My dear near friend David Rogers at Columbia Business School has written another book, and for me that means: nuisance. David asked me to write a blurb -- a back-cover quote of endorsement -- which required me not just to be gracious but also to read a book. Oh, great. I am extremely, extremely busy trying to afford food and shelter and to generally advance my career as a valiant multimediocrity. Who has time to, you know, learn?
Also, as a rule, I don’t read business books, on the grounds that life is too short to squander it on the marketing funnel -- especially when you’re still kind of backed up on the 19th-century English novel. But as I say, this is a man I like, respect and owe several favors to. Reciprocation is reciprocal.
There are, of course, ways to blurb without actually reading the manuscript, and I could have taken that route (“David Rogers once again demonstrates why he is a leading thinker in the understanding of networked relationships. Your highlighter will run out by the third chapter!”)
But I am too scrupulous -- i.e., vain -- to promote something sight unseen, even for a cherished third-tier friend (by which I mean: a great guy who has previously done me many a solid, including blurbing my last book, but I don’t know his spouse’s name, his taste in music or what he thinks of Chris Christie.) Be that as it may, due to my native generosity and accumulated obligation, I dug into his latest, titled “The Digital Transformation Playbook.”
I have no regrets. Seldom have the effects of digital media on legacy industries and innovators alike been so succinctly and scholarly-ly explained. I won’t much detail the Playbook, except to say it breaks down the five main areas of business turned upside down by digital revolution: customers, competition, data, innovation and value. Not to put too fine a point on it, everything we learned about these fundamentals since the Industrial Revolution has ceased to be true. To be even blunter, take Jack Welch’s triumphalist bestseller from the old analog days and set it on fire; it is worthless. Rogers uses case histories to illustrate how and why the times they are a changin’. And more importantly, exactly how to adapt.
This isn’t really a business book after all. More like Instant Darwin.
The most fascinating stuff to me documents the rise of platforms, businesses built on creating marketplaces for two or more independent parties, all of whom get value from the process. Airbnb, Uber, Facebook, eBay, Paypal, LinkedIn, PlayStation and so on.
As Tom Goodwin, a senior vice president at Havas Media, commented…, “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”
As the old curse goes, “may you live in interesting times.”
But all this platform talk got me to thinking about my personal digital-disruption obsession: finding a way in an ad-blocked universe to monetize the content we as citizens and couch potatoes desire and desperately need. Where is the platform solution for giving users the stuff they want, content creators the revenue they need and perhaps another third-party an otherwise unattainable chunk of value -- like Duolingo, which gives high-quality online language instruction, and uses the students’ exercises to translate content for paying customers? How to do that with gritty cop procedurals or state house coverage?
I fantasized briefly about a magical solution -- UberNews, airCSI, factcheckBay -- but then, lo and behold, there’s Rogers to remind me some of this is already afoot. Forbes and many others, including MediaPost, benefit from the converging interests of unpaid contributors and unflush publishers. And what is social media but a platform for individuals to post content for businesses that create not one blessed thing but distribution? Think particularly of Instant Articles.
Facebook, for example, has managed to insert itself as an intermediary between news readers and news publications that previously reached them directly, whether through printed editions or their own websites and apps. With social media driving over 30 percent of all traffic to publisher websites and Facebook delivering 75 percent of that social traffic, no publisher, from BuzzFeed to The New York Times Company, can afford to skip using Facebook as a means to promote its content.That gives increasing leverage to Facebook, which is able to greatly influence the prominence and visibility of publishers’ articles in the News Feed of its users. (In fact, Facebook became such a huge driver of publisher traffic only after reconfiguring its algorithm in December 2013 to give more priority to news stories.) As Facebook’s leverage over publishers grows, it is expected to extract a share of the advertising revenue from the readers it delivers to news publishers.
But whatever sector in which you ply your trade, the Playbook has the Xs and Os. Now it happens to be late and I haven’t found time to write a blurb -- Pride and Prejudice beckons -- but I will say this: Yes, your highlighter will run dry. Your imagination, however, will not.