News and publishing: Inverse scale?

56 percent, 36 percent, and 30 percent — the share of large, medium, and small news organizations that have experienced lay-offs since January 2017, according to Pew. These are interesting numbers that describe the inverse scaling problem in news. After the New York Daily News cut half its staff yesterday, New York is facing a lack of local news coverage. Yet Tronc, the owner of the Daily News, said it will concentrate on breaking local news.

The problem is, the Daily News will not maintain beats to uncover news, rather it will simply focus more on covering stories when they break. That’s a reactive approach when a proactive, deep-digging press is needed to ferret out real news, you know, the issues that impact our lives, policy-making, and other material issues citizens face every day.

Back to the numbers. If large papers are being cut deeply, with 56 percent suffering lay-offs in the 16 months of The Pew Research Center’s study of newsroom attrition, perhaps smaller papers are the way to go. That is, focus more on local activity and leave break non-local news to bigger news organizations. Only 30 percent of smaller papers were hit by lay-offs, though it is likely because they have been cut before. However, they may have stabalized as publishers realize there is a lot of money is well-made local news and information.

The net has inverted news coverage while the newspapers and many online organizations blithely focused on fewer traffic-driving topics, allowing smaller news teams to do a better job.

Every community — physical and virtual — needs coverage. Launching and running a publication is never easy. Local or specialized coverage can be affordable, but not on the traditional newsroom model that attempts to provide a global view of events. Beat-based tenacious reporting uncovers news people need. Apparently, that’s working for smaller papers and sites that don’t try to implement news gathering in the industrial model. Local craftspeople make local news.

 At minimum, the smaller papers (which include their on- and offline offerings) seem to be finding an equilibrium between the market they cover and the cost of covering it. More small, very targeted news sources can respond to our crisis of confidence in media by returning to the news’ primary function: Explaining what is happening instead of mostly concentrating on who is winning.

Larger newspapers – those with circulations of at least 250,000 – were more likely than smaller-circulation newspapers to have experienced layoffs between January 2017 and April 2018. Nine of the 16 newspapers with circulations of 250,000 or more (56%) had layoffs. By comparison, that was true of 16 of the 44 newspapers with circulations between 100,000 and 249,999 (36%) and 15 of the 50 newspapers with circulations between 50,000 and 99,999 (30%).

Source: About a third of large U.S. newspapers have suffered layoffs since 2017

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Autonomous Economy? Not So Much, Yet

Eager to replace people your business processes? Uber is reconsidering its approach to autonomous vehicles after racing ahead with the project in Pittsburgh, the Bay Area, and Arizona, where a fatal accident with an Uber car raised serious safety questions. The company is laying off 100 autonomous car operators after one of them was found to be streaming The Voice during the deadly collision in Tempe earlier this year. However, many of the operators will be retained in other roles, so that Uber doesn’t lose their experience during the trials. Uber isn’t quitting, it’s rethinking how to provide autonomous transportation.

After an Uber self-driving car fatally struck a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., in March, Uber paused testing of its experimental vehicles on public roads. On Wednesday, it laid off approximately 100 autonomous vehicle operators.

Here’s the question for all companies thinking about automation: When is it appropriate to put your brand entirely in machine hands? I’d argue the answer is “Never.” People are essential. They add so much to the customer engagement that simple savings on staffing cannot justify their wholesale replacement. In sales, service, and transportation, people represent brands and deal with the unexpected.

The right way to use machine learning for the foreseeable future is to augment people with information, guidance, and inspiration, not to drop them from the customer equation.

Source: Uber Layoffs Signal Hard Look at Public AV Testing

Meta-Management: Getting Data for Machine Learning Right

You will not be able to anticipate everything you will want to learn from a large body of data at first. Starting with a well-documented, flexible metadata model for your content and other data assets will ensure that the learning systems can understand new information in context and, with less work than starting with completely unstructured data, start identifying unrecognized patterns. CIO has a good basic outline:

There are four distinct metadata categories to look at if you want to ensure that you’re delivering comprehensive, relevant and accurate data to implement AI:

  1. Technical metadata – includes database tables and column information as well as statistical information about the quality of the data.
  2. Business metadata – defines the business context of the data as well as the business processes in which it participates.
  3. Operational metadata – information about software systems and process execution, which, for example, will indicate data freshness.
  4. Usage metadata – information about user activity including data sets accessed, ratings and comments.
    Source: Effective artificial intelligence requires a healthy diet of data

Putting A Purpose Behind Lyft’s Wheels

This interview with Lyft VP of Marketing, Melissa Waters, is worthwhile reading. She describes a future built on drivers providing hospitality experiences: “We will continue to have drivers and people servicing vehicles. We think in the frame of hospitality and customer service.”

