Selling Horseshoes in the Age of Driverless Cars: Part 1

I can’t tell you the number of times some digital douchebag announced in a meeting that the new website or the new “CMS” was “finally going to be the game changer we’ve been waiting for. This is the ONE.” Hah. Same shit, different day.”

– A former colleague who needs to remain unnamed

Part 1:  “All Right You Primitive Screwheads”

Listen up

I’ve seen a lot of ways to build a website and they all were a massive disappointment.  The stuff the CMS industry talks about today: personalization and putting dynamic content in front of the right person at the right time based on their history and preferences was in the dreams of the Web 1.0 pioneers right from the beginning. Targeted advertising. Web sites that act like applications and not static pages ripped from paper and converted for the glass.  Database publishing. Dynamic pages. Personalization. All of this stuff was obvious twenty years ago. The only difference is that today a person who thinks it’s about “web content management” is buying horseshoes in the age of driverless cars. Things are so crazy and confusing that we’ve thrown up our hands in despair and are walking around trying to describe the rash on our ass as “Digital Experience Delivery.”

Digital? That’s the best we can do? When are we going to accept that Digital is a given and at the heart of the matter and stop sticking it in front of our stuff like describing a car as an “Automotive Transportation System” because we don’t want to confuse the market who might be shopping for a one-horse sleigh? “Digital Marketing?” As opposed to what? The “Traditional Marketing Department?”

Content? People who write software are very different from the people who use it. When they want to describe the “stuff” their system processes and manipulates and publishes, they shrug and call it a big generic “Content” which their system “ingests.” Sit down with Marty Barron, the stud editor of the Boston Globe played by Liev Schrieber in Spotlight, and call his reporting “content” and he’ll look you in the eye and tell you that you have no soul when you lump a Pulitzer prize winning series of major journalism and reporting into the generic “Content” bucket.

“I hate the word content, which has infiltrated our profession. You have people who are called chief content officers and things like that. I don’t like the word content. To me, it’s like saying the word “stuff.” It has no meaning, whereas journalism actually does have meaning.” Marty Barron

Experience? Sounds like Austin Powers dancing through London in the 1960s on his way to a “Hippy Happening.” To hell with “experiences” and let’s admit it’s a sign that we don’t know how describe the   the rash on our butts. It’s red. It itches. It’s on our left buttock and we’re not sure if it’s eczema or psoriasis or an allergy to the cat. So we go to WebMD and we type in “Rash Red Ass” and what we get back for a self-diagnosis is “Digital Experience Delivery” or heaven forbid, “Web Content Management?”

With that off my chest, I’m going to pollute this personal blog with a series on how the world of “content management solutions” is missing the boat and deluding itself into believing it knows what the future holds. It doesn’t. This is going to be a multi-post series on the history of web and content management that ends with some thoughts about the state of the market today and where I think it’s going.

 Next in the series: Let me dust off my bona fides. Not to brag but I sort of know this stuff and this would be one of my Jeopardy categories. I started out with an electric typewriter in 1974, regressed and ran a letter press right out of Benjamin Frankiln, graduated to the first word processor, was around at the dawn of HTML, the first web site building tools, launched one of the planet’s most successful financial web sites, rebuilt the world’s top management consulting firm’s knowledge management system, did ecommerce for a Fortune Global 100 company and wound up where I am today marketing the world’s best CMS solution for mega-brands and governments that need to build and deliver websites on the scale of nuclear powered aircraft carriers.

And I’m self-effacing and humble.

Next Enough About Me; What do you think about me?

Some men want to see the world burn

I love Gmail because of the Exclamation Point button. This is an icon that I push a few times every day when some email marketer hounds me to “please point me to the person in your company who handles Account Based Marketing” or wants to find some time to talk about my “content management attribution challenges in the coming year.”

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I know these emails have code embedded in them that tells the sender when I’ve opened them. I know that I will never respond to them. Never take their phone call. Have no guilt over ignoring them.

But the Exclamation Point — well it’s basically the email marketing equivalent of dumping the Alien Monster out of the airlock into the vacuum of space where no one can hear them scream. Not only does a quick click of the button block the sender from ever landing in my inbox again, it reports them to some unseen power as a spammer.

