Sep 23, 2011

The Obligatory Post-F8 Post: They Did It For The Kids

WHAT’S IMPORTANT: The new features are too advanced to be readily adopted by the Boomer demographic that dominates Facebook. But they're innovative enough to make Facebook relevant again for their kids.


Music Sharing: Not as seamless as you might think: Facebook’s pitch to Spotify, Rdio et al is that they’ll get them more paid subscribers (for which they will likely get some sort of commission.) That means that users actually have to download the app their friend is listening to and have it open. While Facebook prompts for this, it’s a hassle,  and the whole notion of synchronized listening that Zuck was going on about in his keynote is bunk: songs start playing at the beginning, not at the point where your friend is. Or was, as the case may be, since if you can find it on someone’s news feed, you can listen to it. 

Nonetheless, this is going to be a very appealing feature for high school and college students, who are (a) much more likely to share musical tastes with their friends. (b) far more experimental with their musical preferences and (c) often likely to define themselves by their taste in music. Boomers will likely find the handful of friends with similar tastes and glean from each other. 
The key here, as on all the auto-sharing services, is going to be how much control you have over whose log-ins are being aggregated and what the cut-off number is before Facebook thinks you should take notice. These are adjustments you’ll need to make unless you don’t mind the safest, most mainstream content making its way to your News Feed. (The odds that at least three of your 500 friends will listen to a Lady GaGa song is far greater than the odds that three of them will listen to something from say, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers.)

Video Sharing: This is a lot more integrated than music sharing. The Hulu app, anyway, since Netflix won’t be available in the US for a while. You don’t need to leave your browser (or Facebook) to watch, and Hulu Labs has created a great collection of social tools. 

My one caveat here is that there’s no bookmarking feature, which is important because long form content is rarely a spur-of-the-moment decision. At some point there will be enough mass to use Facebook as your go-to recommendation engine, but for now, the likely MO will be to go to Hulu and see what new shows your friends have been watching. There are plenty of apps (Clicker) already that do that with a range of OTT video options, but only around shows and movies people have actually bothered to “like” or check in to. Which brings me to:

The Verb Thing: While Facebook may see a clear distinction between “is watching” and “likes” I’m not sure the average user will. The new “frictionless sharing” functionality takes away any incentive to “like” or “recommend” something on one of the Instant Sharing sites, unless the site adjusts its UI to accommodate it. This, along with auto-sharing may may a lot of sharing useless, particularly if it seems that most of what’s showing up there is random, e.g. people leaving Spotify on all day at work, forgetting it’s on and playing the same list over and over. Facebook also records sampling, so if I watch the first two minutes of a 3 hour movie, my friends see the same listing as if I’d watched the entire movie.

Timelines: As a friend (somewhat) jokingly noted, Timelines are a huge boon to Facebook stalkers. Since the vast majority of Facebook’s users have been on the site for less than three years, filling in the Timeline is going to be a long-term project akin to scrapbooking. 

Younger users will have the wonderful scrapbook-of-my-life that Zuckerberg was kvelling about, but it’s unlikely most Boomers will try and fill in those 40 some odd pre-Facebook years. Facebook seems to acknowledge that, since many of the pre-sets on their timeline app are on the order of “got my license.” 

And no matter how old you are, Timeline is still essentially a really nicely designed old photo album, the sort of thing it’s fun to look at a couple of times a year, max. So the key here is going to be the above-the-fold functionality: the ability to see which songs and movies and articles you’ve spent the most time with recently, where you’ve been checking in, etc. 