It’s when she dives into the challenge of building the Lyft brand that the clear gap in experience appears. Note the importance of the customer engagement, which will ultimately rely on the quality of the app and driver interaction. Lyft has described vehicles as rolling offices, hotel suites, and as other hybrid personal service/mobility experience. The people in the driver’s seat are the ones providing the human service/

Waters: High-growth tech marketing is often focused on growth marketing, which was previously known as performance marketing and direct response. It’s the nature of high-growth companies who are looking for added growth and need discipline. While all that is true, it’s fairly short term and is a function designed to deliver short-term returns. Not all young, high-growth companies have brand marketers who can think big picture and long-term early enough in the company’s lifecycle. They do a disservice by delaying brand building and general marketing principles to later on in the life stage of a company.

Soure: Forbes.com.

Can you train contractors without becoming a legal employer?

The gig economy is a powerful force in commodity service markets, such as driving or “ride sharing.” More sophisticated services that require training, which courts have repeatedly ruled put companies in the legal position of employer, creating liability and increasing costs, especially legal costs, will reshape the development of business tools. The evolution of software – it is “eating the world” – points to the solution.

Federal District Court Judge Michael Baylson ruled in mid-April that UberBLACK drivers are not employees of the company because Uber doesn’t exert enough control over their schedules and do not have to report to Uber employees. The Uber app controls the entire engagement between UberBLACK drivers, who can work when they want.

The ruling treats the Uber app as a tool used by the driver to fulfill the contracted service rather than a system of control. While the case may go as far as the U.S. Supreme Court and be reinterpreted many times, this distinction is critically important to the future of gig work arrangements.

The Society for Human Resource Management summarizes the scope of control issue: “If the employer will rigidly prescribe the manner in which the work is performed, that weighs toward employee status. Hiring an employee would be the safer course of action. If the organization is concerned only about the final product and does not need to dictate how the worker gets from point A to point Z, an independent contractor may be the preferred approach.”

We need new tools to enable professional-level services, not just simple commodity services, provided by contractors.

Brands have extensively documented, constantly evolving business processes that contractors must be able to follow reliably to deliver a customer experience consistent with their value proposition. With driving from place to place, the problem is simple. Uber and Lyft coordinate three things: Drivers; Cars, and; Passengers. Getting a passenger together with a car and driver to reach a destination is a relatively simple process, though hugely valuable, as evidenced by the companies’ more than $40-billion gross revenues. Likewise, dog-walking, package delivery, and other simple logistical markets.

More complex business processes, such as a sales engagement, retail interactions, professional services such as medical or therapeutic services, however, require a form of knowledge that has not previously been embodied in a simple app, a tool rather than a scope of control. These new software tools require sophisticated inputs, the ability to ask questions or provide information based on the customer’s circumstances and personality, and in many settings, a great deal of unstructured data needed to deliver the experience the way the brand requires.

These interactions cannot demand training before the contractor begins work. Based on repeated rulings, that training imposes a system of control.

Instead, a competent contractor needs to be prepared with general skills that can be applied to using a software tool that guides them through the brand experience in real-time. This demands software developers deeply understand a brand’s business processes to:

  • Guide the contractor through the correct information to share. For instance, if a medical worker on contract talks with a patient, they may need to be able to explain a HIPAA-related document and share it in the form the hospital company requires.
  • Understand feedback from customers inputted by the contractor to suggest media assets, next steps in the brand’s sales process, and other facets of the customer experience to the contractor as they exercise their skilled work.
  • Validate that processes are followed, as well as collect relevant data needed to refine the process in response to customers. The rapid evolution of brand experience demands that this measurement take place, or the company will miss key feedback it needs. The contractor can be coached to capture this data but may not be trained to do so in advance.

