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« February 2011 | Main | April 2011 »

Compared to perfect: the price/value mismatch in content

"How's the wine?"

You really can't answer that question out of context. Compared to what? Compared to a hundred dollar bottle? Not so good. Compared to any other $12 bottle... great!

"How was the hotel?"

"How's the service at the post office?"

In just about all the decisions we make, we consider the price. A shipper doesn't expect the same level of service quality from a first class letter delivery than it does from an overnight international courier service. Of course not.

And yet...

A quick analysis of the top 100 titles on Amazon (movies, books, music, doesn't matter what) shows zero correlation between the price and the reviews. (I didn't do the math, but you're welcome to... might be a good science fair entry). Try to imagine a similar disconnect if the subject was cars or clothing...

For any other good or service, the value of a free alternative that was any good would be infinite--free airplane tickets, free dinners at the cafe... When it comes to content, though, we rarely compare the experience with other content at a similar price. We compare it to perfect.

People walking out of the afternoon bargain matinee at the movies don't cut the film any slack because it was half price. Critics piling on to a music video on YouTube never mention the fact that HEY IT WAS FREE. There is no thrift store for content. Sure, we can get an old movie for ninety-nine cents, but if we hate it, it doesn't matter how cheap it was. If we're going to spend time, apparently, it better be perfect, the best there ever was, regardless of price.

This isn't true for cars, potato chips, air travel, worker's comp insurance...

Consider people walking out of a concert where tickets might be being scalped for as much as $1,000. That's $40 or more for each song played--are they considering the price when they're evaluating the experience? There's a lot of nuance here... I'm certainly not arguing that expensive is always better.

In fact, I do think it's probably true that a low price increases the negative feedback. That's because a low price exposes the work to individuals that might not be raving fans.

Free is a valid marketing strategy. In fact it's almost impossible for an idea to have mass impact without some sort of free (TV, radio, webpages, online videos... they're all free). At the same time, it's not clear to me that cheaper content outperforms expensive in many areas. As the marginal cost of delivering content drops to zero (all digital content meets this definition), I think there are valid marketing reasons to do the opposite of what economists expect.

Free gets you mass. Free, though, isn't always the price that will help you achieve your goals.

Price is often a signalling mechanism, and perhaps nowhere more than in the area of content. Free enables your idea to spread, price, on the other hand, signals individuals and often ends up putting your idea in the right place. Mass shouldn't always be the goal. Impact may matter more.

A slow news day

I think you can learn a lot about an organization (and a person's career) when you watch what they do on a slow news day, a day when there's no crisis, not a lot of incoming tasks, very little drama.

Sure, when we're reacting (or responding) and it's all hands on deck, things seem as if they're really moving.

But what about in the lulls? At the moments when we can initiate, launch new ventures, try new things and expose ourselves to failure? Do we take the opportunity or do we just sit and wait for the next crisis?

If you have ten minutes unscheduled and the phone isn't ringing, what do you do? What do you start?

 

Small screens and big decisions

My take: the smaller the screen, the more hurried and less informed the decision ends up being.

Yes, there's more currency, more immediacy, more with-you-right-now-all-the-time and more data being collected. But......

If you're working with a spreadsheet or a thread of correspondence or a set of data, I'm not sure you're doing your best work if you're doing it on an iPhone.

 

Initiative isn't given, you take it

The amazing thing is that unlike taking an apple or a chocolate bar, there's no loss to the rest of us. After you take it, we all benefit.

There's one other thing you can take at work, easily and with approval: responsibility. In fact, they sort of have to go together. One without the other is a mess.

Accepting false limits

I will never be able to dunk a basketball.

This is beyond discussion.

Imagine, though, a co-worker who says, "I'll never be able to use a knife and fork. No, I have to use my hands."

Or a colleague who says, "I can't possibly learn Chinese. I'm not smart enough."

This is a mystery to me. A billion people have learned Chinese, and the failure rate for new kids is close to zero. If a well functioning adult puts in sufficient time and the effort, she''ll succeed.

The key to this disconnect is the unspoken part about time and effort and fear. I agree that you will never ship that product or close that sale or invent that device unless you put in the time and put in the effort and overcome the fear. But I don't accept for a minute that there's some sort of natural limit on your ability to do just about anything that involves creating and selling ideas.

This attitude gets me in trouble sometimes. Perhaps I shouldn't be pushing people who want something but have been taught not to push themselves. Somewhere along the way, it seems, I forgot that it's none of my business if people choose to accept what they've got, to forget their dreams and to not seek to help those around them achieve what matters to them.

