Does giving away your book, ala DRM-free music, make business sense?

When avant-garde rock band Radiohead posted their latest album online, they invited fans to pay whatever price they thought was appropriate — or even pay nothing at all. More recently, bluesy Brit Joss Stone went on record as saying she thought “piracy” of her music was just dandy. She implies that the freely shared music is growing box office sales of her live shows. These and other examples from the recording industry suggest a business model where your chief intellectual product can be given away — or shared at a huge discount — to the overall benefit of your bottom line. One could even go so far as suggest that digital rights management (DRM) protection does more economic harm than good.

Okay, but does this model hold water if you’re a niche business writer, speaker and consultant?

Kevin HillstromMy blogging friend Kevin Hillstrom reports that it seems to, if viewed holistically. And especially since his book is called Multichannel Secrets, you’d better believe Kevin views things holistically!

Joss Stone more or less admitted in her interview that, taken as a single tactic (my word, not hers), giving away music helps create buzz. It doesn’t help pay the bills. But this buzz is supporting her live shows. She is, in essence, a multi-channel business, and one channel is benefiting from the loss-leader status of the other.

Similarly, Kevin — who is the president of MineThatData — mentions in his blog that his pre-release book giveaway was not a profitable move. He reports at one point that he gave away twice as many books as he sold. But he emphasizes that as a “‘micro-channel’ strategy to running my business,” the giveaway concept makes good economic sense.

If you’re a self-publisher, you’ve probably already considered the strategy of giving out free advance copies. But Kevin can still help you, with his well-framed case for emulating Radiohead. Rock on, Kevin!

Quantifying community standards one Google search at a time

A Florida lawyer has found a novel use for search engine data in presenting a court case. Defending his client from obscenity charges, Lawrence Walters seeks to show that the “community standards” in Pensacola aren’t as lofty as some might expect. The New York Times lays out his defense tactic in “What’s Obscene? Google could have an answer“:

In the trial of a pornographic Web site operator, the defense plans to show that residents of Pensacola are more likely to use Google to search for terms like “orgy” than for “apple pie” or “watermelon.” The publicly accessible data is vague in that it does not specify how many people are searching for the terms, just their relative popularity over time. [Walters] is arguing that the evidence is sufficient to demonstrate that interest in the sexual subjects exceeds that of more mainstream topics — and that by extension, the sexual material distributed by his client is not outside the norm.

I’m reminded of an old Tom T. Hall song about another southern community. In “Harper Valley PTA,” a single mother is accused by her school group of being unfit to raise her middle school daughter. She “wears tight skirts,” and has a drink or two in public — with men, no less! The song has our protagonist defending herself:

Well, Mr. Harper couldn’t be here ’cause he stayed too long at Kelly’s Bar again
And if you smell Shirley Thompson’s breath, you’ll find she’s had a little nip of gin
Then you have the nerve to tell me you think that as a mother I’m not fit
Well, this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley hypocrites

Of course the song ends with her accusers chastened and her “fitness” as a mother confirmed. Relatively speaking, of course, taking into account the prevailing Harper Valley community standards.

It will be interesting to see if a more high-tech version of this shaming defense wins the case. I have no affection for the industry that’s being defended, but if a jury of non-technologists can find the data presented reasonable and compelling, it will be a sign of just how quickly “John Q. Public” is coming around to viewing behavioral data as a yardstick of social attitudes.

True networked leadership builds communities that change the world

There is change afoot at Change.org. This is a blogging site / portal that I’ve watched with great interest since I first decided to research the health of Community in this digital era. Change.org has a bold name and a mission to match. That’s a lot of pressure. So a few weeks ago, the organization announced the hiring of a new associate editor, Joshua Levy.

Levy will lead — for lack of a better word — dozens of bloggers who can pool their knowledge and opinions to inspire and facilitate change. Says a Wired piece on the hire (the link is immediately above), “The project [asks] a large number of busy people to contribute small chunks of time to volunteer — just as Wikipedia does.” I found the announcement heartening because it implied a new type of leadership.

Change.org

That announcement coincided with Barack Obama achieving presumptive Democratic Presidential nominee status, a development that some say signals the death of top-down leadership in national political campaigns. Senator Obama’s campaign followed a horizontal, networked organization, while Senator Clinton’s used a more traditional hierarchical leadership style.

Both developments — as signs of a greater tend — give me hope.

Networked Leadership

Call me an optimist. When I was in my 20s, one of my favorite magazines was Utne Reader. Often called the Reader’s Digest of the alternative press, the Utne not only reported on positive social change but devoted precious resources to encouraging it. Significantly, it reported on the digital revolution, but also took a leadership position in exploring how networks can be used to revolutionize both print and activism. The publication’s prized, four-character (UTNE.com) domain name length is evidence of their early and enthusiastic arrival to the web.

The Utne also recognized the problems that Robert Putnam wrote about in Bowling Alone (the title comes from his observation that nearly every form of civic organization has fallen in membership and participation — whereas more people are bowling than 40 years ago, fewer are bowling in leagues).

The magazine’s response was to encourage neighborhood salons, constructed around the then-burgeoning communitarian movement. Utne realized that our nation’s social capital was shrinking, and attempted a crude (and alas, unsustainable) mail-and-fax infrastructure to support these grassroots salons.