This merely summarizes a complex evolutionary challenge for on-demand services. Gig tools will certainly evolve from commodity services to refined high-touch services, such as prepared food delivery or online human services like legal services or therapy, which can be significantly improved by a greater focus on process. The transformation is just starting. I

Scope of control is a changing concept. The more easily a trained human can respond to process-led software, the less likely that person is to be treated by an employee. By moving the process to the edge of the network, into the hands of a skilled human who is able to modulate a branded experience, brands, retailers, and professional services firms can reduce centralized costs and move more compensation to the human provider.

Process-based apps are the path to improved contractor experience and brand experience. It also has the benefit of being less likely to result in labor litigation. We need better tools to complete the foundation of a prosperous gig world where flexibility is the primary driver of when and how people work.

On-demand in small business: Four ideas for growth

Where is your place in the on-demand economy? Many workers and small businesses, including retailers, see the encroachment of Amazon, WalMart, and myriad other services as destructive. Yet media-enabled global brands are consistently challenged when engaging home- and office-based customers. The future of your business, whether a physical location or as an independent contractor, depends upon finding new niches where human expertise overwhelms online-only engagement.

Non-manufacturing businesses account for about 80 percent of the U.S. economy and are reported by the Institute for Supply Management as growing strongly for 97 consecutive months. Amazon, Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, Instacart and other services seem poised to steal business from local experts, but we think that by studying their approaches, small business and independent businesspeople will find greater revenue opportunities and a foundation for maintaining a trusted relationship with consumers. There are many new niches in the ever-specializing economy.

Last week, Uber announced beauty salon network bgX had become the first “business that has fully integrated with Uber for Business.” If you are seeking styling or a blow-out before an important meeting, “The platform will provide the convenience of having premium salon styling delivered directly to women at home, work or at a hotel.” The stylist comes to the customer if they happen to be in London, Paris, or Dubai. It’s a small footprint, but bgX could build geographic presence with time and marketing, adding cities with high concentrations of luxury styling customers.

Services consistently add greater value than other sectors of the U.S. economy

Uber’s head of Uber for Business in Europe told the Evening Standard that 65,000 businesses have begun to integrate Uber services. Health services and elder care home companies pioneered the gig-sourcing local drivers to bring patients to appointments and ferrying retirees to an from shopping, events, and around town. Westfield Malls set up Uber transit centers in 33 of its malls last Fall. Yet, a survey last year showed that the majority — 73 percent — of small businesses used no gig services.

Likewise, Amazon extended its Whole Foods home delivery service last week. Adding San Francisco and Atlanta, as well as adding a Prime discount of five percent on Whole Foods purchase, the once virtual giant is developing a physical footprint in local markets. With Amazon Go stores prepped to serve walk-in-walk-out shoppers, potentially as ubiquitously as 7-Eleven does today, the Bezos machine is targeting the consumer on the go while catering to their home and office needs with Prime and Prime for Business memberships.

As a small business or an independent worker thinking about how to compete against these global brands, focus on where the human-to-human gap has opened as a consequence of automation. Logistics have been improved dramatically, but feedback, recycling, and recirculation of products all remain stubbornly local in nature. A salesperson is still the best way to capture feedback because they bring the ability to ask questions and report back non-verbal signals. This is where a massive opportunity remains for individuals in the gig economy.

Scale, surprisingly, is the reason the Small Business opportunity is growing. The delivery of services and products-as-a-service require deep personalization. Mass personalization will remain a matter of demographic or psychographic templates that must be tuned in the last-mile to engage the specific customer’s values. 

The Minte, an apartment cleaning service in Chicago, demonstrates how small businesses can find and fill gaps by selecting a target market to serve better than national brands can today. The company identified apartment buildings as a market where it could rapidly lower the cost of service by increasing customer penetration in a single location. 

“Once you’re in one building, all the others start coming to you,” The Minte CEO Kathleen Wilson told BuiltInChicago. “It really just exploded.” Call it “share of locality” thinking. Instead of simply thinking of gaining more of a consumer’s wallet, look to expand a business’ relationship with customers’ neighbors.

