Incite -- (v) 1: give an incentive; 2: provoke or stir up; "incite a riot"; 3: urge on; cause to act
Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Marketing Myopia
Written by: Beck

I just had a business school flashback. And I have a point to make. A good one. Really. But you're going to have to bear with me. Hopefully you can keep up. Trust me--it's worth it.

One of the single most important works ever in modern management literature is a paper titled "Marketing Myopia," by Theodore Levitt. He had an amazing revelation--revolutionary at the time. Put quite simply, most companies have no idea what business they're in.

His classic example is the railroad industry. The railroads revolutionized the world when they began crisscrossing industrialized nations in the 19th century. Without them, the industrial revolution wouldn't have been possible. Today, railroads are an anachronism. They still exist, but it's mostly inertia that keeps them alive. You see, the railroad companies made the fatal mistake of thinking they were in the railroad business. The fools! They should have realized that they're in the transportation business. So when a combination of trucking and air transport began to transform the way people travel and ship goods in the 20th century, the railroads were left behind. They could have kept up, but they didn't. There are still nations on earth where the railroads carry the lion's share of the transportation work. But in the United States, they became dinosaurs--because they didn't realize what business they were in.

Anyway, a random bit of web surfing lead me to the blog Final Protective Fire, who observed that the blog Captain's Quarters has had the best coverage on politics to be found anywhere on the planet these days (not exactly his words, but those were thoughts I'd been having, and Robin's commentary helped me pull it all together). And he's right. No one has covered the stories which mainstream media refuses to touch with a ten foot pole more closely than Captain Ed. He's had at least 20 posts on the Swift Boat Vets alone, and none of them are of the passionate-empty-rhetoric variety. It's all hard facts and calm, intelligent analysis.

And that's what made me think of that old paper from the Harvard Business Review. Marketing Myopia has assaulted the Democratic party.

The New York Times, Time Magazine, NBC, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Captain's Quarters... they're not in the news paper business, the magazine business, the broadcast news business, the cable news business, the talk radio business, or the blog business. They're in the information business. Only most of them don't seem to realize it.

Think about the "Republican Revolution" of 1994. It couldn't have happened without Rush Limbaugh. You see, most people don't have a subscription to National Review magazine. Fox News didn't exist back then. The internet existed, but it was just a hint--a twinkle in ARPANET's eyes--and you had to use Mosaic or Lynx to surf it. You could still get news-a-plenty, but you had to turn to one of the majors. You had to read the New York Times, or subscribe to Newsweek, or watch CBS Nightly News with Dan Rather. And people had a growing awareness that those sources weren't presenting unbiased information; instead, they were presenting events as they wished to perceive them--they sought to force reality to bend to their will. They had an agenda, and the means to achieve it.

So people turned on their radios. And they heard Rush Limbaugh. He's far from an ideal person. He doesn't have a college degree. He's an obnoxious fat blow hard. But he was the only alternative to the mainstream media establishment when it came to obtaining information. He hammered on the stories no one else would cover, he brought up themes that people were thinking but hadn't heard expressed, he rejuvenated debate in America, and that fat dumb man changed the modern face of politics.

Ten years later, the Democrats have finally found a talk-radio outlet of their own: Air America. And it's a joke. Its ratings are horrific. It's most famous anchors, while (allegedly) funny at some point in their careers, are inexperienced and unpolished when it comes to the talk radio format. And they're doomed to failure. Why are they doomed to failure? Because of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy? Because Democrats can't do funny? Because only rednecks and conservative nuts listen to radios anymore? No. They're doomed to failure because they think they're in the talk radio business. They're not. They're in the information business. And until they find a way to effectively and intelligently provide Americans with logically organized information with well reasoned analysis, they're going to continue to get the crap beaten out of them.

Which brings us to Captain's Quarters. It started out as just another humble blog. It's still the same blog it was six months ago, the only difference is that its readership requires five digits to express. It's not because blogs are the wave of the future. It's not because the internet is the next big thing. It's because they (Captain Ed and the First Mate) provide a necessary service in one of the oldest businesses out there--information. And they're very, very good at it.

Anyone can be good at it. Take oil companies. They're not in the oil business. They're in the energy business. Conoco recognizes this. They're involved in crude exploration, production, shipping, and refining. They're involved in natural gas extraction and marketing. They're involved in electricity generation and distribution. They're an energy company, and they're very, very good at it. Because they know what business they're in. If we wake up tomorrow to learn that some new scientific discovery has rendered gasoline obsolete, Conoco will be involved in whatever that new technology is, because while the world might not need gasoline to survive, the very heart of an industrialized civiliazation is energy.

The New York Times will be a footnote of journalistic history in twenty years if they don't figure out what business they're in. The same goes for magazines, television news shows, radio programs, and yes, web sites, unless they understand what value it is they provide--what business it is they're really in. And right now, most of them clearly haven't got a clue.

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John Beck

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