I'm Just Not That Into You: The Truth About Altruism

Published in Online Spin, May 23 2014

OMG -- I’m up for a part in “Star Wars, Episode VI”I!

Before you get too excited: I’m not quite ready to draft the awards acceptance speech. For one thing, they haven’t given me the role yet. For another, it’s pretty unlikely they will give it to me -- especially considering you, your friends, your family, and pretty much everyone on the planet with 10 bucks to spare is also eligible for it.

This opportunity -- the chance to shoot a scene with J.J. Abrams for the new “Star Wars” movie -- is one of several offered by Omaze, a startup with one of the most brilliant business models I’ve seen in years.

The company works with groups like Disney, LucasFilm, Netflix, and the like to arrange once-in-a-lifetime experiences: cook with Mario Batali, hang with the cast on the set of “Orange is the New Black,” go out in Hollywood with Ben & Matt, etc. People buy entries for a chance to win these experiences, and the money goes to charity. In the case of “Star Wars,” $40 bought me four entries, and my participation helped raise funds for UNICEF Innovation Labs. Omaze itself is a for-profit company; it doesn’t charge nonprofit partners an upfront fee, but does retain a share of the net proceeds.

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The Digital Content Ecosystem Is Completely Broken

Published in Online Spin, May 16 2014

This week, I read a column about Ad Block being the new DVR. I read one about digital ad fraud, ad-supported piracy, and non-viewability. I read one about the dire outlook for the New York Times’ digital efforts, and one surmising that the end of the Times’ print edition is nigh.

The promise and the glory of digital is attribution: I know exactly where my views come from, where my clicks come from, where my sales come from. But that promise comes at a price: Maybe, just maybe, advertising was never worth what we paid for it.

So advertisers pull back. We’re not going to pour dollars down a black hole of non-viewability. The piece on ad fraud called for harsh measures and real penalties: “Advertisers and agencies should implement zero-tolerance policies and shut off services and networks completely for all future business opportunities when they have experienced fraud… Demand full refunds on campaigns, not just for the fraudulent portions. Recover fees from agencies. If you stop the flow of money, you might be surprised how fast real solutions show up.”

Don't Be Right And Don't Ask Why: Essential Ingredients For Building A Team

Published in Online Spin, May 9 2014

Imagine the following scenario: You ask someone on your team to provide you with performance data for a project he’s working on. He rolls his eyes.

Or this one: you find a huge mistake in a report that’s meant to go to the CEO. No one seems to know how it got there.

Or this one: You tell your team you want them to share any challenges with you so you can work them out together. They never do.

These are not technology problems. They are not problems of skill or of expertise. They are problems of human dynamics, and they are the biggest challenges any team will ever face.

If you’ve ever been part of a dysfunctional team, you know how horrible it is. People keep their opinions to themselves or run roughshod over others. Decisions don’t get made, or there’s no follow-through. You emerge from meetings feeling drained and ineffectual.

Life is too short for this kind of nonsense.

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White House Big Data Report Raises Questions About Kind Of World We Want To Live In

Published in Online Spin, May 2 2014

Big data is amazing.

There are big data projects in cancer research, energy use, traffic patterns, fertility treatments. The Durkheim Project, currently underway, is analyzing opt-in data, including that scraped from social media profiles, from more than 100,000 veterans to help understand predictors of suicide risk. The project builds on an earlier phase of the research, completed last year, showing that “the text-mining methods employed were statistically significant (correlations of 65% or more) in predicting suicidality on an initial data set.”

But with big data comes big responsibility, and big data’s image has been hit hard by the Snowden Effect. In January (some would say way too late), President Obama commissioned a working group to look at areas in which the use of big data might overstep its limits, to the detriment of the citizens he is elected to represent.

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Are Perverse Incentives Destroying News?

Published in Online Spin, April 25 2014

I’m sure you’ve been following the New Zealand economy extremely closely lately. Who hasn’t? Dairy is booming and billions of dollars are being spent on the rebuild of earthquake-shattered Christchurch. The financial outlook is so strong that, in March, it became the first developed nation to raise interest rates from record lows -- and it raised them again this week. It’s hard to deny that things are looking good for the tiny nation.

