Jeff Bezos trekked to D.C. on Wednesday to meet with The Washington Post talent. I wonder how the boss felt about The Washington Post headline, “Bezos Courts Washington Post Editors and Journalists.” I suspect he viewed the sessions as preconditioning.
Naturally, he spoke about differentiating the product and thinking big:
He urged the paper’s journalists to think about “how are we going to be different. We should think big about what is the next golden age of The Washington Post.” He said that he plans to invest in the paper and that some areas needed to expand and others to contract.
As a student of human behavior, Bezos understands that this is a time to pump up the troops. The decisions that tackle the pragmatic side of change are for another time.
Still, raking through Amazon’s past offers clues to how Mr. Bezos will approach these changes at The Washington Post.
First, this is a man with a concept of time who would be at home in Asia, defying the conventional American mentality geared toward quarterly numbers. His maniacal belief to keep investing in the future when the company was hemorrhaging cash after the dot-com meltdown has been well-chronicled. What’s less understood is the man’s willingness to don the tortoise outfit against the hare with 100 percent confidence that he will win … eventually.
Consider how he’s grown Amazon’s business over almost 20 years. By reverse-engineering Amazon’s boilerplates in news releases since its founding in 1994, you can see that Amazon’s brand journey has been an evolutionary process.
Do you think that when Amazon was being formed, Bezos’ pitch to investors went:
“I know it’s tough to make decent money off of books. You can only sell so many copies of “Catcher in the Rye” in a given year. Don’t worry. This is just a stepping stone to getting into the data processing business.”
Of course not.
Instead, he’s been opportunistic along the way, looking at ways to leverage Amazon’s strengths that connect to new market dynamics. It’s not just the tortoise against the hare. As he changes the race, he takes on different hares. Amazon has gone from battling brick-and-mortar bookstores to pummeling IBM in the cloud.
We can expect the same mentality to be applied to The Washington Post.
I don’t know what The Washington Post will look like in 2018, but I guarantee it will be in a business (or two) that no one could have predicted today.
Back to the cloud example, consider that Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) now generates roughly $3 billion in annual revenues. We know that Bezos is going to double down when it comes to investing in technology to drive the new Post. Is it conceivable that the paper will end up leveraging this investment and hawking computer services down the road? The beauty of such a scenario is the paper doesn’t have to develop a sales channel. Just throw it over the fence to the AWS guys.
As for the contention that Bezos will jar the sensibilities of journalists with a blurring of the line between church and state, count on this happening in the name of capitalism.
Rewinding the Amazon tape, we find a perfect example in the Amazon Vine program.
For those not familiar with Amazon Vine, this is how Amazon monetizes product reviews. Companies pay Amazon to access its Vine reviewers. These are reviewers who have earned the right to be plied with free products in exchange for writing reviews about these products. To extend a cliché, this arrangement becomes a win-win-win.
- Amazon generates revenue.
- Reviewers anointed Vine-worthy receive free products.
- Companies gain a guaranteed number of reviews for their products.
Amazon does not require that Vine reviewers write positive reviews. Then again, it seems fair to assume that Vine reviewers who consistently wrote negative reviews would find their pipeline to goods come to an end.
While Amazon is transparent in identifying “Vine Voices,” most people don’t know what this means. After all, if you click on customer reviews, it’s logical to assume that the reviews come from people who have purchased product. And if you click on the Vine Voice, a window pops up with this “illuminating” narrative that finds the Vine information buried 376 words below:
The vast majority of people have no clue that the Vine reviews are essentially a form of pay-for-play. This serves Amazon’s interest since it allows them to charge a premium for generating what appear to be organic reviews (to most people).
Does this muddy the waters between user-generated editorial and paid content?
Of course it does.
Again, we can expect this type of thinking to be applied to The Washington Post. It’s tough to predict exactly how this dynamic will manifest itself in the paper, but we’re sure to see a number of experiments causing heartburn among the journalists – as well as a few exits. The fact that the Post’s digital revenue ($29.5M) reflects a 5 percent decline year-over-year has no doubt made Bezos’ diary.
Disruption always brings some not-so-pretty moments.
It should make for an entertaining watch.
Note: My 2008 archives produced a sales deck from Amazon promoting the Vine program. You can see the highlights from this deck in the slides below. I find the sixth slide particularly interesting because the line between organic and paid completely disappears once a review moves to other media like The Guardian.