Facebook has pages for things like music and video too, so you can see what you and your friends have been up to, nicely laid out as a series of charts. It’s a great feature, but ultimately confusing: Facebook had conditioned users to go to the News Feed: your profile was where you went to make sure the post with all the typos really did get deleted. But now Timeline is suddenly very functional and it’s unclear whether the preferred experience is going to be: there or on the News Feed?  And then there’s the:

Ticker: This is the third place I might actually find my preferred experience and it’s going to make get people to waste a whole lot more time on Facebook. At least initially. I can see a lot of people deciding to hide it after a month or two. The problem right now is there’s no easy way to edit what shows up there and from who. Besides which, unless your friends are particularly active and/or numerous, your News Feed stories are going to be pretty similar to your Ticker stories. Which could be remedied if Facebook had done a better job with:

Friend Lists: The problems with this are so typical of Facebook’s IT-Department-Circa-2003 mentality: they will do everything for you, their way, and only after a lot of people complain do you actually get the ability to make adjustments. Here, their magic list-making machine often creates a bunch of empty, duplicate and/or useless lists and there’s no way to delete them. (You can hide them, but that’s going to be beyond a lot of users’ skill set.) Besides which, it only serves to obfuscate the fact that there are just two lists that matter: Close Friends and Acquaintances. Putting someone in either list alters the frequency with which they appear in your news feed, and there’s even an option in the privacy settings for “Friends except for Acquaintances” making it an great place to plop all those people whose updates you used to hide.

Frictionless Sharing: George Orwell would be proud of the double plus good phrasing here to describe letting Facebook grab all your activities without getting your permission. (Actually, you give them permission the first time, after that it’s blue ocean.) This is already freaking out the privacy advocates (you can just see the conspiracy theory posts already) and it’s going to take the Boomers a good long time to feel comfortable about automatically sharing things. Their kids may be more open to it, but not a whole lot of high schoolers are going to be sharing what they read on the Washington Post site. As the function expands into things like sports and celebrity news, we’ll see a lot of younger people taking advantage of it, whereas their parents (if they’re lured in at all) will likely start sharing around sites they feel some connection to (sports, politics, hobbies) and want to bring some real world friends into the experience.

BOTTOM LINE: The people who make lunch plans in the comment section of each other’s vacation photos aren’t going to like the new features, but that’s okay: they’re not going to use them. At least not for a while. Facebook hasn’t radically changed the experience for anyone who doesn’t buy into the new philosophy and their Boomer audience isn’t going anywhere. 

Younger users however, are going to be pretty stoked over things like music sharing and Timelines and instant Hulu. There are enough bright shiny toys here to keep them in Uncle Zuck’s house for a while, and stop them from going to hang with Uncle Sergey and the Plus Gang down the street.

Sep 21, 2011

Is FIOS Making A Netflix Play?

More than a year after announcing that an iOS app was "coming soon," Verizon FIOS finally rolled one out last week.

Four things about the product immediately struck me as rather curious:

  1. There was no PR around the launch. Or else I'm using Google incorrectly. But the sort of sites that are normally all over stories like this (Engadget, Fierce IPTV) only picked up the story yesterday or today, about a week after iTunes indicates the app was first available. And they seem to have figured it out via someone accidentally stumbling on it at the iTunes store - there are no references to any sort of press release or official statement.

  2. The app is incomplete: while there are two tabs, one for Movies and one for TV Shows, the TV part is not live yet: all you get is a pop-up message stating that "TV Episodes are coming soon for iPad." It's unclear whether this is a rights issue, a functionality issue or something else. But still curious.

  3. This is strictly a VOD play based off their FlexView platform: you can rent or buy movies (you have to go online to the FlexView site to actually complete the purchase) at which point you can download the movie and watch it on any of your devices: iPad, iPhone, computer or television. There is no free content and no tie-in to Verizon's FIOS TV service other than the ability to watch the movie on your TV via your FIOS set top box.

  4. You don't need to be a Verizon subscriber to rent movies. Although I am currently a FIOS subscriber, I was able to use this link to go to my computer, create a non-user account, enter my credit card information and then purchase a movie that I downloaded and watched* on my iPad

What's most interesting (beyond giving non-subscribers access to the VOD catalog) is that while most other players in the field view TV Everywhere as a Hulu-like play, Verizon seems to want to go head-to-head with Netflix.

There are a couple of reasons this may may a whole lot of sense:

  • Netflix just lost Starz and along with that goes many of their more popular movies

  • The whole Qwikster/DVD unbundling thing has made for a lot of unhappy Netflix users, particularly that huge segment who have no idea how to set up a Roku box or laptop to play movies on their TV.