Aww.Poor email marketers with their “lovable marketing content.” Try it. It’s fun.

 

Part 4: You Talk like a #%^ and Your S$%t Sounds Retarded

Anyone who walks into a company today that has been doing this Digital thing for the last twenty years and tries to sell a vision around the Freedom to Innovate and Embrace Digital Transformation is going to experience what tech journalists called the MEGO effect. My Eyes Glazed Over.

Talk to the toilers in the vineyard, the poor souls on the front lines,  and just try to pitch them on douche-baggery like “content marketing” or “digital experiences.” You’re going to find they either tune out and start instant messaging to each other during the meeting that you “suck and should have brought Buzzword Bingo cards with you.” These wizened veterans of the web wars know a few things for sure and if you get them grumpy enough they are going to interrupt your pitch to tell you some brutal truths:

  1. Whatever they are building today is going to turn into a brown banana and need to be redone in 18 months.
  2. Whatever they are building will fail when they need it the most because web hosting was designed to fail under pressure.
  3. They have no money, no time, and everybody hates the website.
  4. Marketing consists of ass clowns.
  5. Whatever tools you sell them to build said hated website will screw them when it comes time to move to another tool because the CEO lost patience, hired a Chief Digital Officer who doesn’t tuck in their shirt and carries an iPad, has a Bluetooth headset and wants to create a Digital Center of Excellence using some dumb PaaS/SaaS solution the cool kids were talking about at LeWeb. But the CDO has a lot of Twitter followers, so they have influence and are a true Thought Leader.
  6. If you talk to them like children “Your customers have embraced the Internet and expect a thrilling digital experience” you will become a jerk and be placed in the spam folder.
  7. If you tell them to “Be responsive and agile and treat every visitor as an individual like Oreos did during the Superbowl when they tweeted during the blackout” you will become a jerk and made fun of and given a new nickname behind your back like “Douche Nozzle Dave the Sales Weasel.”

Look, this is the problem. Remember Chef in Apocalypse Now? The former New Orleans saucier who got off the boat and stepped into the jungle and almost was eaten by a tiger? Don’t get off the boat! Remember him talking about his experience as an Army cook?

“They lined us up in front of a hundred yards of prime rib. All of us.  Looking at it. Magnificent meat! Beautifully marbled. Magnifique! Next thing they’re throwing all this meat into big cauldrons. All of it. Boiling it. I looked inside. It was turning grey.” – Chef

That’s what marketers do to perfectly good technology. They  feel compelled to run down to the 7-11 and look for a can of Duncan Hines Chocolate Frosting and they smear that goo over their beautifully marbled meat in the hope that Google will find the goo because buzzwords like “Freedom to Innovate” and “Omnichannel Agile Platforms” attract attention because…..well because the competition is saying those things on their website and the Search Engine Marketing firm says those terms are what are hot right now and …..heck, why not?

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The horror. The horror.

Christmas in Cotuit

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By Eric Michelsen

 

No, it didn’t snow on the Cape recently. This picture of my house was shot by local photographer Eric Michelsen in the 1990s judging from the size of the village Christmas tree which is now three times the size, and the existence of arborvitae along the white fence in front of my house before they were wiped out by some nasty fungus.

This shot was sold — both  framed and on note cards which some Cotusions used for Christmas cards — but I wasn’t aware of its existence until a friend stopped by yesterday during the annual tree lighting in the park when Santa Claus arrives by boat the town doc and flips the switch on the lights.  I still hang white lights off the fence, but nothing like the way  my wife lit the place up back when the kiddos were little.

Digressive Discursions

It riles me up to no end to hear some bright-eyed know-it-all declare “what we really need is some engaging story telling to ignite our flaccid content marketing strategy.” There are an abundance of douche marketing “storytellers” ready to sell us a breathless how-to book, or charge us a hefty consulting fee before they tuck us all in, sit on the end of our beds, and crack open the white-paper edition of Go Dog Go! and put us to sleep with some nighttime fable of how to create lovable marketing content that will engage and connect us to the thought leaders that will flip our funnels and turn us from faceless users to loyal brand advocates.

