Opinion

Paul Smalera

On Twitter, dubious health claims from e-cigarette bots

Jun 27, 2013 16:09 UTC

Advertising is a funny medium. TV spots, radio jingles, banner ads — none of these are meant to get us to rise out of our seats and run to the store. Instead, most advertising is meant to impress something upon us: an idea, a favorable opinion, a subtle memory of a brand name. As social media has gotten more sophisticated, however, a funny thing appears to have happened online: People with products to sell aren’t even bothering to call themselves advertisers.

Instead, on Twitter, they open plain old accounts and start tweeting about the stuff they want to sell us. Social media has brought a revolution to advertising, but in the case of products subject to regulation regarding health, safety or efficacy claims, it’s also brought the potential for a return to the bad old days of snake-oil products peddled by quacks in the backs of magazines, where the best result would be to not end up becoming sick or dying thanks to the “cure.”

E-cigarettes — the smokeless, tobacco-free, nicotine vapor delivery systems — are being talked about everywhere lately. The devices, and their fans and detractors, are in newspapers, magazines, the mouths of celebrities, even the investment portfolios of Internet moguls. The New York Times spots one dangling out of Leonardo DiCaprio’s mouth. The Wall Street Journal notices Silicon Valley gadfly Sean Parker adding some nicotine vapor to his investment portfolio. And Bloomberg Businessweek spies an e-cig hospitality tent at the Bonnaroo music festival. This is the growth template — celebrity sightings, brand ambassadorship, big-name investments — of many new products these days. There’s even $1 billion in “traditional” advertising being spent this year by tobacco companies like Philip Morris, Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds (selling MarkTen, Blue and Vuse branded e-cigarettes, respectively) who have gotten into the vapor game. The only piece missing from e-cigarette campaigns would appear to be a social media strategy. Or is it?

A recently concluded study run by a research team from Health Media Collaboratory, based at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has in fact analyzed Twitter traffic looking to learn how e-cigarettes are marketed and promoted on social media. What the team found was a steady stream of tweets, many of which appear to be from bots, or automated Twitter accounts, that tout the health and safety benefits of e-cigarettes, primarily pushing the idea that e-cigarettes aid with the cessation of smoking the plain old paper-and-tobacco variety.

The study has the potential to open a new battle line on advertising in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook — not just their adherence to legal regulations, but the very definition of what social advertising is. The regulation of emerging products like e-cigarettes is already a blurry field, as the fledgling industry fought to avoid being categorized as a tobacco product, a fight it lost in 2011. However, while final FDA rules on e-cigarette regulation are awaited, there is one bright line the makers of e-cigarettes are not supposed to cross. Manufacturers can, according to the study, “make unrestricted advertising appeals, provided they do not market their products as smoking cessation devices.”

from MediaFile:

Video Transcript: Cory Booker on Tech Tonic Interface

Jun 3, 2013 14:59 UTC

Below is an unedited transcript of the video interview I conducted with Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, NJ, in April.

Paul Smalera: Earlier today I had a great conversation with Cory Booker, the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey. Let's have a look. Mayor Booker, thank you so much for being here with me.

Cory Booker: It's great to be here with a Jersey boy. A fellow Jersey boy.

Smalera: I wanted to ask you first of all, you have this reputation as the social media mayor, the tweeting mayor. What made you get onto Twitter in the first place?

How Tumblr might ‘screw up’ Yahoo

May 20, 2013 19:05 UTC

There’s a lot to unpack in Yahoo’s reported $1.1 billion deal for Tumblr, but much of the reporting today is focused on the rather bland challenge of turning Tumblr into a profitable company. Forcing Tumblr to make money will eventually become an important mission for Yahoo, but for now it’s far from the point.

This deal’s most pressing issue isn’t what will come of balance sheets, it’s what will come of each organization’s corporate culture. Marissa Mayer has promised, in her post on the deal, “not to screw it up.” She’s talking about Tumblr. But that’s just Mayer’s very smart way of inverting what she must be hoping Tumblr becomes for Yahoo: a threat to its older, established, some might say calcified culture that has been short on innovation, creativity and user-focused design for many years now. Tumblr, indeed, will be far from “screwed up” as it gets used to its new home under Yahoo. Tumblr seems to have a bright future as something like a design lab and an already-functioning charter city under the aegis of the Yahoo brand. It will be, and already is, something Mayer will point at to tell her team, “why don’t you do it that way?”

When Mayer was at Google and led all product management and design efforts, she famously relied on data about user behavior to inform her “design” choices for Google’s products. At the time, some argued that her method of, for example, choosing one shade of blue over another because it made users fractionally more likely to click wasn’t really design at all.