Not sure if you'll forgive me, but no, I'm not going to believe that only a few people are permitted to be gatekeepers or creators or generous leaders. I have no intention of apologizing for believing in people, for insisting that we all use this moment and these assets to create some art and improve the world around us.

To do anything less than that is a crime.

Faster, Better and More

The trifecta of competition:

Faster than the other guy. Faster to the market, faster to respond, faster to get the user up to speed.

Better than the other guy. Better productivity, better story, better impact.

and More. More for your money. More choices. More care. More guts.

You have more competition than you did yesterday. I expect that trend will continue.

"How much can I get away with?"

There are two ways to parse that question.

The usual way is, "How little can I do and not get caught?" Variations include, "Can we do less service? Cut our costs? Put less cereal in the box? Charge more?" In short: "How little can I get away with?"

The other way, the more effective way: "How much can we afford to give away? How much service can we pile on top of what we're selling without seeming like we're out of our minds? How big a portion can we give and still stay in business? How fast can we get this order filled?"

In an era in which the middle is rapidly emptying out, both edges are competitive. Hint: The overdelivery edge is an easier place to make a name for yourself.

Impossible in theory

A symptom of the revolution: When we state something is impossible in theory, but then change our minds when we discover that it is possible in practice.

Originality

I get two kinds of mail about this. One group points to organizations or individuals who are stealing my ideas. “Stop them!” they say. The other doesn’t hesitate to point out that I’ve never had an original idea in my life, and that I’m merely a promotional hack.

Lewis Hyde’s new book is about the nature of ideas, and how they improve with use. It turns out that anyone who produces a totally new idea, something completely out of thin air, is unlikely to be a productive artist and a lot more likely to be seen as a total loon. Every artist builds on what came before. Ben Franklin, Bill Shakespeare, Alexander Graham Bell, Martin Luther King Jr., Shepard Fairey, Ricky Jay, Maya Angelou--all thieves.

Abbey Ryan is an artist on the leading edge of the painting-a-day practice. Like all visual artists, she finds her inspiration everywhere, from the supermarket to the work of other artists. Unlike some, though, she’s not reluctant to give credit to those that came before her.

For me, those that get all up in arms about sources of inspiration, the ones that misuse words like ‘plagiarism’ are rarely actively producing anything of value themselves. They’re merely trolls, eager to join a mob instead of spending their time and energy inventing, remixing and poking. If that’s all you can contribute--vague threats of lawsuits, insults and screeds--we’re better off ignoring you.

And for the self-styled producer who does nothing but copy and pass things off, we’re better off without you as well.

Now, more than ever, we can see the work an artist (in any medium, any endeavor) produces over time. If all an artist can do is steal, the truth will out. For the rest, though, a lifetime of consistent provocation, inspiration and generosity can’t help but shine through. Inspirations and all.

Are you making something?

Making something is work. Let's define work, for a moment, as something you create that has a lasting value in the market.

Twenty years ago, my friend Jill discovered Tetris. Unfortunately, she was working on her Ph.D. thesis at the time. On any given day the attention she spent on the game felt right to her. It was a choice, and she made it. It was more fun to move blocks than it was to write her thesis. Day by day this adds up... she wasted so much time that she had to stay in school and pay for another six months to finish her doctorate.

Two weeks ago, I took a five-hour plane ride. That's enough time for me to get a huge amount of productive writing done. Instead, I turned on the wifi connection and accomplished precisely no new measurable work between New York and Los Angeles.

More and more, we're finding it easy to get engaged with activities that feel like work, but aren't. I can appear just as engaged (and probably enjoy some of the same endorphins) when I beat someone in Words With Friends as I do when I'm writing the chapter for a new book. The challenge is that the pleasure from winning a game fades fast, but writing a book contributes to readers (and to me) for years to come.

One reason for this confusion is that we're often using precisely the same device to do our work as we are to distract ourselves from our work. The distractions come along with the productivity. The boss (and even our honest selves) would probably freak out if we took hours of ping pong breaks while at the office, but spending the same amount of time engaged with others online is easier to rationalize. Hence this proposal:

The two-device solution

Simple but bold: Only use your computer for work. Real work. The work of making something.

Have a second device, perhaps an iPad, and use it for games, web commenting, online shopping, networking... anything that doesn't directly create valued output (no need to have an argument here about which is which, which is work and which is not... draw a line, any line, and separate the two of them. If you don't like the results from that line, draw a new line).

Now, when you pick up the iPad, you can say to yourself, "break time." And if you find yourself taking a lot of that break time, you've just learned something important.

Go, make something. We need it!

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