Folkways Recordings Webmaster

Webmaster Tobby Dodds sat down with me to explain Folkways’ success. Folkways is a record company operated by the Smithsonian that has a huge collection of about 40,000 traditional Americana, spoken word, world music, and ethnographic recordings, and even the sounds of animals and machines. It started in the 1940s and then 50 years later started making CDs from its old acetate records. It is somewhat ironic that much of this traditional and historical material now has another life on the web.

“Most people don’t come to the Folkways website directly. They come to us through the webpages of specific CDs.” As Dodds explains, each Folkways CD available for sale on the website has its own web page; the website has more than 3,000 pages.

Visitors also get to the website when searching for a particular singer or a musician. The Folkways website typically appears in the top results of Google searches.  “The key,” says webmaster Dodds, “is that singer’s name or artist is on our webpage. Once the person navigates to the webpage he or she will  find dozens of hyperlinked references specifically about that artist. After that, the visitor is hooked.”

Dodds says Folkways Recordings offers music from around the world and thus was “built for the Internet.” He recalls one specific instance after first launching a web version of Folkways in 2001. One afternoon Dodds received a call from a man who was elated that Folkways had a CD of Angolan Freedom Songs. Seconds later Dodds learned the man was working on an oil rig off the Coast of Angola and calling from a satellite phone.

Folkways sales have evolved from the old record store with bins of records and then cassettes and CDs, and from its catalog sales where people would send in written order forms. Now millions of dollars of its music are sold as tracks downloaded from the Folkways website to computers and mobile devices–just like iTunes. In fact, thousands of Folkways tracks are sold on iTunes and other digital music sites.  Folkways makes more money per sale on its own site–about $0.99 a download, and about two-thirds of that when it sells through others. It gets more profit per sale on its own site, but tries to have a large presence on other sites because they have much more traffic.

Dodds tracks his webmetrics, and uses services like Google Analytics. Dodds says sometimes the numbers can be misleading because there could be a lot of co-workers accessing the website instead of outside visitors. Still, the website gets something like 5 million unique visitors a year.

Above all else, accessibility is the most important aspect of a website. Dodds knows what makes for a navigable and well designed website. In 2009, the Folkways website was nominated for a Webby.

Folkways is part of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage, So be sure to check out their other sites–they have great videos of all sorts of musical performances.



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Whitney’s Assumption of Risks

Last week, on the television show, “30 Rock,” main character Tracy Jordan’s son opens up a restaurant. The rookie restaurateur assumes that customers would enjoy eating their meals while watching Japanese Godzilla monsters engage in deadly battle. He turns out to be wrong.

In class, we would identify this type of folly as a “killer assumption.”

If an assumption is wrong, it will probably kill your business. Therefore, a good rule of thumb for all aspiring entrepreneurs is to consider two important issues. First, identify what your killer assumptions may be. Second, figure out a way to test those assumptions so that your business doesn’t go belly-up.

Coincidentally, a number of students in our class are working on business plans. Whitney Maddox wants to launch Bold Magazine, an online magazine targeted to African-American women from the United States, aged 15 to 21. Unlike competitor youth magazines, Whitney’s magazine will have stories about the average African-American teenager.

Through our conversations, we outlined a number of assumptions. However, I believe Whitney’s biggest (and possibly killer) assumptions rest with how she will collect information for her online stories and how she knows those stories will be appealing and relevant to her readers.

Why are they killers? Bottom-line, no stories no magazine.

If the stories are not appealing to the target population, then the website will not have an audience. If there is no audience, there is little to no incentive for advertisers to pay for banner or box ad space on the Bold website. Unless Whitney has some other kind of funding, I imagine it would be very difficult to keep the website running while continuing to interview teenagers and write articles.

Whitney and I both agreed that before launching a website, it might be best to do some market research and assemble a focus group consisting of potential consumers. In this case, the focus group for Bold would be African-American women ages 15 to 21. If focus group members are not even the slightest bit interested in the online magazine, then Whitney has her answer and the business is over. However, if target group shows interest in reading Bold Magazine, then we would have to sit-down, outline more assumptions, and conduct further market testing.

But let’s assume that Whitney has launched Bold, the online magazine, and the website is doing well: attracting a lot of visitors and advertisers. At this point, Whitney might consider offering a monthly or annual fee for Bold.

In some cases the introduction of a fee on a previously free business, such in Whitney’s case might alienate most of her readers and kill her website. This is yet another example of a killer assumption.

