Digital economy and the digital revolution

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the digital revolution and the changes that it is driving in the economy. We are seeing a bifurcation between the old 19th and 20th century manufacturing based industries and the 21st century digital economy.

This is a shift from creation of tangible products to the creation of digital products.  These digital products are not intangible. We still touch them, but the interaction is mediated by digital devices. For example we are still reading books and listening to music, but instead of reading a physical book or listening to a physical record or CD we simply download the digital media to our devices.

 Newspapers are a good example

What drove the success of newspapers and magazines in 19th and 20th centuries? The need for information, the scarcity of that information, and the tyranny of distance that prevented ordinary people from acquiring information easily.

And it was advertising and information about shipping that was the killer app for the newspapers. Classified advertising and the shipping schedules met key information needs for consumers and merchants alike.

This situation made newspapers a valued intermediary between sellers and buyers. And it made them valuable to consumers of information about the world, people, politics, and current events

Even digital business are not immune to change

A stalwart digital business is World of Warcraft, and I was surprised to see it reported via BBC News that World of Warcraft loses another million subscribers. 

Yet along with Facebook, with its recent IPO debacle, and Zynga, with its disappointing earnings and consequent management changes, we are seeing digital business struggle. This shows that being a digital business is not the sole answer.  There are other elements of success that we must uncover.

Thus it is interesting to consider The 10 (Surprising) Companies That Make More Money Online Than Facebook where Alexis Madrigal notes (via Paid Content) that the following companies earn more revenue that Facebook:

  1. Google
  2. China Mobile
  3. Bloomberg
  4. Reed Elsevier
  5. Apple
  6. Yahoo
  7. WPP
  8. Thomson Reuters
  9. Tencent
  10. Microsoft

One thing of which I’m certain: businesses whose revenues rely solely on people clicking online ads are destined for the deadpool in the long run.

Information scarcity is gone – we need trustworthy filters

That day is gone. Information scarcity is a thing of the past. Instead our need is to identify the best and most reliable sources among the flood of information available to us.

There was a good discussion of this in Techdirt recently: Turns Out That The iPad Won’t Magically Bring Back Scarcity For Magazines .

The fallacy of adopting old business models and applying them to the digital economy

There has been a belief that we can simply pick up old business practices and apply them to digital channels and expect similar results to what we got last century.  But some recent evidence indicates that this might not be the case.

Some recent articles that point to emerging challenges to traditional advertising approaches are:

New models evolving

Some new approaches that are evolving are supported by concepts like content marketing and community engagement. In recent times the retailer Sears has adopted a new approach and recounts progress: Sears Explains Its Success In Content Marketing.

This article by Shane Snow discusses some of the issues facing us in the digital economy How To Thrive In The Free-Product Economy, the fairly radical call here is:

“The bottom line is someone will probably one day ship a version your product for free. Maybe it will lack this or that feature you hold so dear, but that won’t matter. The broader the appeal, the more likely someone’s going to undercut your paid product with a free one.

I say beat the competition to the punch. It’s going to happen anyway. And setting your product free may just earn you the most business you’ve ever had.”

Even in traditional businesses some are reporting success in the digital economy, for example as Mathew Ingram reported recently:

“Both the Financial Times and the New York Times have either already crossed or are close to crossing an important threshold: namely, the point at which revenue from reader subscriptions exceeds the revenue they get from advertising.”

But Ingram notes, this success is largely because advertisers are departing in droves. The decline of advertising driven revenue models will only get worse in this age of information richness.

Technology shifts are driving the change even faster

As Dave Copeland notes Social Discovery Is Pushing Search and Social Closer and:

“Social Search Is the Web’s New Disruptor”

And consumers are increasingly living in a realtime world and feel annoyed or disrespected when organizations do not deliver to their expectations. A good example of this was the so-called #nbcfail where the NBC network in the US did not broadcast Olympic events to its audience in realtime. Instead it chose to only present them in delayed telecast during prime time.  This led to negative reports on social networks and even to Twitter banning a journalist at NBC’s request, which led to reports like: The #nbcfail isn’t about email addresses, it’s about corporate cronyism.

The Olympics also provided an example of how walled gardens for sponsors simply result in bad user feedback in these hyperconnected days. For example, this user reported their experience of visiting the London Olympics and provided their feedback on one of the sponsors.

The kind of command and control approach used by the Olympic organising committed and their sponsors seems strangely out of step with the digital world.  And it is so easily subverted as demonstrated so amusingly by Nike in London.

I’m not sure what the disruptors will be, but as Tom Foremski said of changes to our traditional business models:

“This is the Gordian knot of our times. The saving grace is that if anyone, I, Rupert Murdoch, or you — figure it out, we all benefit, we can all adapt to that business model.

I’ve been warning about this issue since I left the Financial Times in mid-2004. At the time, I was confident that we’d find a solution within five years. We haven’t — and I’ve seen nothing yet that shows that we will. “