I’m an optimist, but experience has taught me to temper it with realism.

Take the experience of watching the Utne-driven salon movement wither and die. Of course, this was before everyone and his brother seems to have clamored online. Perhaps a “real” network will provide the instant connections (not hindered by the U.S. Postal Mail) that were lacking two decades ago. Evidence of this is the vitality of sites like Change.org, and other online social networks that strive to do more with its membership than exchange banalities and wage Mob Warfare.

Exploring The Social Power of Networks

Earlier this month The Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) held its annual conference. Speakers debated, described and otherwise explored an aspect of a community voice that the PDF’s manifesto asserts is growing. Here is an excerpt of that manifesto (emphasis is at the end is mine):

Democracy in America is changing.

A new force, rooted in new tools and practices built on and around the Internet, is rising alongside the old system of capital-intensive broadcast politics.

Today, for almost no money, anyone can be a reporter, a community organizer, an ad-maker, a publisher, a money-raiser, or a leader.

If what they have to say is compelling, it will spread.

The cost of finding like-minded souls, banding together, and speaking to the powerful has dropped to almost zero.

Networked voices are reviving the civic conversation.

By some measures PDF is correct. New York Times editorial writer Nicholas Kristof, in his opinion piece Saving the World in Study Hall, provides some impressive anecdotal evidence that there is hope for us in the Millennial generation (those who were born in the 1980s and ’90s). And I do not doubt that there are individuals and small groups doing amazing things to make this world a better place.

But can this be “scaled?”

There’s a lot of work to be done, and my concern is online efforts are too little and too late.

Also, can this work be quantified, in the same, nearly irrefutable way that Bowling Alone quantified social capital’s depressing decline?

I’d welcome your thoughts.

In the meantime, I do think I have an answer for Bernard Sifry, father of PDF conference co-chair Micah Sifry. His parting question at the event: “How do we build leadership on the internet?” You find leaders who follow Lao Tzu’s advice in his famous Tao Te Ching:

The greatest leaders are never seen, their presence is never felt
Lesser rulers are loved and praised
Lesser still are hated, and obeyed through fear
And the least are despised and ignored

If you would lead people, trust them to do the right thing
When a leader accomplishes something using the tao
He steps back, moves on to something else
And lets the people praise themselves

Why the debate about in-house SEM vs outsourced work clouds an important issue

This morning, MediaPost featured “The Great (And Completely Ridiculous) ‘In-house vs. Outsourced SEM’ Debate,” by Dave Pasternack (registration to MediaPost is required). The piece begins with Pasternack asserting that in his 10 years in the business, “I’ve never, not once, seen a search campaign created by an in-house team outperform one crafted by a competent SEM [search engine marketing] agency.”

I trust that what he says is his experience, although at least one other in the comments reports differing results. Also in the comments, David Berkowitz found some of Dave’s arguments to be as “spurious” as the premise itself (Hark! Do I hear you composing your own post on the subject, David?).

I’m letting that discussion continue without adding to the din.

But my opinion is that the debate itself — in-house versus outsourced SEM — clouds the true secret to optimum ROI: Working together, in-house and agency pros are more likely to get a campaign that really hits one out of the park.

No one understands the subject domain as well as those who live and breathe it. And successful SEM requires content that uses this knowledge. Customer-focused internal SEM pros can add a level of richness to an SEM campaign that no outside agency can match.

SEM Is More Similar Than Different Across Industries

So what’s the problem with most “pure-play” internal SEM work? It’s a question of experience. When someone is handling multiple campaigns for many different types of clients, the similarities and synergies become apparent. Knowledge has a way of “cross-pollinating” between campaigns and clients. That’s a huge advantage. Also, this level of activity forces a heightened level of process that is just too difficult to match in an internal campaign.

As with most black-and-white debates, this one distracts from the benefits of a middle ground.

In every industry, and in every business category, there are those brands that lead the way in SEM. For the majority of these market leaders, I would be shocked if there wasn’t a smart blend of internal and outsourced efforts and expertise at work.

Both sides of the desk have something superior to bring to an SEM campaign. I suggest we SEM agencies work harder to remember this, and to promote this important truth.

An unabashed plug for Americhip’s amazing paper engineering

I discovered Americhip 10 years ago. They helped me and other direct marketers to produce mail packages that really get results. The first pieces I used them for were mailings incorporating tiny sound chips. Example: Years ago my team was preparing a mailing series for a snow blower manufacturer. A mailing to potential dealers touted their line.

Avalanche In Sight and Sound

When the mailing was opened, you heard the sound of an avalanche and a call-to-action of stocking a line of snow blowers that were less likely let the dealer down when a big snowfall hits and there is a huge, urgent run on them. The mailing signed a ton of new dealers and helped cement our relationship with the client.

Since then I’ve found these folks are a reliable — and especially innovative — supplier of dimensional pieces. Here’s a video demonstrating their incredible paper engineering.

There is no “full disclosure statement” needed here, by the way. I actually haven’t used their services in a few years. But I continue to watch them, for whatever their next innovation will be.

In today’s fragmented, distracted marketing environment, I know that involving as many senses as possible in a promotion is a key to breaking through the clutter. Americhip has been a terrific resource for delivering this impact.