Thursday, August 6, 2015

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 24

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All installments in reverse chronological order

A few installments back, I explained how management that is both stupid and ineffectual is not necessarily a bad thing. Bad ideas paired with poor execution at least maintains status quo. However, I teased:
One horrible initiative was actually pushed through...and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.
And, the following installment left off with this note:
CNET/CBS's failure to capture, organize, and repurpose Chowhound's prodigious data torrent is the basis of the problem, as we'll discuss next time.
So here, finally, is exactly how CNET and CBS failed to capitalize on Chowhound's potential, giving rise to a painful decade of decline and dilution.

Clay (the pseudonym I've assigned to my slightly unhinged, tantrum-prone boss at CNET, who's long gone from the company) faced one overarching challenge. As a community site, Chowhound was a poor setting for ads, because advertisers prefer their products to be touted in highly-controlled surroundings. Ads positioned amid free public discussion might wind up associated with crazy, offensive, digressive crowd noise. Random big-mouths might even poke fun at the ads. Chowhound needed a shiny, composed, controlled front end where most of the ads could go.

Also, Chowhound's discussion needed to be screened off. The geese who laid our golden eggs, contributing the savvy, cutting-edge food information and news that made the site such a draw, wouldn't enjoy having their clubhouse diluted by hordes of Olive Garden fans raving about free breadsticks. Hardcore chowhounds would bolt in a nanosecond if all of America ever dropped by to inject food opinions. This was another reason we needed a shiny front end; a glossy layer to absorb and entertain less fervid newbies. The discussion part would be de-emphasized, requiring persistence to find and join. Ideally, only serious people would make the effort, and the resource wouldn't dilute. The rest would be entranced by shiny baubles up front.

So this was Clay's big idea: he bought a defunct magazine brand called CHOW, to serve as our shiny editorial front end. Get it? Chowhound and...CHOW! A natural! The fact that CHOW's frivolous tone and approach was completely at odds with the astute, passionate vibe of Chowhound was immaterial. The front end, after all, was for unserious eaters, and such people would surely prefer a lightheaded approach.

Corporate types frequently mistake ditziness for accessibility. I've never understood the assumption that intelligent people prefer unthoughtful treatment of topics outside their expertise. That we turn into babies when we start something new. This mistaken assumption explains all sorts of needlessly dropped standards and senseless pandering. The media have been trained to cast swine at pearls.

And Jesus H Christ did they ever sink money into this. Kitchens were built. Hordes of staff and reporters were recruited (identical-looking well-put-together 20-something females; don't ask). Photography studios were built, editorial power circles diagrammed, and, very quickly, millions spent to launch a new media brand with all the needless weight and inefficiency of old media. Watch out world, we're building a whole new Conde Nast! It's gonna be HUGE!

No. It wasn't huge. It was just another soulless, indistinguishable entry in a wide field. They did everything possible to divert Chowhound's healthy traffic through the domain in order to juice the stats (e.g. Chowhound user profiles, the oft-loaded hub for every hound, routed through, but CHOW never caught on, and just annoyed the chowhounds, who didn't appreciate the ceaseless cross-promotion of obnoxious, crass, fake-edgy articles like "Craptails", "Does Your Ice Cream Truck Sell Heroin?", or "12 Alt-Milks for Today’s Alt-Bros" as they tried to finess the fine points of Japanese curry.

It was a catastrophic waste of money, so budgets kept slashing and workers kept shedding until CHOW had retracted into a skeleton operation. I'm not an "I told you so" kind of guy, but, sheesh, at least they could have listened to my idea; the plan I'd conceived during the lean years while hell-bent on finding a route to Chowhound profitability. The plan I'd have implemented if I was actually in charge of the brand after CNET acquired both it and me.

They didn't listen, because they'd decided I had nothing valuable to say about monetizing Chowhound since I'd failed to do so on my watch. My having built, grown, and run the operation with zero funding and zero assets did not mitigate this apparent failure. Neither did the fact that it had never been my original goal to monetize it. My aim was to create something useful and beloved, and it succeeded beyond all expectation. But that success was on my terms, not their's. So I was the kooky, food-obsessed founder, and they, the grown-ups, knew better.

The following is the plan this kooky founder implored his genius corporate overlords to consider:

During the last years of my reign, we'd built a system for encapsulating the best tips from the message boards, adding fact-checked address/phone information and map links for restaurants, and organizing it all into sleek weekly executive summaries. We'd email this to subscribers, who felt relieved of the obligation to follow a zillion busy, digressive discussions. They could relax without ever missing hot tips or news. And more casual users, unwilling to devote hours to surfing the forum, could receive primo chow tips - the crème de la crème - like chocolates neatly left on their pillows.