Hard, but not impossible. Last week, Forbes contributor and bubble-ologist Jesse Colombo wrote about New Zealand’s impending economic disaster. Interest rates are still too low, he says, and property prices too high. The finance sector represents too big a share of the economy and the country has a debt problem. Crisis looms.

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What Advertisers And Content Providers Need To Understand About Human Behavior

Published in Online Spin, April 18 2014

A survey released on Monday showed that most people are ignorant about the way the Internet works.

That wasn’t exactly what it said, of course. Conducted by marketing company Gfk and reported on by my MediaPost colleague Wendy Davis, what the survey actually said was that only 35% of people agree with the statement, “I use free services online and on smartphones/tablets and don’t mind if my data is potentially also used for advertising purposes.”

Reports like these have been coming out since our Cro-Magnon ancestors sat in a cave, fired up a computer, and logged on to the first website -- and they have been largely useless. In 1997, Wired wrote about

How To Design For All Of Humanity, According to Facebook's Head Of Product

Published in Online Spin, April 11 2014

Facebook has rolled out a design update, and, if the comments in my News Feed are anything to go by, it’s the end of the world. The new layout is awful. The fonts are atrocious. We want the old look back.

In short, we’ve reacted the way we react to every Facebook design update. We are nothing if not entirely predictable.

Most of us, however, have no idea of the imperatives and constraints facing Facebook’s design team. As Facebook Director of Product Margaret Gould Stewart described at TED last month, every minor change to Facebook’s design gets rolled out to a sixth of humanity -- and there are challenges to

Mozilla's Eich Reveals Diminishing Boundary Between Beliefs And Business

Published in Online Spin, April 4 2014

Well, to quote George Takei, that was fast. In the face of a major backlash about his 2008 contribution to California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, Brendan Eich has resigned as CEO of Mozilla -- less than a week after taking the reins. Eich has, of course, the right to free speech, the right to hold any beliefs he wishes, and the right to shout those beliefs from the top of the highest mountain. But as he found out, the free market also has rights: the right to voice its collective displeasure, the right to vote with its purchasing dollars, and the ability -- if passionate enough -- to effect change.

This is the kind of story tailor-made to stir up epic levels

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Oculus Premature For The Promise Of Equity Crowdfunding

Published in Online Spin, March 28 2014

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two days, here’s the story so far: in September 2012, a startup virtual reality company called Oculus ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised $2.4 million. Three days ago, the company sold to Facebook for $2 billion. Lots of those early backers aren’t so happy with this development -- mostly, it seems, because they think Oculus founder Palmer Luckey sold out to the devil. But some are upset because they think they should have gotten a payday: We gave you money when you had nothing, now you sold for billions, and we want our share.

The situation has refocused attention on the idea of equity crowdfunding. Unlike Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign,

Secrets From The Guy With 100 Million YouTube Views

Published in Online Spin, March 21 2014

Somewhere in a little town in Belgium, on a square where nothing really happens, Kris Hoet and his team decided to place a red button. A large arrow dangled above it, with the words, “Push To Add Drama.”

The resulting video -- a promotion for the launch of the TV channel TNT in Belgium -- has been seen 50 million times and is the second most-shared TV commercial of all time. (The first is Volkswagen’s Darth Vader ad.)

Hoet himself is the head of digital & Change Architect at Duval Guillaume, a small agency in Antwerp. In addition to the dramatic surprise on a quiet square, they’re responsible for the Carlsberg bikers ad, this stunt for the launch of “Skyfall,” and this eerie provocation about Internet safety. Duval Guillaume has generated over 100 million YouTube views -- earned views, not paid eyeballs -- as well as countless coverage by all forms of media. So when I caught up with him yesterday, I begged him to tell me how he did it. What’s the magic?

He starts by refusing to think about advertising in a traditional way. “Advertising,” he said wryly, “has a bit of a branding problem.” What he and his colleagues strive to do is separate the storytelling component of advertising from the social currency. They might have control over the storytelling, but it doesn’t mean anything unless people

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