Word-of-mouth and local selling of these services don’t happen entirely online. People make the sale and pass customers along based on their satisfaction with a service. The focus on increasing Share of Locality inverts the marketing challenge. Small promotional and direct-sales engagements can kickstart a local on-demand business. If you are looking at the on-demand economy as a looming threat that will wipe out your local services market, study the gaps opening between big brands and local buyers to find a new niche. 

  1. SMBs should position themselves as a local connector between global brands and customers. Uber, for example, has a massive local targeting investment that relies on its teams localizing and distributing marketing offers based on geotagging and artificial intelligence.SMBs have extensive insight into local demand and can tap into, for example, mobility services such as Lyft, Maven, and Uber, providing deeply contextualized local offers.One small business may offer Lyft rides to customers who want to shop at their location while another may choose to offer in-home delivery. Both, however, bring a local customer to the relationship with a mobility provider that can be mined for additional service opportunities. If a customer likes dinner delivered every evening, would they also like a housecleaner to come tidy up after the meal? Assembling these local services, consolidating them into a single point of contact and feedback for global brands, is a defensible position in the market.
  2.  Shopping destinations should consider aggregating delivery opportunities. Amazon has begun installing Amazon Lockers in Whole Foods stores, allowing shoppers to pick up online orders while at the store. Groups of retailers and service providers need to look at the businesses near them to understand where they can consolidate the delivery of goods and services. With improved logistics and retail management systems, a local store could become the destination for picking up a new product and receiving hands-on support and training for the consumer. Expertise is the rarest commodity. Small business is the most distributed approach to expertise delivery, which has been the foundation of consumer trust for generations. If your small business is isolated from others but draws regular customer traffic, can you use Uber or Lyft to “do the shopping” for a customer while they have their hair cut, their car serviced, or while they learn a new skill in a small training center attached to a local mall?
  3. SMBs and workers should focus on excellent service and enduring customer relationships. Today, gig work is treated as a commodity, and it results in lower wages as more workers join. However, consumers prefer trusted providers, especially for personal services. As the on-demand approach to work expands, small business and labor both need to leverage the trust they develop with local consumers in order to build their pricing power.Differentiation based on service level and trust will increase earnings. At the very least, a highly regarded local source of service or product expertise — the person who sold the customer their last three lawn and yard tools or the regular provider of the perfect massage — can earn more based on increased demand. Going further, the local expert service provider can follow the “breakage model” adopted by many companies, such as DropBox. They charge a little more for a lot more service on the bet that most of the services will not be consumed. A local SMB service provider, for example, could offer priority callback and service visits to “members” who pay a small monthly fee to jump to the front of the line when they need help. 
  4. Tie into the on-demand economy and push the limits. Uber for Business, for instance, has extensive information about the routes and timing for deliveries but does not have a personal relationship with local consumers outside the Uber app. Like salon company bgX, look at what your business, or you as a service provider, can deliver and seek to be the local partner for on-demand product manufacturers and local mobility providers. You will find that there is no local sales interface to collect feedback from potential customers and expertise is unevenly distributed.Your ability to use multiple on-demand services is critical to success, so mix and match aggressively. Attack the problem of how to get a product from point A to point B, to onboard a customer to a new service, such as home security DIY installers who need to train customers to manage their security systems, or the need to efficiently deliver for hands-on expertise, whether a doctor, lawyer, auto mechanic, or any other person-to-person service. Small business and individual workers can take a robust part in extending services revenue, by tying expertise to products, fulfilling delivery, service, and post-purchase support locally, and thinking systematically about where value can be added in the on-demand economy.

GoDaddy doubles down on SMB social commerce

GoDaddy has acquired Main Street Hub, a social marketing tools and services company, for $125 million in cash with $50 million in  performance incentives, according to TechCrunch. This is interesting for several reasons:

  • SMB marketing must evolve to support on-demand and in-home engagement.
  • SMBs generally favor Do-It-With-Me and Do-It-For-Me (DIFM) models over Do-It-Yourself marketing services. Only 22.5 percent of respondents to the latest BIA/Kelsey survey of SMBs preferred DIFM services.
  • Scale in services is difficult to achieve, and at 10,000 SMB customers Main Street is at a tipping point that will determine if it can grow.