  • Convenience: Bear in mind that this is how TiVo went from a verb to "are they still around?" - the cable companies provided built-in DVRs to people who did not want to deal with the hassle of buying and installing one themselves. And even though the cable company DVRs were vastly inferior to TiVo, they were easy and that trumped elegance. If FIOS lets its customers rent movies off their set top box and pick them up on their iPads or laptops, they may have a wining proposition for the tech-unsavvy crowd.

  • Movie studios, seeing reduced revenues from DVD sales, may be more willing to make deals with providers like Verizon. And according to Variety, Verizon is aggressively moving to expand its movie catalog.

    • Expanding inventory, especially of popular movies,  is critical, as VOD has been around for quite a while, but has been hampered by high prices, short rental periods and less-than-stellar movie options.

  • FIOS is said to be looking at creating an Xbox app to make its content available to non-subscribers. And Xbox users will know how to watch it on their TV screens. This is one area where FIOS and ATT's Uverse service have an advantage over their competitors as they are pure IPTV plays, and the availability of Netflix via the Xbox and Wii certainly helped their streaming service take off.

  • FIOS movies are downloaded to your iPad, not streamed. This may not seem like a huge distinction, but while TV may be everywhere, WiFi is not: you can't play streaming video on trains, planes and automobiles (not to mention most hotel rooms) and this may be a huge advantage to people who want something to watch for their commute or business trip.

On the other hand, it may well backfire, since, as my colleague Jon McKinney points out "users don’t want opportunities to pay-- that reduces transactions and consumption."

  • This is especially true since the model FIOS rolled out is pure pay only (e.g. strictly a la carte, while Netflix and Hulu Plus offer the all-you-can-eat buffet.)

  • At $5.99 for an HD rental of a recent release, price may make the FlexView product a non-starter. Users who want to download movies to their iDevice have no reason to switch over from iTunes, which allows in-app purchasing and better integration with the device.

  • It will be interesting to see what the reaction is to FIOS' decision to introduce a VOD-only app first and to learn why they have been keeping quiet about it

    • Is there a more robust update in the works, one with more Hulu-like functionality and free content, perhaps to coincide with the arrival of the iPhone 5 and iOS5?


*Actually, I didn't get to watch it. That's a bigger problem FIOS needs to fix right away. Thus far, I've rented 3 movies, 2 on my FIOS account and one on my non-subscriber account. Only one movie actually downloaded correctly and played. The other two open up, show time code and control buttons, but the screen is black. I spent some time on the phone last night with customer service and they had no idea which unit - wireless or residential - was handling the new iPad service. In fact, they seemed unaware it even existed. So caveat emptor

UPDATE: Still not sure what's going on. The app has 50+ one and two star reviews in the App Store and comments are uniformly negative. What's more, the one movie that did successfully download expired before I finished watching it. When I tried to re-rent, the app told me that "the right to this title are not available any longer. The title will be removed from My Purchases after the full 30-day rental period has elapsed, as which time you can acquire it again." Having to real idea what that meant, I went over to iTunes, spent another three bucks, and watched the end of the movie.

Sep 20, 2011

The Value of a Check-In

The other day I went into Modell's, a local sporting goods chain, and saved myself $10 because I'd checked-in on FourSquare.

It's a great deal (you save $10 on any purchase over $40) that I've already taken advantage of several times. And while I don't mind letting people know I'm at Modell's, I would never have bothered to check-in without the discount.

Because even if I was hyper-competitive about the gaming aspects of FourSquare, I'm never going to be mayor of a store I visit about four or five times a year.

So what's in it for me? Ten bucks.

I got to wondering at what price point I would have decided that checking-in wasn't worth the hassle. (And it's still a hassle: GPS isn't all that fine-tuned in places like New York, where any given block may have 30 different places to check-in, and it's a crap shoot whether the place you're at shows up at the top of the list.)

So what's my limit? One dollar - probably not worth it. Five? Maybe.

And that's a question every business and broadcaster needs to be asking themselves: what's your customer's breaking point?