My suggestion to Whitney is to conduct an online focus group of Bold readers, which could help her test this killer assumption. Whitney could ask them under what conditions, if any, would they consider paying a subscription fee for Bold. Whitney may discover that the best answer lies within a compromise: offering a free service version and a fee-based pro-version, thus keeping her business afloat.

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Un-Winged Migration (Zagat’s move to Mobil Application Business)


Zagat’s Second Try

In a previous blog post, “The Internet is Dead,” I mention how the tendency nowadays was for the center of interactive media to move to a post-HTML environment. As far back as 1997, Wired Magazine foresaw the future of the WWW and even went as far as suggest that it was time to “kiss your browser goodbye.” The argument then was that “push” technologies such as PointCast and Microsoft’s Active Desktop would create a “radical future of media beyond the Web.” Has that moment arrived? The semi closed platforms that use the Internet only for transport is according to Wired, “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing. The screen comes to them; they don’t have to go to the screen.” In addition, will it mean a second chance for those companies who “missed the boat” the first time when the shift to online content was irreversible?

We mentioned in the previous blog entry the grave mistake that newspapers had made when they started launching their digital editions in the late 1990’s. Realizing that there was an increasing number of news sites that offered their content free and that readers were reluctant to pay to read online, they stopped charging in the hopes that they would attract a wider audience, and the advertising revenue would increase accordingly. This error, now referred to as the “original sin,” was catastrophic for the media. Pint subscriptions began to fall: it was no longer necessary to buy the newspaper if you could get it free online.  Advertisers also moved with the readers and advertising moved to online ads, which charged much lower prices. Such is the case of The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast, whose contributors offer their content for little or no money. The problem is that Zagat, who used to be the ultimate authority in all things restaurant never made up its mind to give its content free and that was also a mistake. Soon, Zagat who used to be the last word in restaurant appreciation was taken over by sites such as Yelp, which made its debut in 2004and draws much more traffic. An article in the New York Times Business Section reports that while online traffic comparisons are never exact, had 570,000 unique domestic Web visitors in September, according to the Nielsen Company, versus 9.4 million for Yelp. The Zagats say they actually have more than 1.2 million unique users worldwide. Yelp where the untrained reader provided the restaurant reviews.  

The New York Times article  believes that Zagat missed the opportunity to successfully transition to the internet. Zagat refused to give its content free, so confident they were on the quality of their product and reputation. Now in the next transition, to mobile applications, Zagat is trying to avoid the same mistake. Whereas has met resistance from desktop computer users when it comes time to put down the money, mobile customers have shown more willingness to pay for apps.  And since the digital world has turned in a new direction where  more consumers that use smart phones and other mobile devices are willing to pay for content and services through apps. Zagat is trying to prove that it’s worth paying $9.99 a year for its smartphone app, even while Yelp and other competitors are offering their apps free.

On the other hand, the Zagat app has a crucial advantage: users can download all of the guides into their phones. Therefore, when the AT&T signal fritzes out, their iPhones can still offer advice when they’re hungry and standing on a street corner.

In any case,  with the displacement of  the internet where everybody can access or own a computer to a more exclusive and enclosed platform  as the mobile apps, the story seems like the characters in that children’s book written by Dr Seuss’ about the Sneeches. Now that everybody has a star, the Sneeches have to take theirs off so that they can distinguish themselves from the others. Now that everybody can get the information for free that they want, is time to move the ballgame to another park.

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The internet is Dead


(For Big Business, that is.)

Such is the claim of a controversial article published by Wired Magazine last August. Almost two decades after Timothy Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web went live on December 1990, the reckoning is that it is too late to try to make business selling content. “The World Wide Web,” Berners-Lee recently wrote in an article published in Scientific American, “is a project that was never finished.” However, the failings or deficiencies of the web are perceived in a very different way by Berners-Lee and and by Big Business and media conglomerates. The truth is that the WWW seems to be in the middle of a struggle that is as much about economics and technology as it is about class and democracy, and indeed, about the very soul of the whole interprise.

According to Berners-Lee the universality of the WWW is being threatened by monopolies:

Cable television companies that sell Internet connectivity are considering whether to limit their Internet users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment. Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites.”

According to Berners-Lee, the WWW: “… evolved into a powerful, ubiquitous tool because it was built on egalitarian principles and because thousands of individuals, universities and companies have worked both independently and together as part of the World Wide Web Consortium, to expand its capabilities based on those principles.”