GoDaddy’s 17 million U.S. small business customers must appear a ripe target for Main Street. GoDaddy, too, has searched for additional revenue from SMB customers. At some point in the negotiations, someone at the table must have said “Pitch [Main Street} to the 28 million SMBs in the United States, and we’re sure to generate a billion dollars or more in fees.” In fact, it would take 333,000 customers at Main Street’s current entry price to make that goal.

However, scaling up a services-centric business is much more complicated than automated services, such as website hosting or email marketing delivery. The cost of delivering marketing services rises with each client as that client adds services, scaling linearly, at best, or producing lower margins in many circumstances. When I worked on web hosting at hibu a few years back, the only viable way to deliver web sites was outsourcing to the Philippines, and even that was challenging.

The other factor to consider is SMBs’ tendency to bring services in-house once they feel they have a process they can reproduce. Main Street’s best customers are likely to migrate to automation and in-house resources if they succeed.

The next phase of marketing requires local familiarity, not simply marketing competence. This means people must be familiar with the culture they are marketing into, and that points to lots of U.S.-based consultants. That is not cheap, yet TechCrunch calls this acquisition a “perfect match.”

Main Street assigns an account manager to each small business client, with pricing starting in the $250/mo. range, or $3,000 a year. That’s a small market, representing a few million U.S. businesses, at most. Meanwhile, Salesforce, Oracle, Amazon, and others continue to move their services down-market, into direct competition for these companies.

GoDaddy is taking a big bet in an intensely competitive sector. It isn’t a sure thing, and requires additional features and local expertise that will be hard to scale.

In-Home Smart Speakers: A War of the Big Three

Smart speakers represent a new interface in the customer relationship. Holiday shopping in 2017 established clear battle lines in the home AI market. Amazon, with its Alexa service, Google Home speakers, and Apple’s Siri-enabled services and delayed HomePod speaker are way out in front of the rest of the pack in terms of installed base. Indeed, one columnist says this year’s Consumer Electronics Show is the Microsoft Cortana assistant’s funeral.

Analyst firm Canalys projects 42.8 million or more smart speakers will be sold in 2018 in the U.S. and China.

Voice UX is usually portrayed as a silver bullet for customer engagement, and it may become so over time. For now, however, accuracy and contextual understanding of speakers’ words is lacking. Fixed command phrases that must be memorized and delivered in specific sequences are problematic for people.

Bots, being the shiniest of the new tech playthings, get plenty of praise, but the expectations for voice interaction are over-hyped right now. Until speech interaction approaches human conversational speed and efficiency, which requires more semantic understanding than bots currently provide, intimacy will be hard to achieve.  Voice UX may be good for instigating repeat orders, e.g., “Alexa, order another box of Tide,” are practical, but complex selling will have to wait for further evolution. It is likely that AI bots will support human connections, bringing humans onto a call with a user when the bot’s responses are insufficiently engaging, for many years to come.

Humans, we believe, are essential to trust relationships. Speakers can help make connections, but will not be able to handle simple objections for years to come. Think of the smart speaker like the new switchboard for consumers to connect with companies rather than as an unstaffed sales interface.

Where do the voice service leaders rank in units sold during 2017?

Google used heavy discounting during the holidays to sell 6.8 million Google Home speakers between October and Christmas. Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, a research firm, reported that Google had sold seven million Google Home units before the fourth quarter. Hence, Google Home sold approximately 13.8 million units through December 31st.

By contrast, Apple did not have its $349 HomePod speaker ready for the holidays, and we can count only Siri-enabled phones and Macs sold, for a total of 211.88 million iPhones and 19.25 million Mac computers, or 231.05 million Siri-capable devices in 2017. This is a considerable number, but currently has no speaker complement to these devices, nor the tens of millions of Apple TV devices its sold.