Video Transcript: Fred Wilson on Tech Tonic Interface

Apr 18, 2013 19:54 UTC

Below is an unedited transcript of the video interview I conducted with Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures:

PAUL SMALERA, Technology Editor Reuters.com: Today I had a great chat with Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures. Check it out.

Let’s start with Bitcoin. It’s captured the imagination of tech blogs, there’s been a big price spike, dozens of posts all over the internet. And your own blog is full of savvy readers; I was reading through the comments on it. One of them said, ‘I haven’t even followed Bitcoin because I don’t really understand it quite frankly.’ Can we start there? Can you just tell us from your point of view what Bitcoin is?

Fred Wilson on Bitcoin, Airbnb and immigration

Apr 12, 2013 18:17 UTC

This week Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures sat down with me for a video interview (part of Reuters’ Tech Tonic: Interface series) to talk about a wide variety of topics: Bitcoin, wireless spectrum auctions, Airbnb, immigration, the New York City mayor’s race, even his wife Joanne (the Gotham Gal), and a few others. Why so many topics? Fred’s simply one of the most thoughtful technology investors working today, and peppering him with as many different questions as possible can help us learn how he thinks.

Fred often cites “pattern recognition” as the main job of a venture capitalist, and I think I got a pretty good sense of Fred’s pattern: he understands the mechanism behind a company or technology, and figures out whether his firm can help that company grow. In this interview, he’s an insightful and persuasive defender of the interests of the tech industry, because he very sincerely believes in its ability to do good for people.

Do you think Fred’s take on technology’s promise is accurate? Watch and share the interview and let me know in the comments.

from MediaFile:

Boxee CEO on the future of TV: Aereo, Cloud DVRs, Netflix and Apple TV, oh my.

Feb 25, 2013 21:49 UTC

Boxee CEO Avner Ronen recently sat down with me for a wide-ranging video interview on the state of television, and its future. His company just released a $99 device that uses the Amazon cloud to give its users an infinitely-sized DVR. If it takes off, the Boxee TV could fundamentally change the way cable customers consume content -- and the way they pay for it. Users will also be able to watch their recordings from devices like the iPad. Can Boxee play nice with an industry it's trying to disrupt? Ronen says yes. But between the Aereo lawsuit and the Apple TV rumor-mill, it's a crowded, competitive landscape. So, can the company keep competing with the next generation of startups that have the television industry in their targets? Please watch, and find out:

In Amazon, Wall Street worships a disruptive god

Feb 8, 2013 21:12 UTC

Why does Amazon please Wall Street so much? The company treats shareholders with a disregard that borders on contempt. (CEO Jeff Bezos is “willing to be misunderstood” which means he really doesn’t care if investors understand the business, as we’ll see.) Yet when it announced that profits last quarter fell 45% year-over-year, the stock price saw a healthy bump. Meanwhile, many tech companies, like Apple, which had a high-profit, high-margin quarter, found their stocks punished. Perhaps this is a sign that Wall Street is finally embracing the idea that, for tech companies, growth comes first, even at the expense of profit.

If that’s what’s going on then the Street has started to adopt the ethos of the Valley, specifically of one its most prominent sages: Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen. The godfather of disruptive innovation, Christensen is often quoted chapter and verse by technology company founders and venture capitalists alike. Christensen studies how established, high-flying technology companies like Amazon and Apple conduct business, to determine if they are ripe for attack from low-margin, startup competitors. His thinking can help shed light on why the market loves Amazon, which is, after all, a barely profitable conglomerate of loosely related businesses that is growing at a bonkers rate. But basically, his theories all comes down to profit margins, and how companies spend their money.

Amazon’s razor-thin margins — just 1.9% for all of 2012 — are, according to Christensen’s theories (and some other Amazon watchers), the company’s key weapon defense against disruptive competition. Not just in defending itself from whatever competitors exist today, but also from competitors that might exist tomorrow. Christensen writes in his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, that disruptive companies generally start at the low-end of the market, serving customers with cheap, low-margin products that established companies have neglected, in their endless quest to move upmarket, increase profit margins, and please investors.

Let them run

Nov 2, 2012 20:18 UTC

The New York City Marathon should be run on Sunday. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. This is unpopular to say in the hours since New York Road Runners club CEO Mary Wittenberg, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s support, announced the marathon would go on. Anger and outrage have been the prevailing emotions on TV call-in shows, on social media and in media reports on the controversial decision.

Staten Island, home of the marathon’s starting line, is a disaster zone. The south shore has been wrecked, and residents are rightfully scared and angry. In many cases, their basic needs for food and shelter, let alone their pleas for security and recovery efforts, have not all been met. Many residents say the city police and fire departments are nowhere to be found or are not penetrating deep enough into neighborhoods that need help. Borough President James Molinaro has called the American Red Cross a “disgrace.”

