About Me

Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Len focuses on helping small and new businesses succeed through developing appropriate marketing and sales strategies. Len enjoys mentoring, relishes in getting both arms and feet wet in addressing technology, marketing and sales issues. He understands the drivers impacting business results for today and tomorrow including time-to-market, time-to-revenue, marketing, sales channels and social media.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What is TV today and what does it mean to your small business future?

I have been watching the announcements coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show this January in Las Vegas and many have been about the changing face of TV technology. If you have been watching the news about TV recently the announcements about “going digital” have pervaded the airwaves. At the same time companies like LG, Samsung, Sony, Comcast, Cox, and Time-Warner have all been making product and service announcements. Meanwhile the major networks like CBS and NBC have reported write downs or losses in the billions of dollars. Advertising revenues are flat or down. Even the Super Bowl advertising slots have not sold out. So lots of changes are happening to TV and the impact is profound.

The TV of "Christmas" Past

To put a little Dickens into this blog let's explore where TV was, where it is today and where it will be in the future. When I was a youth in the 1950s, TV was a standalone cabinet with a picture tube that received black and white signals from broadcasters over the air. These signals were captured by an antenna on the roof or by rabbit ears on top of the set. We settled in front of the set to watch the Ed Sullivan show or the Cisco Kid and the Lone Ranger. Broadcasters included the big three in the US. In Canada we had the CBC and a few independent stations providing local programming content. That TV of the past, like other media, was a one way communicator. The TV signals were free, the infrastructure to deliver them was not, and advertisers paid through the nose to reach the viewing audience. For the next 50 years nothing much changed about the business model while the technology evolved.

Colour television arrived on mass in the 1960s. By 1967 most TV broadcasters’ signals were in colour. The first communication satellite was Telstar launched in 1962. By the 1970s the evolution of communication satellites created a new way of delivering TV signals. The cable TV industry was born. Cable TV providers took satellite signals and broadcast them over copper wire directly into homes. The first satellite dish manufacturers and service providers started making satellite-to-home TV accessible to the few. For the first time the TV over-the-air broadcasters had competition for audiences.

The TV of "Christmas" Present

Cable evolved from copper to fibre optics, delivering 65,000 times more information to TV viewers producing better quality pictures, more opportunity for programming and more competition for viewers. Satellite dishes got smaller and satellite service got cheaper making it more affordable for the average home viewer. Satellite meant even more competition for the broadcasters and the burgeoning cable TV providers. At the same time TV went from low-definition to high-definition (HDTV). TV sets went from small tubes to huge flat screens.

By 2007 the US consumer could choose to receive TV content many ways: through over 1,200 cable and satellite operators as well as the old way over the airways to an antenna or rabbit ears. By 2007 more than 50% of US consumers were receiving their TV signals in digital format. TV viewers could choose what they watched and how they watched it using the latest Digital Video Recorders (DVR). A few channels became thousands of channels. By the end of 2007 video-on-demand (VoD) had reached volumes of 3.3 billion program downloads, competing with movie theatres and video rental stores.

With the arrival of ever faster and more powerful personal computers TV came to the desktop with the arrival of Internet Protocol TV (IPTV). Users could access services like YouTube or Joost or one of many other online TV viewing sites to get a personalized viewing experience. The Internet brought another dimension to TV watching – interactivity, the ability to point and click and alter the viewing experience.

When compared to the traditional TV viewing experience, the Internet provided for personal preference even though the screen was smaller. The best you could do for interactivity with a TV was use a DVR, do a video download, or use the remote to surf the hundreds of channels that were now available. As an alternative the viewer could experience interactivity by hooking up a Nintendo Wii, Playstation or Xbox 360 and playing games.

The TV of "Christmas" Future

This is where we are going and very, very soon. The announced move from analog to digital TV beginning February 17, 2009 in the US (in Canada, August 31, 2011) will make it possible for TV to become fully interactive rather than the one-way passive medium that it has largely been. What this means is TV will open the door to a personalized experience for viewers.

Interactive TV means a 2-way street. New standards for creating content such as OCAP (now called Tru2way), and ACAP will allow software developers to build Internet-like applications for TV. These applications will run on new technology already being delivered to set-top boxes and TVs today. This new technology supports 2-way interaction, allows for viewer personalization, and provides secure e-commerce.

What does this TV revolution mean for small businesses trying to reach potential consumers?

Traditionally TV has been a very expensive way to reach an audience. We always read about the cost of 30-second advertisement at the Super Bowl with the number in the millions of dollars. Big dollar advertising has been the lifeblood of TV broadcasters, but that is about to change too.

With thousands of channels to view, and interactive TV becoming ubiquitous in the US and elsewhere, TV service providers and broadcasters can no longer demand advertising fees for 30-second slots in the millions or even the thousands of dollars. In fact, TV advertising can no longer be built around the 30-second slot. Instead it must become more Internet-like with “select” on the remote becoming just like a mouse click. This represents an entirely different advertising business model for TV, much more like the click-through, banner and sideboard advertising that we have become familiar with on computers. Suddenly TV can be an accessible medium on which to advertise even for a small business serving a local market.

