Entertainment-as-a-Service

[Cross-posted from my company blog.]

I just got back from a really fun (and delicious) lunch with Peter of Pantless Knights, who is in LA working on a hilarious new video, and one of the main things we discussed was the idea of Entertainment-as-a-Service. The term is a reference to the concept of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which is a business model generally contrasted with the conventional packaged or ‘shrinkwrap’ software model. Essentially, SaaS is a subscription business and packaged software is a retail business.

The entertainment industry is a retail business. Books, movies, tv shows, music are almost universally sold as one-off purchases. But, those things are just the packaging and the people selling them to you are just middle-men. The business of entertainment (not to be confused with the entertainment *industry*) is fundamentally a marketplace of attention between fans and content creators — fans have a finite supply of attention for which content creators are competing. So, then what is the entertainment industry? To use a very relevant analogy, it is the collection of intermediary businesses (i.e. publishers, studios, networks, labels) that have been acting like investment bankers, taking the raw materials of talent and creativity and packaging them up in a form they know how to sell (i.e. retail) and commanding a big slice of profit along the way. Entertainment doesn’t want to be a retail business, and that is the fundamental essence of the disruption the Internet has unleashed on the entertainment industry.

[Clarification: For the sake of this discussion, I’m using the term ‘content creator’ to represent those who add unique creative talent to the production process. As my dad pointed out, content creation is rarely a solo effort (most notably in film production, which can involve hundreds of individual contributors) to which studios, networks, labels, and publishers often contribute substantial value. But as those contributions are opaque and thus interchangeable as far as the consumer is concerned, I am excluding those who make them from the class I refer to as ‘content creators’ in this post. Otherwise said, even though the sound engineer plays a crucial role in creating the album, no one buys it based on *who* the sound engineer was.]

When you think about what elements of the entertainment business technology has really undermined, it’s nothing more than the packaging — the time slots and release dates and viewing windows and region codes that are artificial constructs of these middle-men trying to slice-and-dice the content into as many tranches as possible to squeeze out every last cent of profit. Just like the investment bankers and their CDOs fragmented and obscured the connections between investors and their investments, so have the studios, networks, publishers, and labels introduced complexity into the connections between content creators and their audiences. While that complexity, and the companies who created it, may have been a necessity in an era of technologically inferior marketing and distribution systems, they are simply market inefficiencies in the Internet age.

So, what is the difference between retail and subscription when it comes to entertainment? In a recent post on my personal blog about SaaS vs shrinkwrap software, I wrote:

The business model of packaged software invites feature bloat, because it’s upgrade driven and you need to continually find ways to justify why Thingamajig 2009 Pro Edition™ is so much better than Thingamajig 2008 Pro Edition™. Software as a Service businesses have a much different (and arguably greater) challenge, they need to continue to create value for their customers month after month….So, you end up with a much more customer-centric product…and a vendor who is truly interested in addressing your customer needs.

The first priority of a retail business is to maximize sales, building brand loyalty and repeat business may be means to that end but they always take a back-seat to whatever else will drive more sales. Whereas in a subscription business, customer retention (and thus customer satisfaction) is always top priority, even above new customer acquisition. So if a studio believes they can get a lot of people to see a crappy movie by spending more on marketing and less on quality, they will (and do, again, and again, and again…). Because all you’re buying from them is the packaging, they know you aren’t really paying attention to whether it’s a Fox or Warner Brothers or Paramount film (do you buy your cereal based on who made the box it comes in?). But, a director would rather disown a bad film than endorse the studio releasing something that doesn’t meet his standards and his fans’ expectations. This is because the director knows that his relationship with his fans is a subscription business, and if he disappoints them he will be unable to continue exchanging his content for their attention in the future. The studios understand this too — they don’t give Tom Cruise $25M (plus a cut of the gross) per movie because his acting skills bring $25M of quality to the screen, they do it because he has more than $25M in ticket, DVD, and merchandise sales worth of fans.

Entertainment is naturally a subscription business, and the Internet returns it to its natural state. The content creators who thrive online are those who understand this and focus on the ongoing satisfaction of their customers (see Ze Frank, Michael Buckley, Chris Leavins). The level of customer satisfaction these creators deliver is really only possible on the Internet because they can go direct-to-consumer without need of the middle-men and their packaging. These creators publish in all forms — video, photos, blogging, micro-blogging, music. They do not see themselves constrained by the legacy dividing lines of the entertainment industry, their goal is to entertain their audience by any and all means available. There is no distinction for them between primary and ancillary content, they are 360° entertainment brands. The other thing that has made these creators so successful online is their direct interaction with their customers. The best your most engaged fans can do offline is give you their personal attention (and the money that comes with it) and try to recruit others to do so as well. But online, they can interact with you and become part of the show. Empowering your customers is the surest way to make them even more engaged. As I wrote in another recent post on my personal blog:

Bringing your customers into the product development process has the dual benefits of helping you build better and more customer-centric products and making your customers your most passionate sales people (because after all, it’s their product too).

So, the Internet enables these creators to spend more time listening to their fans and creating new content they’ll enjoy while outsourcing the marketing to the community for free. This is the exact opposite of the offline retail model in which the studio takes money out of production budgets to put it into marketing campaigns. The ability to establish deeper relationships with their fans also allows online content creators to attain higher average attention per customer (ARPU) than is possible in the retail world, thereby making it easier to build more value by going deeper with a smaller audience.