Many also say the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been absent from the recovery effort. Rumors of armed robbery by criminals dressed as utility company employees have spread like wildfire online. Yet the NYPD says that, with out-of-state help, it has searched Staten Island for victims and survivors since the storm abated, and would likely complete the search Thursday night. The aid situation seems to be rapidly improving.

Paradise regained: Clayton Christensen and the path to salvation

Jun 29, 2012 05:10 UTC

Is it possible in the year of our Lord 2012 that leadership still isn’t well understood? In 2012, despite business journalism’s fetishization of Steve Jobs, the most successful leader ever, whose apotheosis was Walter Isaacson’s doorstop, Steve Jobs, a biography of the half-Syrian, bearded man who built the world’s most valuable company, brick by brick, and found himself, like an earlier CEO of sorts, with legions of devoted apostles, some powerful enemies, and an inextinguishable legend? Is it possible, despite the endless streams of management self-help articles burbling out of Fast Company, Inc., Harvard Business Review, Businessweek, Fortune and the blogs of droves of self-appointed leadership gurus, we need more advice? And is it possible despite the emails – so many emails, Jesus wept – those emails that aggregate all this content using algorithms and intern labor, and slice it up so that the middle manager in Minnesota and the lawyer in Los Angeles and the new media marketer in New York are all .0058% more likely to click through to a relevant article? Is it possible, really possible, the answer to our prayers is another book on leadership?

It is, thinks Clay Christensen. Business folks – the unquenchable consumers of all that content – have been taking the paradoxes of leadership, because they are so familiar, for granted. When they do this, they ruin their companies and then they ruin their lives. Like that subway step everyone tripped over for years without noticing, they take for granted that the well-worn grooves on our society’s pathways are the right ones to be in. They don’t watch the road to see when a turn they are on is about to become rutted, or when they might hit mud and tip over. They feel, like the pioneers, safe in a wagon train, but then something goes wrong, and they are very alone, very fast. They need the wisdom of a pioneer who has crossed the valley, and studied the path.

    Paradox one: Leading is usually about getting people to go someplace difficult and new, even if (or precisely because) they’re perfectly comfortable and prosperous where they are right now. Paradox two: A leader can’t just motivate people to change, she has to persuade them to actually take the journey, and care about its success or failure. Paradox three: Even if a leader succeeds, there’s no guarantee she will get any credit, or gratitude for the services rendered. Except for the millions of dollars in compensation some business leaders make, the magazine cover stories and books written about them, the hobnobbing with President Obama, being a leader can be the most thankless of tasks. Of course, if you do it wrong, you get shown the door.

Still. Celebrity, money, power – hard to shed a tear, it’s true. But pay attention, for a moment, before we get to the personal, to the failures of business leadership. The landscape is littered with the carrion of companies that blew it; high fliers that flamed out. If leadership can be occasionally rewarding, it is far more often the case that business leaders, even ones who have been coronated by adoring customers and media, end up, over the long haul, stumbling and failing. To put it in more fruitful terms: For every Apple, there is a Blackberry.

Brad Feld’s four ingredients for thriving startup cities

Jun 26, 2012 17:18 UTC

BOULDER, Colo. — One of the most resonant talks I heard at last week’s Big Boulder conference was also one of the shortest. In about twenty minutes, Brad Feld, who is without exaggeration the godfather to the Boulder startup community, explained exactly why it is that Boulder feels like a town on the verge, and why it’s teeming with startups. A lot of it has to do with Feld himself.

It’s not just that Feld is a co-founder of Techstars, the nationwide startup incubator that got its start in Boulder, or that the college kids — and lately, mid to late twenties startup veterans — flock to Boulder in hopes of getting a few minutes of his time to discuss their ideas. It’s not just that Feld’s Foundry Group scored big with an exit on Zynga, though that credibility certainly helps. And it’s not just that he picked Boulder as some magical perfect place to be a startup Mecca. In fact when I asked him why he moved there from Boston, he said, laughingly, it was because, “my wife told me she was moving to Boulder.” He figured he had better go along.

“Happy warrior” is usually a phrase reserved for politicians on futile crusades, but the four principles that Feld talked about that make Boulder a burgeoning startup locale are ones that he seems to embody, not just talk about. And as to my earlier post, wondering where and whether Boulder needed a billion dollar startup (or founder) to justify itself, Feld more or less shrugged it off. If that outcome is a natural result of the principles Feld sees as key to keeping Boulder a great place to found a company, then great. If it’s not, I get the sense no one, he least of all, would mind very much.

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