also want a way to put my toe into this company before I jump in; a path that leads from minor representation (and free money) to a full partnership that lets me raise my ownership stake as I grow. I think the company deserves protection along the way, too - I'm going to be a part owner after all. 

So far I haven't found an offer I'd be comfortable with, just a bunch of sharks trying to get me for cheap. I'll keep looking, but something tells me this may be something I have to create myself, if I can find the time... 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

I'm interrupt-driven, an inherited condition known as ADD. If you or a loved one may have this problem, and you need to know more (in English), buy this book or get it on tape .

I write daily for ClickZ, and weekly at Andover.News. I write monthly for  NetMarketing, Boardwatch, and  Intellectual Capital. Once every other month I'm in CLEC Magazine. You can always buy my book . Subscription instructions are at the bottom of each issue.

Remember that it's still journalism that keeps the Clues coming. Give me a shout at 404-373-7634.

Takes on the News

Take a Bad Site and Make it Better

If you have a Web site that's not getting the j-o-b done, this may be the most important link you ever see.

Jakob Nielsen's site isn't flashy. It's just filled with wisdom, wisdom he shared with us at the Abraham summit  in Los Angeles.

Here's his key Clue. You can see whether your site works by asking as few as five people to try it out. Don't help them, listen, take careful notes, and just ask them to do a few things important to your business, like find a product and buy it. He calls this a "usability study," and nearly every site fails its first one.

"If a user does not understand a feature, the feature does not exist," he said in his clipped European accent. If TV watchers are "mouse potatoes" with their hand on the beer, Web users are "information foragers," nibbling only the greenest leaves, their hand on the mouse.

"When you're using the Web, on average you're on the wrong page," he said. (Think of your own use - you too read or use less than half the pages you see.) "If you get a Web page in one second you feel the flow. Anything slower and your brain gets impatient," he added. (Still want to run that splash screen in front of your home page?)

"The first time you do a Web site you are doomed," said Nielsen to gales of laughter, so don't worry about it. The key is to test, adjust, test again, and adjust again, until your users are easily doing what you want them to do on your site. "Users are looking for solutions. Marketers are looking for their logo," is the way Nielsen described the problem.

Finally (before you rush off to do those usability tests) remember Nielsen's HOME acronym.

Now, if you haven't done so already, buy Jakob's book . There's a reason this is #19 on Amazon's best-seller list, and especially popular in California and the UK. People who know get to know Nielsen.

Vendors Seize B2B Gold Rush

I have written often about the business-to-business Internet, which is now as hot on Wall Street as Amazon was a year ago.

I've written that the business process rules, so you need to build a better process, and how you need buy-in from industry insiders. (Kevin Jones  first gave me these Clues, by the way.) But there's another important Clue - the market must see your solution as impartial.

This is a Clue many of the newest, biggest players in this market are deliberately ignoring, mainly because it threatens their power. When vendors make a solution dependent on their technology the result is Clueless . Equally Clueless is Petrocosm a new online petroleum marketplace from Chevron and Ariba designed to take on AltraEnergy.

While Zona Research praises Petrocosm for offering its equity to all industry players (based on how much they use the site), this doesn't make up for its other deficiencies. It is still dependent on using Ariba's technology, meaning it can only go after a part of the market, it is farming out its content management  to an online catalog operator, and its home page lies - anything backed by a single vendor (or alliance of vendors) isn't independent. (I have a similar problem with Chemdex' deal with duPont to create Industria, a new chemical procurement site. I just have a little more faith in Chemdex' ability to keep duPont's grubby hands off the thing.)

The best thing vendors can do is what Commerce One has done, namely turn the basic software for a marketplace into a feature of its product . If that new feature lets anyone create a market, and works with marketplaces crafted by other vendors, then it's accelerant on the growing b2b fire. If it doesn't, it's just a distraction.

Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz said it best - "credibility is the coin of the realm." You get an industry executive who knows the business to join your team at the start, you design your site around the processes of all business participants, and you buy the infrastructure you need to make the deals work. There's a big difference between claiming you're independent and actually being independent. A lot of money will be lost this year by people who don't understand that.

Learning from My Mistakes

One difference between being Clued-in and Clueless is admitting to and seeking lessons from your mistakes.

So let's look again at the idiocy I wrote last week regarding DeCSS . Some 49 different people have written me in the last week about this, so it's important to get it right.

The program in question is a Linux player, although the Motion Picture Association of America  alleges that, since its creation involved cracking the player's encryption code, it could be used for pirating disks. The current question isn't just whether people will follow the law, but how the Digital Millenium Copyright Act will be interpreted.

The DMCA , whose supporters are organized as the Digital Future Coalition, allows two exceptions to its new Section 1201(a)(2), which makes it illegal to be involved in any way with new technologies designed to evade copyright. What's relevant in the current case is the exception allowing reverse engineering of copyright protection technology to isolate features that are "necessary to achieve interoperability of an independently created computer program with other programs." It's an exception that fits these facts, but whether it does is for a court to decide.

Meanwhile, copyright holders have an injunction against DeCSS and are using the new law to go after MP3.Com . It's important to note here that the new copyright law, and the international treaty it helps implement , changes the rules of the game. Technology aimed at frustrating copyright is illegal. A claim of "open source" won't hold up in court.

But the dozens of letters I've gotten, and their civilized anger, should offer copyright holders a Clue as well. We might call this the "DEA Clue." Just because a law exists doesn't mean it can be enforced. This tells us Presidents, legislators, judges and police should not assume they are final arbiters of what happens in the Internet century. When a law is rejected by the people (not even most people, just a substantial proportion of unknown size) its enforcement can only be arbitrary, and cut respect for law generally. Everyone speeds on the freeway, many still smoke pot, but ticketing speeders and jailing pot smokers creates fear and anger, not respect. This is one case where the phrase "Information Superhighway" has real meaning.

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is Charles Schwab, which won the "Dot Com" Super Bowl with its recently retired athletes (and Ringo Starr rhyming financial jargon for music lyrics). Second place to Brittanica.com  for its all-print ad satirizing the game. (Sample - what are people in LA and Houston thinking now?) The bronze medal goes to E*Trade, especially for the one where three idiots sang nonsense and a sign followed reading, "We just wasted $2 million. What's your money doing?"

Clueless is Epidemic.com, whose fourth quarter $2 million Super Bowl ad for its "viral marketing" (include a sales link in your e-mails for affiliate bucks) was almost as stupid as the business model. Second place to Monster.com not so much for the ad (Robert Frost's "The Road Less Traveled" is a fine poem) but because its subtlety demands repetition to be effective, and you can't afford that at the Super Bowl. Bronze medal to Lifeminders.com, whose ad used print like Brittanica's, only badly.

A-Clue.Com is a free weekly email publication registered with the U.S. Copyright Office as number TXu 888-819. Subscribers can receive either a .txt file or .htm file. The .htm version features links that become active from inside a browser. To take your name off the list, simply write REMOVE as the subject, or content, of a message replying to any issue. To request your free copy, write us at Dana.Blankenhorn@ att.net  or +A_Clue . To subscribe you can also write to a-clue@list.mmgco.com  with the word "subscribe" in the subject. (Address your request for the .txt version to a-clue_textonly@list.mmgco.com . You can unsubscribe with a note to the same addresses and the word "unsubscribe" in the subject.. We're on the Web at http://www.a-clue.com and http://www.ppn.org/clue.