And this is precisely the problem for Big Business and media conglomerates. To them, the WWW’s big failure is the lack of a single model to make money out of it certainly points to its failures. Now we have the two extremes: either sophisticated information from news media that charge for their content, like The Economist, The New York Review of Books, or the Wall Street Journal. Or, free content provided by anyone with a computer, extremely unreliable and not subject to any kind of supervision or quality control, except for the a mainly unsophisticated audience that vote with their clicks.  


When newspapers started launching their digital editions in the late 1990’s, they tried at first to charge for them. However, seeing that their was an increasing number of news sites that would offer their content for free and readers were reluctant to pay to read online, they stopped charging hoping that in such a way they would attract a wider audience, and the advertising revenue would increase in proportion. This error, now referred to as the “original sin,” was catastrophic for the media. Pint subscriptions began to fall: it was no longer necessary to buy the newspaper if you could get it free online.  Advertisers also moved with the readers and advertising moved to  online ads, which charged much lower prices. Such is the case of The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast, whose contributors offer their content for little or no money.

The center of interactive media — increasingly, the center of gravity of all media — is moving to a post-HTML environment,” Wired announced in July 1997. The magazine foresaw the future in “Push!” cover story, which suggested that it was time to “kiss your browser goodbye.” The argument then was that “push” technologies such as PointCast and Microsoft’s Active Desktop would create a “radical future of media beyond the Web.”

Is the new trend of the iPhone model of mobile computing a reckoning that it is too late to try to snatch the internet back from the “people.”?  The semi closed platforms that use the Internet only for transport is according to Wired, “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing. The screen comes to them; they don’t have to go to the screen.” Are Big Business and media conglomerates moving the game to another playfield, to soil that is more fertile, leaving the internet like a barren land, a ghost town where only rats will roam around? Only time will tell.


RFC 2235Hobbes’ Internet Timeline:

 Letras Libres Magazine:


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The Social Network: David vs. Goliath. Old school vs. No school. Past vs. Future.

The Social Network:

Best illustration so far of displacement from tri dimensional social universe to one-dimensional plane that—paradoxically—allows construction of multi-layered self.

David Fincher’s film is Hollywood at its best. Aaron Sorkin’s (The West Wing) brilliant script slides in different planes replicating the seismic shift that Facebook created by moving the social terrain from reality to a screen, which—paradoxically—allowed for the creation of a richer, multi-layered self. In spite of being set on the rarified environment of the Harvard elite, the story about the creation of Facebook is a simple tale of common human foibles. It helps that the main characters, based on very real people, lend themselves to act as archetypes representing larger truths. The complex dynamics that the film so masterfully explores are interplayed in Sorkin’s script through many levels that take place at the same time. In Fincher and Sorkin’s expert’s hand the birth of Facebook raises to a meticulous play of classic dimensions.  However, more than a Greek tragedy the movie is a moral fable.

Even before the credits, the first scene sets the tone of the movie. In a crowded and noisy bar, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is having an argument with his beautiful girlfriend (Rooney Mara).  Mark is going on endlessly about the Harvard social clubs that he would like, but cannot belong to:

David vs. Goliath

Temptation comes in the form of the ultimate golden boy(s): Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, or the Winklevoss twins (both interpreted by Armie Hammer). They are Harvard’s ultimate elite. Tey belong to Harvard oldest and most prestigious club, the Porcellian. The club’s motto, Dum vivimus vivamus (while we live, let us live) is Epicurean. The are the finest representation of the ultimate WASP student.  They are trying to create a social network that will allow Harvard students (and only Harvard students) to belong and share information. They offer status-craving Zuckerberg to develop the right program and software for them.  In a  questionable move, Zuckerberg accepts, but goes on to create his own web page with the idea that the Winklevoss’s’ had of a Social Network, but that ends up being much more than they ever suggested it could. Zuckerberg outsmarts them and even the president of Harvard sides with him. They tried to play “by the book” using an honor code that could not operate anymore in democratic world that the internet was creating. In the new social universe created by Facebook, the social markers that placed the twins at the top of the social scale did not work anymore. The game had move to the internet, a dimension that the twins for all their social graces, did not master yet. So, the first part of the film boils down to this: the Winklevosse’s lost the race And nobody feels sorry for them because as self-regarding as the pompous asses are, the race was not really about them. It was about what they represented  tradition, continuity, old standards. The race that is displayed literally in a crew competition where the twins participated in England, has a metaphorically echo.

