Want to win? Make it easier, not harder.

In March of 2011 I represented Newsweek & The Daily Beast at the Harvard Business School / Committee of Concerned Journalists “Digital Leaders Summit”. Just about every major media property sent an executive there, and I was privileged enough to represent the newly formed NewsBeast (Newsweek+TheDailyBeast had recently merged, but have since split).

Over the course of two days, we covered a lot of concerns across the industry – analyzing who was doing things right and how/why others were making mistakes.

On the first day of the summit we looked at how Amazon was posturing itself for digital book sales – where their profits were hoping to be, where their losses were expected, and strategies for finding the optimal price structure for digital goods.

Inevitably, the conversation sidetracked to the Apple Ecosystem, which had just announced Subscriptions and their eBooks plan — consequently being their new competitor.

One of the other 30 or so people in attendance was Jeffrey Zucker from NBC, who went into his then-famous “digital pennies vs. analog dollars” diatribe. He made a compelling, intelligent, and honest argument that captivated the minds and attention of the entire room. Well, most of the room.

I vehemently disagreed with all his points and quickly spoke up to grab the attention of the floor… “apologizing” from breaking with the conventional view of this subject, and asking people to look at the situation from another point of view. Yes, it was true as Zucker stated that Apple standardized prices for digital downloads and set the pricing on their terms – not the producer’s. Yet, it was true that Apple allowed for records to be purchased “in part” and not as a whole – shifting purchase patters, and yes to a lot of other things.

And yes – Jeffrey Zucker didn’t say anything that was “wrong” – everything he said was right. But it was analyzed from the wrong perspective. Simply put, Zucker and most of the other delegates were only looking at portion of the scenario and the various mechanics at play. The prevailing wisdom in the room was way off the mark… by miles.

Apple didn’t gain dominance in online music because of their pricing system or undercutting retailers – which everyone believed. Plain and simple, Apple took control of the market because they made it fundamentally easier and faster for someone to legally buy music than to steal it. When they first launched (and still in 2012) it takes under a minute for someone to find and buy an Album or Single in the iTunes store. Let me stress that – discovery, purchase and delivery takes under a minute. Apple’s servers were relatively fast at the start as well – an entire album could be downloaded within an hour.

In contrast, to legally purchase an album in the store would take at least two hours – and at the time they first launched, encoding an album to work on an MP3 player would take another hour. To download a record at that time would be even longer: services like Napster (already dead by the iTunes launch) could take a day to download; torrent systems could take a day; while file upload sites were generally faster, they suffered from another issue that torrents and other options did as well – mislabeled and misdirected files.

Possibly the only smart thing the Media Industry has ever done to curb piracy is what I call the “I Am Spartacus” method — wherein “crap” files are mislabeled to look like Top 40 hits. For example: in expectation of a new Jay-Z record, internet filesharing sites are flooded with uploads that bear the name of the record… but contain white noise, another record, or an endless barrage of insults (ok, maybe not the last one… but they should).

I pretty much shut the room up at that point, and began a diatribe of my own – which I’ll repeat and continue here…

At the conference, Jeffrey Zucker and some other media executives tended to look at the digital economy like this: If there are 10 million Apple downloads of the new Beyonce record or the 2nd Season of “Friends”, those represent 10 million diverted sales of a $17.99 CD – or 10MM diverted sales of a $39.99 dvd. If Apple were to sell the CD for 9.99 with a 70% cut, they’re only seeing $7 in revenue for every $17.99 — 100 million times. Similarly, if 10MM people are watching Friends for $13.99 (or whatever cost) on AppleTV instead of buying $29.99 box sets, that’s about $20 lost per viewer — 10 million times.

To this point, I called bullshit.

Digital goods such as music and movies have incredibly diminished costs for incremental units, and for most of these products they are a secondary market — records tend to recoup their various costs within the first few months, and movies/tv-shows tend to have been wildly profitable on-TV / in-Theaters. The music recording costs 17.99 and the DVD 29.99 , not because of fixed costs and a value chain… but because $2 of plastic, or .02¢ of bandwidth, is believed by someone to be able to command that price.

Going back to our real-life example, 10MM downloads of “Friends” for 13.99 doesn’t equate to 10MM people who would have purchased the DVD for $39.99. While a percentage of the 10MM may have been willing to purchase the DVDs for the higher price, another — larger — percentage would not have. By lowering the price from 39.99 to 13.99, the potential market had likely changed from 1MM consumers to 10MM. Our situation is not an “apples-to-apples” comparison — while we’re generating one third the revenue, we’re moving ten times as many units and at a significantly lower cost (no warehousing, mfg, transit, buybacks, etc).

While hard copies are priced to cover the actual costs associated with manufacturing and distributing the media, digital media is flexibly priced to balance convenience with maximized revenue.

Typical retail patterns release a product at a given introductory price (e.g. $10) for promotional period, raise it to a sustained premium for an extended period of time (e.g. $17), then lower it via deep discounted promotions for holiday sales or clearance attempts (e.g. $5). Apple ignored the constant re-pricing and went for a standardized plan at simple price-points.

Apple doesn’t charge .99¢ for a song, or $1.99 for a video because of some nefarious plan to undervalue media — they came up with those prices because those numbers can generate significant revenue while being an inconsequential purchase. At .99¢ a song or $9.99 an album, consumer’s simply don’t think. We’re talking about a dollar for a song, or a ten dollar bill for a record.