Great editors (serious hounds who'd have been reading every posting every day, anyway) churned this out for three geographical regions, and it was a very low-cost and high-value operation. Though the backlog of forum discussion was a dense morass of terrabytes of impenetrable chat, our process of steadily culling this data and normalizing it into database-readable format would, over time, tame the beast of messy, digressive discussion into a sleek info trove, easily available for all sorts of re-use. We'd already sold a book series built from this content to Penguin, and we could syndicate it, just for starters, to local newspapers and web sites nationwide. Great fresh nearby food discoveries weekly! Who wouldn't want that?

We'd also created CHEW, the Chowhound Editing Wizard. Searching through years of backlogged discussion was a nightmare suitable only for fanatical hounds. But as CHEW digested the weekly newsletters, it build up a database that could be searched for orderly information about a given restaurant. Or to find recommended restaurants near you. Or any of the other modern functions modern web sites are expected to offer (and which, to this day, Chowhound does not).

With just a dozen part-time editors, we could have ordered data chaos and created a never-ending stream of food news, tips, and information in polished, ready-to-publish format (while leaving the hounds alone to happily do their thing). Chowhound was an engine for aggregating great, smart content, and my scheme harnessed that power; winnowing, organizing, and polishing a gusher of content into valuable media product.

And Chowhound wasn't just about restaurants. Our Home Cooking discussion overflowed with ingenious recipes. Our General Topics discussion was a fountain of smart opinions on food brands and cuisine info. Our Trader Joe's coverage, alone, was unprecedentedly deep, smart, and current; the essential resource for all TJs customers. The best of it all could be edited and polished to stock the site's front end with glossy editorial content. New cooking or dining trends? Check. Clever workarounds for old kitchen problems? Check. Frying secrets of Malaysian grandmas? Check. Rice cooker tips from fanatics who've tried every model? Check. All this and more, to infinity.

The immense fire hose of Chowhound's data, massaged by smart editors, could supply far more, better, smarter, timelier, sexier content than any cubicle jungle of scrubbed English majors, at a tiny fraction of the cost. And it's all intrinsically focus-grouped to ensure interestingness. Dull topics wouldn't have caught on!

For a couple hundred thousand dollars per year, we could have jump-started a media brand no one could have touched, taking advantage of Chowhound's new-media efficiencies by harvesting the crowd-sourced savvy of its huge community, which, within any five minute span, spewed great information about every topic under the gastronomic sun. A dozen people, working from home, could have empowered something boffo - the ultimate expression of everything Chowhound was about. Like Chinese chefs and their proverbial pigs, we'd make best use of every part of the Hound (except the bark?)

Instead, millions were spent creating and maintaining a stale, inflexible, inefficient old-media source for perky/ditzy junk, while the perpetual outflow of smart, juicy content from Chowhound was left to molder on the floor.

No one listened. And with each subsequent regime change, as the failure of Clay's brainstorm began to register and anxious execs began to rejigger, I repeated the suggestion, and was ignored by a succession of visionary geniuses, none of whom, in the end, was able to effectuate anything more than short-sighted, cheap ploys for traffic.

As I write this, in Summer 2015, the latest regime at CBS is poised to reveal an all-new Chowhound site. Apparently, CHOW has been jettisoned (no big secret; the current brand manager announced this in, of all places, his LinkedIn profile at least three weeks ago, long before any announcement, but apparently none too soon to bolster his tally of bold professional accomplishments).

I suppose this means Chowhound will bear the blame for the backlog of editorial atrocities perpetrated under the CHOW brand - which previously were segregated.


Plus, the forum will no longer be shielded by an editorial front end.

More dilution!

Plus, there will likely be a new round of marketing, drawing hordes of Olive Garden fans - and their breadstick raves - directly to the forum's door.

Big dilution.

Most of the hardcore hounds have already bolted. I imagine we'll say goodbye to many more as Chowhound completes its devolution into a technically stunted version of Yelp. Personally, I'm delighted and astounded that it's lasted even this long (having originally been conceived as a three hour tour; a three hour tour). But I don't, alas, see a way to reverse the dilution, even if the powers that be were suddenly to become clueful. As I wrote way back in Installment #3:
Running a site like Chowhound is like gardening, in that keeping it up requires the deflection of all sorts of entropy...[Chowhound was] a polished oasis, which self-reinforced by attracting great, discerning users - folks who valued intelligence, authenticity, and focus. If Chowhound were permitted to suck, even just a little, the spell would be broken, finicky experts would leave in droves, and in would flood the Olive Garden People, who, no longer intimidated by the high prevalent savvy, would let loose en masse with ditzy opinions. Entropy would jeopardize the precious climate of passionate expertise that made our data irresistible. The essential issue - the issue that kept me glued in front of my computer for most of a decade - is that entropy can't be undone. When online forums degrade, they do so irreversibly.
...and, returning to the same metaphor in Installment #8:
Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed.

Read the next installment (#25)

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