Recently I started working with a company that is delivering on the promise of much lower costs for companies to advertise and market themselves on TV. The company is OrderTV and they have created 3 products for the new emerging interactive TV market:
  • a comprehensive information guide called iCityGuide, where a company can get a directory listing and small ad just like the Yellow Pages, and at Yellow Pages pricing
  • an interactive online shopping information channel, iShoppingTV, that lets the viewer watch MPEG videos and click through menus to learn about products and services and even connect to sellers
  • a dedicated fully interactive shopping channel called OrderTV featuring the ability for a business to interact live with a viewing audience
What is even more exciting about this interactive capability is the data gathering that can occur giving advertisers an accurate profile of the viewer. And because the interactive experience on the TV is Internet-like, it is no surprise that companies such as OrderTV plan to combine their TV presence with Internet websites that have a similar look and feel, adding social networking capability as part of the total interactive experience. TV viewers can go on the Internet to enhance their experience staying connected with a local distributor or the company itself, sharing information with other viewers, reviewing past purchases or checking on the status of new orders.

For small businesses this represents a new way of doing marketing and selling. They can reach TV audiences at a fraction of what it would have cost in the past. And they can learn more about those who view their ads than ever before, creating stickier viewers that can become sticky customers, an exciting future for small business advertisers on TV.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Virtual Community Revolution – How this type of Internet Usage Will Change Our World

I have had an epiphany in 2008, a year that has witnessed a market meltdown, contracting Western economies, people losing their homes, their jobs, and probably a bit of their confidence in the future. That epiphany came about because of so many circumstances, both local and international.

The market meltdown exposed the weaknesses of “unfettered greed,” capitalism without regulatory oversight. It also illustrated how interconnected this planet is, as the economic disaster of sub-prime mortgages in the U.S. impacted countries around the world, like watching falling dominos. In this Internet age there was no way to escape the news, no way to bury your head in the sand, no way to retreat to an isolated place where you could not be aware of the economic impact.

The year 2008 witnessed further remarkable change, a tipping point. Politically Americans elected, to the highest office in their land, a dynamic new leader, firmly planted in the digital generation. As a Canadian watching the unfolding of political events south of the border, it was fascinating to watch the Internet campaign of Barack Obama. Using existing public social network spaces like Facebook, providing video messaging through YouTube, building a cell phone communication network to send out short messages, the Obama campaign created a custom Internet presence that embraced, engaged, and empowered the electorate. It played a considerable part in the campaign strategy. In his article, Obama Election Ushering in First Internet Presidency, posted November 5, 2008, Mitch Wagner, of Information Week, posted the statistics associated with the Internet campaign. Millions contributed to the campaign, all through the Internet. Millions more volunteered, organizing themselves through the Internet.

Post-election, the Internet continues to play a substantial role in this new Presidency even before he has taken office. The site http://change.gov has become an online expression of direct democracy in action. The implications of this new virtual community presence are enormous. Today the President Elect has the means to appeal daily, directly to every citizen, informing them, gathering feedback, and engaging them in policy creation and implementation at the grassroots level. For the Congress of the United States, this virtual community and direct democracy relationship poses enormous challenges. Suddenly the President can develop a one-on-one relationship with every citizen who chooses to join the site, bypassing Congress unless the Representatives and Senators start building their own virtual community presence.

Here in Toronto where I live, I got involved in this change phenomenon at a more personal level. I started publishing this small business blog and wrote an article on my experiences participating and using social networks. Little did I know that I was soon attracting a number of readers who liked what they read and wanted to talk to me more about the subject.

One of those readers was Faith Exeter, President of an Internet software development company, Enable Consultants. For a decade Enable had been building Internet sites for clients in the Caribbean and Canadian markets. They had been recognized by the UN for work in building digital community connections among expatriate Caribbeans and their home islands. Now they were into trying to solve the disengagement problem of marginalized youth that was rearing its head in Toronto district schools, and they were doing this by creating a private social network.

This version of social networking isn’t Facebook or MySpace. It protects youth from cyberbullying and inappropriate content. It has a code of conduct. It is policed by all members of the community and monitored by a super user who determines whether flagged content is inappropriate or not. It is built around the school as a community hub. It focuses on students, teachers, classrooms, parents, school and community partners.

The product is called Recess and its website is www.meetatrecess.com. Recess was tested in the spring of 2008 at a Toronto middle school that was considered by many principals and teachers to be one of the toughest in the City. Known more for students being out of class and expelled, than in class and learning, Recess was introduced to this school as part of an overall strategy for redefining student engagement. The test was one Grade 7 class of 30 students. When first deployed, during class orientation, a number of students appeared disengaged. When approached and through discussion their interests were identified. When told about blogging as a way of expressing their interests the students got excited and involved. Within a few days all 30 students in the class were visiting the site at least once a day. Students created their own profiles, posted photographs, videos, music, wrote blogs, contributed to news, did homework, asked for help, and interacted with their classroom and classmates. During the first month of the test the students viewed 21,364 pages. And when the test was over and the school year ended, those same students continued to view the site at volumes as high as 14,000 pages per month.

Some students published articles online and made them available to be viewed by their classmates. In many cases these postings were not homework assignments, but personal expressions about subjects that were of particular interest to them. One student, who created a discussion paper on child abuse, when asked if Recess had changed her, responded “Yes, I now know what I want to do when I leave school. I want to write.”

Giving youth a vision of their future and the tools to achieve it – that is the goal of Recess. And that is revolutionary. It is a revolution that can be applied to any organization that seeks to use the Internet to effect change. A charity can enhance its programs and efforts by using a virtual community approach to fund raising, education, program support and delivery, and more. A business can reach out to its employees, suppliers, and customers through the virtual community experience to empower employees to enhance the business, to work with suppliers to improve processes and profitability, and to engage customers in ways never dreamed before.

I call this a revolution, not evolution, because that is what the rise of virtual communities online is. With public social networks we have stepped through an Internet door that has led to all types of new engagement. With virtual community we will move beyond engagement. Virtual community is about empowerment of the individual. It is about breaking down communication barriers, creating new solutions to intractable problems. It is about changing the world.