But I digress.

Digression is what I’m here to write about today. Digression is a maddening art and a truly guilty pleasure that squanders time. Taken too far it can be worse than oral surgery. Done right it can delight and leave us begging for more. Who among us hasn’t sat stupefied in the presence of some absolutely horribly pedantic story teller who just. can’t. seem. to. get. to. the. goddamn. point? Yet, who can argue with Lord Byron’s brilliant epigram, about his lover, Caroline:

“Caro Lamb, Goddamn”

Or the shortest, sad story ever told, attributed to Hemingway:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

While brevity is the soul of wit, and short words always win out over longer synonyms, our Ritalin society can be tagged with the depressing acronym: TL;DR“Too Long; Didn’t Read.” The art of spinning a yarn, telling a tall-tale, being a true raconteur (a person who can tell an anecdote in a skillful and amusing way) just doesn’t seem to fit when declaiming on a four-part framework for calculating the ROI of website personalization.

After all: story telling is the original entertainment medium. Think of Homer sitting around the fire and telling the story of brave Ulysses to a crowd of illiterate Greek kids.  The heart of the story-tellers is the spoken word — not the written  — and it would do us all well to remember that stories were invented around the campfire, delivered from memory by a story teller, and is the origin of the theater, the novel, film and ultimately the place from which the music of language was tested and perfected. Digression in a story is a way to build suspense, foreshadow events, explain and provide background, and show off one’s erudition. How to weave a footnote into a narrative is a delicate balancing act that few can pull off.

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In this era of TED talks and the Moth Radio Hour, Podcasts, personal reminiscences, and self-indulgent blogs such as this one, this is no surfeit of stories to consume.  Headlines beg for our limited attention, we get seduced by clickbait and listicles, A/B tested by algorithms to see what reptilian part of our hippocampus will cause our right index finger to flex and click.  So in our quick-twitch, Adderal-amped lives, let’s consider the luxury of digression; of stretching out and letting a story teller take their time, hook our attention like an angler sets the barb in a fish’s lip, and hold us for 1,000 pages from one sentence to the next, always wanting more.  Let’s follow the footnotes, spend sometime looking up a word, chasing more information, and realize we live in an age of amazing possibilities when it comes to digressing and falling down the rabbit hole of digression where incredible discoveries might be found.

My late friend Jimmy Guterman was fascinated with the impact of hypertext —  links embedded in text — which could be followed by the reader down different paths. He would have laughed at the concept of corporate storytelling and punctured the conceit with some droll bon mot. He quoted, in the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company founder Alan Webber, opening a conference about content and context by saying “…Webber began the two-day event by arguing that storytelling is overrated….

Before HTML came on the scene in 1994, Jimmy and I experimented with a hypertext project using the engine behind Microsoft’s help engine — the name escapes me — to digitize the rules governing yacht racing. Jimmy took it further into fiction, but I can’t find any examples on his blog. Experimental fiction has played with alternative plot tracks — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch has two different possible chapter sequences.  Video games — the most lucrative entertainment medium extant today — represent one of the best manifestations of interactive story-telling, the hype that was touted around “interactive television” in the 1990s, when viewers could pick different plot lines or camera angles.

Two writers embody the beauty of digression for me me. Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow and David Foster Wallace in nearly all of his books, but especially his masterpiece Infinite Jest. In 2005, Wallace wrote a profile of a right-wing talk radio host for the Atlantic Monthly.  The print edition, which I read on an Acela to NYC, was a masterpiece in taking the principles of digital hypertext and linking onto the printed page. The editors at the Atlantic reformatted the digital edition, using color cues on words to designate footnoted material.

“Navigating the baroque structure of footnotes within footnotes on either the original manuscript or galleys would have been nearly impossible, so we worked on a printout of pages in the ingenious design of our art director, Mary Parsons.”

Here’s a link to their explanation of how they edited and formatted the piece. It presages some amazing examples of interactive journalism and storytelling such as the iconic New York Times piece on an avalanche tragedy, Snowfall.