To be clear, I’m not trying to say the only business model for content on the Internet is a recurring subscription fee. The ‘subscription business’ to which I’m referring is more the theoretical exchange of value between content creators and their fans, which can and will take many forms — including selling packaged goods. I’m also not saying that the online entertainment market is solely the domain of Internet-only content creators. In fact, I believe the Internet is most powerful as an entertainment marketplace when the quality and reputation of a historically offline content creator is freed of the constraints of the legacy packaged goods business model. Take for example Josh Freese, who gets extra points for using this freedom precisely to illustrate the absurdity of the conventional retail approach.

And now, I leave you with the profound product of the coming entertainment revolution:

P.S. Hat tips to Ian Rogers for the marketplace of attention thinking and Umair Haque for the marketing vs quality dichotomy.

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SaaS vs Shrinkwrap or Never trust a company not on Twitter

While eating lunch today, I started to think about the growing complexity of my company‘s expenses and decided it might be a good time to start looking at accounting solutions. The fact that my research began with a tweet is indication enough that I probably don’t fit anyone’s average consumer mold. But, I think some of the insights that came out of my experience are pretty fundamental and potentially extend beyond the ‘early adopter’ echo chamber.

First, I started down the conventional route by checking out market (and marketing) leader QuickBooks. Through some quick web searching, I found a few authoritative sounding comparisons that pegged QuickBooks as the best value for basic users (we’re just at the lower bound of even needing this stuff) — with the notable exception of the Mac version, which apparently gets less product development love than the Windows one. At $180, QuickBooks wasn’t really that daunting on the financial cost front. But, I was already starting to cringe on the usability/time cost side.

What I found myself really wanting was a web app (like Mint or Wesabe) for business accounting — something with a lightweight interface for connecting and organizing data from my financial services providers all in one place. And while I was researching products that might fit this bill, I started to think about why I had this innate preference for a web app (SaaS) over shrinkwrapped software. The business model of packaged software invites feature bloat, because it’s upgrade driven and you need to continually find ways to justify why Thingamajig 2009 Pro Edition™ is so much better than Thingamajig 2008 Pro Edition™. Software as a Service businesses have a much different (and arguably greater) challenge, they need to continue to create value for their customers month after month. Sometimes that value comes in the form of new features, but it doesn’t *have* to. So, you end up with a much more customer-centric product (what customers *know* they want after using it, not what they *think* they want before buying it — as humans are notoriously bad predictors of our own happiness) and a vendor who is truly interested in addressing your customer needs. So, unless there is an element of the problem a given software product is trying to solve that inherently benefits from the advantages of the desktop (i.e. local storage, access to the file system/peripherals, superior performance), I’d rather have the SaaS version.

The other thing that was on my mind when doing this evaluation was my incredibly positive recent experience on Twitter with the CEO’s of iPlotz and Balsamiq, both of which happen to be SaaS products. I realized that it really spoiled me and there’s no way I’m ever going back to the old regime of captive audiences and passive customers. So, my new rule is “never trust a company not on Twitter.” Now, that’s a bit reductionist — and, in Intuit’s defense, they are actually on Twitter (hi Alison 🙂 ). The real point is that today’s customer service equation needs to include how responsive the company is to your new product requirements and feature requests, not just how quickly they fix something when it’s broken or answer a question when you’re too lazy to read the instructions. As much as I appreciate Intuit’s presence on Twitter, I highly doubt Alison is able to change Intuit’s release schedule to get that new feature I want out to me sooner. By virtue of the packaged software business model, she is not adequately empowered to address my customer needs.

Through my research and a very handy post on my friend Leonard’s blog (thanks for the tip Carrie), I found two SaaS solutions for small business accounting: LessAccounting and Xero. They’re both about the same price ($~25/month), and Xero seems to have a slightly superior feature set (automatic syncing with your online accounts is a biggie). But, LessAccounting clearly had the edge in customer interaction. LessAccounting has a very active corporate Twitter account and both founders have personal accounts, they use Get Satisfaction and there are 4 topics on their Get Satisfaction page that have been updated in the last 24 hrs (I also checked out the activity on the Get Satisfaction accounts of both founders), and, last but not least, they have a sense of humor (be it a slightly mean one 🙂 ). Xero has a very active corporate blog and they seem to be quite responsive to their customers’ comments. But as a prospective customer, I would really like to have some better ways to interact with Xero than sending them an email or leaving a comment on their blog. (Update: Phillip from Xero responded in the comments that they do in fact have a Twitter account and an in-product feedback mechanism.) Get Satisfaction and User Voice are both great names, because when you use their products as a company that’s exactly what you do: give your customers a voice and the satisfaction that it’s being heard.

When shopping for SaaS, you’re choosing a partner in innovation. So, the future direction of a product is maybe an even more important consideration than the current feature set. And while LessAccounting can surely replicate Xero’s features, can Xero replicate LessAccounting’s customer-centricity? They both offer 30 day free trials, so I’m going to try both and make a decision in a month. And who knows, at $180 for QuickBooks Pro I may decide shrinkwrapped software is the more sensible way to go this time around (but, that doesn’t mean I have to like it 😉 ).

Update: Wow! This is starting to freak me out. I write these things to capture the distillation of the things I see out on the interwebs that I like and dislike, mostly for my personal benefit in thinking about my own business. I don’t do so really anticipating to hear back from the companies about whom I’m writing, but I guess I’ll just have to get used to this whole blogging thing 😉 .

Thanks to Phillip from Xero and Allan from LessAccounting for your responses in the comments and for engaging in the conversation. Phillip corrected me that Xero does have a Twitter account, which I updated in situ above.

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