I say broadcaster because checking-in to TV shows has become the meme-du-jour. And right now other than cute little badges, there's usually not a whole lot in it for the viewer. (This deal between a local Atlanta TV station and GetGlue, being a good example thereof.)

Broadcasters can't really issue their own coupons, but there's nothing to stop them from setting up a deal with a sponsor: check-in to The Office on NBC and unlock a $2 coupon from McDonald's. Details can even be appended to McDonald's on-air TV commercial, and the user's social network friends can see that they checked into The Office and got a $2 coupon courtesy of McDonald's.

Another option, something that can happen on the second screen, is to use the check-in to unlock exclusive content: outtakes, interviews, previews. That's a tougher sell than a two-dollar coupon, as it will only appeal to the show's most ardent fans. But there are times you want to reward your most ardent fans.

Contests and promotions are another option: check-in to our show and you're entered into a contest to win a Hawaiian vacation. The more you check-in, the more chances you have to win. Tried and true and not overly inspired, but it works. People like entering contests.

Those are a few ways broadcasters can help the audience make the leap from physical check-ins to media-based check-ins, especially once the novelty wear off.

It's all about remembering to answer "what's in it for me?"

Sep 9, 2011

Getting It Right

This week's antics at Yahoo! got me thinking about how being the best at something isn't really a guarantee of success. Yahoo Sports gets more traffic than ESPN, and that fact that most people (myself included) are surprised by that, tells you everything you need to know about what went wrong.

Marketing seems obvious and unimportant, and there's a whole school of thought that says you should just let consumers create your marketing message for you, but let's take a look at TiVo.

TiVo had just about everything going for it. First mover advantage, to the point that people initially referred to recording something on a DVR as "Tivo-ing" it. TiVo has a beautiful interface and consistently innovates.

So what went wrong?

While I'm not privy to their marketing data, my hunch is that is began with their pricing model.

TiVo initially charged a monthly fee for their service with the option of paying a one-time "lifetime fee." They were the only game in town, so if you wanted a DVR, they were it. That said, the cost seemed pretty steep.

Even more so when cable companies introduced their own DVRs that were integrated with their Set Top Boxes. The cable company DVRs generally had awful interfaces, but they were able to push them pretty aggressively, and though they charged a monthly fee for them, they were able to bury it in the overall bill-- to most consumers it was just a cable box that recorded things.

TiVo still had a superior product, with a better interface, better features and more storage capacity. But they stuck to their old pricing model. Most consumers did the math and concluded that TiVo's features weren't $15 a month better, particularly since the cable company was giving them the box for free and replacing it if something went wrong.

So TiVo became the domain of videophiles, a point of pride for those who took their TV seriously. and everyone else used their cable provider's DVR and stopped referring to recording as "TiVo-ing."

And TiVo still didn't change their pricing model.

Which is where it remains today: $20/month or $499 for a lifetime contract (a fairly absurd number for a new user to commit to.)

The boxes themselves are reasonably priced (anywhere from $100 - $300) and are still vastly superior to anything out there: they now connect with Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in a Roku-esque manner, the interface is ever more beautiful and intuitive, they have a nicely done iPad app and if you use the AOL.TV app, you can even save shows from the app, regardless of your cable provider.

The one thing they don't have is a lot of customers. Something I suspect could be remedied by charging a little more for the box, killing the monthly fee, and figuring out some sort of cable card installation deal with the likes of BestBuy. (The FCC commanded the cable companies to offer something called a Cable Card, that, among other things, essentially lets you turn your TiVo into a combo cable box/DVR for a much smaller monthly fee than you're paying now.)

This would make the product far more attractive to the average consumer, who might well plunk down $200 for something that would save them a couple of dollars a month off their cable bill and provide an experience worthy of their 55-inch 3D HDTV

The other plan would be to work harder on deals with cable companies that would allow them to market a co-branded device, something their website indicates they've done in the past and have an interest in doing again.

Circling back to the initial idea here, had they reacted differently and marketed themselves differently when the cable companies started to introduce their own boxes, we might well still call it "Tivo-ing"