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Here’s the text as it is formatted online:

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And here is what the reader sees when they click on the colored words with the [+] prompt:

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For me the revelation has been reading William Manchester’s three-volume epic biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion on a Kindle. While e-books are a bit of a tragedy in terms of substantial additions to one’s physical bookshelf, the developers at Amazon have introduced some amazing things in the decade they’ve been perfecting the Kindle interface. For example, any Kindle user is familiar with the ability to look an unfamiliar word up in a sentence simply by highlighting the word and seeing a pop-up definition appear. That in itself is an amazing service to readers like me who are guilty of skipping past some obscure word and missing the opportunity to add something new and amazing to our vocabularies. But it’s the addition of Wikipedia that takes things to a whole new level. Consider when Maechatfieldnchester talks about Churchill’s relationship to the Royal Navy in the years between the two world wars and introduces “Lord Chatfield, Admiral of the Fleet.” Well, my middle name is Chatfield, I have a personal stake in finding out who the hell Lord Chatfield is, and thanks to the Kindle I get right to his entry on Wikipedia, share it with my brother Henry (who also has the Chatfield middle name), and we both get a good laugh and begin referring to each other as “Admiral of the Fleet” whenever we pull our skiffs out of the harbor.

I read Wallace’s Infinite Jest through the first time without taking the time to follow each and every foot note to the end-notes. When I finished the novel — a serious door stop at 1000 plus pages — I started to read those notes and realized what I had missed.

What we have before us, to go back to Guterman’s piece about Alan Webber, is “context within our content”, the ability to stay in the narrative but take a digressive detour out without losing our places.  I think it’s incumbent on any writer to indulge their reader’s with some detours, to walk them down a side-path to some hidden spot. In all our wheel spinning in search for optimization and algorithmic textual perfection, take off your shoes, kick back, and get lost down the rabbit hole of digression. Who knows what surprise you might stub your mind on.

50 Pieces of Random Advice

Here’s a list of random advice and rules of thumb I’ve picked up over the years and  still cling to.

  1. The Golden Rule still applies
  2. If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything
  3. Trust your intuition
  4. If offered a Tic Tac, accept it. You probably need it.
  5. Bitch up, not down
  6. Never eat anything bigger than your head
  7. Don’t s%^t where you eat
  8. Omit unnecessary words
  9. Shorter words are better than longer ones
  10. Listen more, talk less
  11. The only time to use an exclamation point is in the sentence “You cut my arm off”
  12. Don’t date someone with more than three cats
  13. The sky is high and the Emperor is far away
  14. Don’t quit your job until you have your next one
  15. People think in three’s — three acts, three bullets, three concepts
  16. The 80-20 rule always applies
  17. A car carrying a AAA sticker or a license plate with a sub-five digit number is driven by a bad driver
  18. George O’Day Died Defending His Right of Way — watch out for the other guy
  19. Throw back the first fish of the season with a kiss
  20. Red Sky At Night, Sailor’s Delight
  21. Red Right Returning
  22. When offered something, take the one closest to you
  23. No pleats
  24. Bowties are asshole detectors
  25. The Abe Lincoln rule of pissed off letters (and emails) applies: write, don’t send
  26. Tough guys don’t dance
  27. Tough guys don’t tweet
  28. Tough guys don’t sip cocktails through straws
  29. Powerpoint sucks
  30. Never bullshit your boss. Just say “I don’t know.”
  31. Rub dirt on it and take a lap
  32. Children only need to go to the ER if blood is coming out of their ears
  33. Don’t wear clothing with the name of any school you attended
  34. Don’t be the Closer of any party
  35. If you don’t know who the sucker is, then it is you
  36. 80% of Walmart shoppers turn right when they enter the store
  37. If ignored for 5 minutes in a restaurant, get up and leave
  38. Keep the crew dry and in the sun
  39. There is no bad weather, only bad clothing
  40. Cheese and fish do not mix
  41. High tide in Cotuit is always at noon and midnight when the moon is full
  42. The 20s are the worst decade
  43. No one gets out alive
  44. Don’t arrive empty handed
  45. Handwritten notes work
  46. Nothing important happens after midnight
  47. Take a cab
  48. Do what the officer tells you to
  49. Keep religion and politics out of it
  50. There’s always hope