Apple’s ability to meld voice interfaces to a wide range of services through HomePod, iPhone, Apple TV, Macintosh and in-car systems is the company’s residual opportunity. The Siri strategy remains too fragmented, as it is missing an ambient listening post in most homes. The HomePod story and user experience is a critical test for Apple in 2018.

Amazon is the leader with real-world tools and services in consumer homes. By the end of Q3, 2017, 20.5 million Alexa devices had been sold, according to voicebot.ai. Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, founder, and richest person in the world said Amazon sold “tens of millions” of Alexa devices over the holidays. Assuming Bezos is using the phrase accurately, there are at least 45 million Alexa devices boasting the largest variety of “skills” of any platform.

Is Cortana out of the picture for good? Microsoft has continued its increasingly open approach to partnering, announcing it will integrate Cortana and Alexa for Windows users. While the PC market is slowly declining compared to mobile devices, it still accounts for more than 200 million units shipped annually. That’s a beachhead of a different kind; one Microsoft must leverage to compete in its cognitive services business. Cortana may not be the voice speaking from PCs, but Microsoft could become the master integrator of voice services.

Ultimately, smart speakers will extend the voice and P2P aspects of on-demand services in the home. People in local markets will deliver the personalization promised by intelligent speaker hype by tying into and using voice UX to connect with customers when appropriate.

 

Talking Cures: Home speakers, audio ads, and the contest for engagement

Amazon will reportedly monetize its site and Alexa channels in 2018 using advertising. Global Web Index, a London-based research company, reports that grocery shoppers seem to love voice speakers. Of 78,000 respondents to a survey, 56 percent are using or plan to buy a speaker in the next six months. But will those consumers love advertising? That’s the important question for marketers considering how to deploy budget effectively.

Advertising isn’t the only customer interface in local. Human relationships, storefronts, out-of-home media, and many other investments are necessary. Adding advertising to an Alexa skill may backfire. As The Economist points out,  there is an uncanny valley problem with voice. When a smart speaker acts too human, the user can become uncomfortable. In short, consumer expectations are tightly linked to what they will tolerate comfortably when dealing with bots.

Adding advertising experience in a bot may violate the consumer’s expectations. Like streaming users, who feel they have paid for media out of their pocket and, consequently, do not welcome advertising, Alexa users are likely to object to the insertion of advertising. IBM Cloud Video found that 72.3 percent of streaming users “felt any type of ad reduced the viewing experience.” Alexa buyers have paid for a channel that promises to do tasks. Advertising remains an interruption to the consumer; it may be a mistake to impose in the smart speaker environment.

Marketers have seen an explosion of channels, in addition to myriad new sales tools to use to distribute experience to the edge of the network. Why revert to advertising, except to create more revenue for the smart speaker vendor? It does not necessarily add to the customer experience. In the local market, in particular, voice ads fail to replace the human connection consumers expect from a device/service they purchased. Perhaps the better move is to augment local salespeople using AI, instead.

The smartest speaker will know when to connect a potential customer to the human who can close the deal and build trust.

Experiential marketing will reach the home

AdWeek’s Sarah Priestman offers this assessment of experiential marketing:

The experience economy is booming, brands are seeking real-world impact, the creative industries are putting dollars behind new capabilities—really, what more do we need to do but let the good times roll?

Priestman goes on to emphasize the experimental and artistic qualities of experiential marketing, urging marketers not to think of this new style as a channel. “For lack of a better definition,” she writes, “experiential is the art of ‘expressing a brand’s purpose and proposition through a form of real-world consumer interaction.'”

Several trends are converging that raise the experiential challenge to the level of a revolution: Mass marketing is dying, turning to highly segmented experience that increases interaction and data gathering that produce better product design, improved inventory management, and a “pull” relationship with customers; On-demand business is driving experience down to Main Street and the consumer’s home; Communication technology is fragmenting as new channels open, each supporting a different experiential engagement.

Priestman rightly focuses on the roles of the brand strategist and producers in current experiential work, but this is a prelude to the delivery of experience in the home. Where experiential marketing today tends to happen at parties and events, such as a Bonnaroo or extreme sports event and brand events presented in urban cores, the future of marketing is personal and in-home. We need an interface at the local level to support this potential form of customer intimacy, and it is made of people.