Let me rephrase that, we’re talking about a fucking dollar for a song. A dollar is a magical number, because while it’s money, it’s only a dollar. People lose dollar bills all the time, and rationalize the most ridiculous of purchases away… because it’s only a dollar. It’s four quarters. You could find that in the street or in your couch. A dollar is not a barrier or a thought. You’ll note that a dollar is not far off from the price of a candy bar, which retailers incidentally realized long ago that “Hey – let’s put candy bars next to the cash registers and keep the prices relatively low, so people make impulse buys and just add it onto their carts”.

Do you know what happens when you charge a dollar for something? People just buy it. At 13.99 – 17.99 for a cd, people look at that as a significant purchase — one that competes with food, vacations, their children’s college savings. When you charge a dollar a song – or ten dollars a record – people don’t make those comparisons… they just buy.

And buy, and buy, and buy. Before you know it, people end up buying more goods — spending more money overall on media than they would have under the old model. Call me crazy, but I’d rather sell 2 items with little incremental cost at $9.99 each than 1 item at $13.99 — or even 1 item at $17.99.

Unfortunately, the current stable of media executives – for the most part – just don’t get this. They think a bunch of lawyers, lobbyists and paying off politicians for sweetheart legislations are the best solution. Maybe that worked 50 years ago, but in this day and age of transparency and immediacy, it justq doesn’t.

Today: you need to swallow you pride, realize that people are going to steal, that the ‘underground’ will always be ahead of you, and instead of wasting time + money + energy with short-term bandaids which try to remove piracy ( and need to be replaced every 18months ) — you should invest your time and resources into making it easier and cheaper to legally consume content. Piracy of goods will always exist, it is an economic and human truth. You can fight it head-on, but why? There will always be more pirates to fight; they’re motivated to free content, and they’re doubly motivated to outsmart a system. Fighting piracy is like a chinese finger trap.

Instead of spending millions of dollars chasing 100% market share that will never happen (and I can’t stress that enough, it will never happen), you could spend thousands of dollars addressing the least-likely pirates and earn 90% of the market share — in turn generating billions more in revenue each year.

Until decision makers swallow their pride and admit they simply don’t understand the economics behind a digital world, media companies are going to constantly and mindlessly waste money. Almost every ( if not EVERY ) attempt at Digital Rights Management by major media companies has been a catastrophe – with most just being a waste of money, while some have resulted in long term compliance costs. I can’t say this strongly enough: nearly the entire industry of Digital Rights Management is a complete failure and not worth addressing.

Today, the media industry is at another crossroads. Intellectual property rights holders are getting incredibly greedy , and trying to manipulate markets which they clearly don’t understand. In the past 12 hours I’ve learned how streaming rights to Whitney Houston movies were pulled from major digital services after her death to increase DVD sales [ I would have negotiated with digital companies for an incremental ‘fad’ premium, expecting the hysteria to die down before physical goods could be made ], and read a dead-on comic by The Oatmeal on how it has – once again – become easer to steal content than to legally purchase it [ http://theoatmeal.com/comics/game_of_thrones ].

As I write this (Feb 2012) it is faster to steal a high quality MP3 (or FLAC) of record than it is to either: a) rip the physical CD to the digital version or b) download the item from iTunes ( finding/buying is still under a minute ). Regional release dates for music , movies and TV are unsynchronized (on purpose!) , which ends up in the perverse scenario where people in different regions become incentivized to traffic content to one another — i.e. a paying subscriber of a premium network in Europe would illegally download an episode when it first airs on the affiliate in the United States, one month before the European date.

Digital economics aren’t rocket science, they’re drop-dead simple:

  1. If you make things fast and easy to legally purchase, people will purchase it.
  2. If you make things cheap enough, people will buy them – without question , concern, or weighing the purchase into their financial plans.
  3. If you make it hard or expensive for people to legally purchase something, they will turn to “the underground” and illegal sources.
  4. Piracy will always exist, innovators will always work to defy Digital Rights Management, and as much money as you throw at creating anti-piracy measures… there will always be a large population of brilliant people working to undermine them.

My advice is simple: pick your battles wisely. If you want to win in digital media, focus on the user experience and maximizing your revenue generating audience. If your content is good, people will either buy it or steal it – if your content is bad, they’re going somewhere else.

I’m glad to no longer be in corporate publishing. I’m glad to be back in a digital-only world, working with startups , advertising agencies, and media companies that are focused on building the future… not trying to save an ancient business model.

2016 Update

Re-reading this, I can’t help but draw the parallels to the explosion of Advertising and Ad Blocking technologies in recent years. Publishers have gotten so greedy trying to extract every last cent of Advertising revenue and including dozens of vendor/partner javascript tags, that they have driven even casual users to use Ad Blocking technologies.

One thought on “Want to win? Make it easier, not harder.

  1. Loved the oatmeal comic today and this article as well.

    However, investing in government interference is a tremendously lucrative business. In ‘Republic Lost’ by Lawrence Lessig, he alleges that the average ROI is somewhere in the hundreds to thousands. Even if that number is grossly overinflated, a 10% return is still better than most business investments. Long term is it a good strategy? Probably not. But if there’s one thing monopolistic corporate enterprises are good at, it’s protecting short term profits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.