Past vs. Future

Inter playing the many levels of competition that take place at the same time, The Social Network is a three round match in which the Winklvosses lost the first one. The second round came much closer to home. It involves Zuckerberg’s best friend, Harvard classmate and first financial partner, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).  Again, in the larger metaphorical scale, Savarin represents the old school of making business. As soon as the Facebook goes viral and begins to have followers, he wants to monetize it and begin charging for it. Zuckerberg, without knowing exactly why, opposes the idea. He feels that The facebook (as it was called in its initial stages (circa 2004), was something that was beyond their  understanding and that they should wait to see into what it developed before trying to monetize it. According to him, charging for the services would be like interrupting a great party by telling the guests that it would end at 11:00 pm. Savarin’s failure came from not having the imagination or insight needed to foresee the much brighter future that awaited them.

Old school vs. No school

What Zuckerberg only “knows” intuitively is articulated by someone who revolutionized the internet and the music industry: Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake).  In 1999, Parker — with no academic training, but a  high school diploma — co-founded Napster, a free file-sharing service for music. Even lawsuits by various music industry associations eventually shut down the service, Parker had already set the stone for the new possibilities of the web. He was the perfect match for Zuckerberg.

And time proved him right. On July 21, 2010, Zuckerberg reported that the company reached the 500 million-user mark. There are many lessons to be learned from Facebook as they are displayed in the film, a brilliant rendering of the revolution that brought us to the way we live now.  For the purposes of our class it can all be reduced to the great question: When and how to Monetize?  When asked whether Facebook could earn more income from advertising as a result of its phenomenal growth, he explained:

I guess we could … If you look at how much of our page is taken up with ads compared to the average search query. The average for us is a little less than 10 percent of the pages and the average for search is about 20 percent taken up with ads … That’s the simplest thing we could do. But we aren’t like that. We make enough money. Right, I mean, we are keeping things running; we are growing at the rate we want to.


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“Check-in” social media … hot, hot, hot!


Check-in sites are starting to pop-up like weeds! I recently just posted about Facebook getting in the game that Foursquare started. Now, Yelp?

Yelp seems to be one of the original sites that really gave consumers a voice. They definitely fulfilled that need. Now they are stepping into the competitive world of socially checking-in to places. When someone does this, it essentially advertises the place to their entire network. And we all know word-of-mouth is the best publicity of all.

This article on Mashable announces Yelp’s attempt to disrupt the market. But you might be asking, what is different about them?

Well, people use Yelp to search for businesses, so while they find the one they want to use, that business can offer them incentives, right there on the spot.

That is definitely a creative way to draw a potential customer in, that may have otherwise passed you up for someone else.

When I do a google search for “check-in app” Facebook dominates the first page! I don’t even see Foursquare, which has been around longer. The smart folks over at Facebook surely must be utilizing search engine optimization, or SEO.

Yelp fits into the category of the disruptive innovator, which we learned about in lecture. A disruptive innovator starts with a product that is good enough (Foursquare, etc) and gives it one advantage.

They took an existing product which is cost effective — it’s already invented and marketed and identified a blind spot or weakness. People really trust what others have to say about a product, so they already have a credible and willing constituency.

It’s too soon to tell if people will respond to Yelp, but they clearly have been observing the marketplace!

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Widgets make it easier to share content

In our last class, we discussed the important social media widgets to have displayed on most websites, and critiqued why some had them and others didn’t. At the very least we expected to see Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

The website that I used as an example,, has Facebook, Twitter, podcasts and an email alert prominently displayed. LinkedIn tends to be viewed as primarily a serious and professional site, so we speculated as to maybe that’s why it wasn’t on there.

We discussed how you can also go too overboard. On the aforementioned site, there is an extensive blogroll, which is good and encourages cross promotion. But it tends to look too cluttered, especially when you start adding rails for things like “user comments.” It doesn’t seem to important to me.

I’m a member of several “groups” on my LinkedIn profile, such as the Naval Officers Network. When there is a great article or important news going out, the members have an easy way to disseminate the information to a mass amount of people.

There are more than a million people serving on active duty, not to mention military spouses and veterans who are very plugged-in. Not using the audience of LinkedIn is a missed opportunity.

I really like this article “10 Social Media Widgets That Can Increase Your Blog’s Traffic.” I love the other sites it suggests that I’d never heard of, such as Kirtsy This! which is geared more towards women.

This guy from got it right “I like to think about the value chain for widgets consisting of 1) publishing; 2) distribution); 3) analytics; and 4) monetization.” It’s hard to believe he wrote that in 2006 – quite the pioneer!

Encouraging people to share with others, or to simply follow, adds clout to your business. The more people who subscribe to you in some manner, the more $ you will be worth to advertisers.

So when putting together your blog or business plan, don’t forget about Widgets!

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