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Screw The Algo
Food media pioneer Chris Kimball on media as transformation, why uniqueness is everything and making commerce work. Plus update from the youth.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms #74.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses.
Sometimes it’s nice to read in the browser.
Media as transformation
This week on the PvA podcast we invited food media legend Chris Kimball of Milk Street to stop by. Among the smart things he shared was the foundational notion of transformation as the heart of any media company:
My feeling about media is that all media is about transformation. You know, a bridal magazine, a fashion magazine, a health magazine, sports and fitness magazine. Everybody wants to be somebody else. Everybody is in the process of transforming themselves.
So if you can help transform somebody, the promise you'll be a different person by consuming this content, that's as high perceived values you could possibly offer. There's nothing better than that. So at the heart, I think that almost any successful media company is that idea…
It's because the recipes you're using don't work. So we test our recipes 40, 50, 60 times. Since our recipes work, you will be a better cook and you will transform not just your cooking, but the thing we never said explicitly was we'll transform your view of yourself. You'll be a more confident person, a happier person, a more popular person because who doesn't like a good cook?
So that was the nut, the core, like every media company has an unstated promise or concept at its heart. And that was ours. And I think that's true of any successful media, any, any information-based media company is that unstated promise of personal transformation is the top of the pyramid.
Screw the algo
Media is about uniqueness. Serving algorithms is about growing distribution. But they often lead to sameness. What to do?
I mean, the first rule of media has to be delivering something nobody else is delivering because in a world that went from finite to infinite, if you are not offering something absolutely unique, you're just not going to survive.
Stay aligned with your core and do things that are unique that nobody else can offer and screw the algorithm because you're just going to end up doing what everybody else does.
Because you're never gonna survive in a me too environment, because the choices are infinite. It goes back to the finite infinite, you know, magazines were monopolies, right? Right. I mean, these were all monopolies. There were a handful of magazines. It cost 10 million to launch a magazine.
The barrier to entry was too high. Now, now we're an infinite universe. The barrier to entry is 10 bucks, you know, and anybody can do it. So the only way to survive is to stay aligned with your core and do things that are unique that nobody else can offer and screw the algorithm because you're just going to end up doing what everybody else does.
I mean, the chances of being successful in a copycat algorithm mode are almost zero long term.
Why you need your own products
Selling other people’s stuff is a tough gig, unless you are Amazon. There’s so little margin in it.
It turns out the way to make money is to create your own products. We also sell other people's products, but the real core of the business is to design and create your own products and have them manufactured at a cost that allows you to spend money on the marketing, which is really essential.
If you're dealing with a 40 percent cost of goods, you don't have enough leftover to go to Facebook or Instagram or wherever to market the product. So you need to be at a 20 percent or lower cost of goods. And you have to have a unique product that really resonates in the marketplace.
Product marketing is your top of funnel
This is an important insight. A well functioning commerce business is your top of funnel because, done well, it’s powerful awareness marketing whose cost is offset by sales.
Our product marketing gets people into the funnel and then they get more and more committed to your business, to your product, to your brand. They eventually will become a member of that brand, but the members at the bottom of the funnel, not at the top. It used to be that the member was the only thing I had to sell, so there was no top of funnel and bottom of funnel.
Now I can take a bunch of products at the top of the funnel and end up with members at the bottom of the funnel. But that person is going to have to have six or seven interactions with me to get to the point they trust me enough to become a member.
It's not just selling a product. So you have to think about what you're doing in a way to build your brand, because people see you on Facebook or wherever. At the same time, it's a direct response vehicle to sell a product. So you're doing two things at once, and you've got to think about those two things together but also separately.
And, you are probably using the wrong knife
Asked about the fav product in his store, Chris cites his Nakiri knives while indicting the heavy, pointy European variety most of us use:
Well, I love our knives, which are all based on Japanese knives. Uh, the Nikiri is the best seller, it's a vegetable knife. It kind of looks like a Chinese cleaver, but half as deep, two inches deep instead of four, um, very thin blade slices through fruits and vegetables.
That's really been our flagship product, but it's all of the knives because I was in Italy in Spain years ago at a knife factory, and I went to their museum, and it turns out the European chef's knife… literally, it's a dagger. It was designed as a dagger. That's what came out of that history. So they all sell themselves because they're heavy. They have big, thick blades, which are useless for cooking. The heavier, more dangerous the knife, the more you charge for it, right? I mean, that's the whole gestalt.
In Japan, it's all about lighter knives, thinner blades, more control. They have dozens of different knives for specific purposes instead of one knife fits all. So, that's really, for me, what's so interesting is that the entire history of the European chest knife is completely bogus. It's a terrible design.
Listen to the episode here:
Reminder: Always interrogate other people about how they get media. Plus, why we need to put our podcast on YouTube.
I mean, I think I have a sense, but was reminded how I need to ask young people more questions. My nephew is a 29 year old male graphic designer living in Calgary. He was visiting this week. I had a moment to interrogate his media habits while we waited for a standup comedy show to start. Nine takeaways:
YouTube is far and away number one, as it is for my son. He gets everything there. Entertainment, news, podcasts, music;
It serves his niche/ lifestyle interests perfectly… Skateboarding, food, music, fashion. News trickles in;
Obviously personalities matter a lot here. For him, guys like Matty Matheson, Action Bronson;
YouTube is a solitary passion. On his own, will always turn there first. Netflix is fine, but more often when he is watching with someone else;
The algo does all the work. He doesn’t subscribe or follow anyone on YouTube. He doesn’t need to. He opens the app or hits YouTube.com on the laptop and his interests are dutifully served;
Instagram is secondary, but important. Reels and YouTube shorts have become a more frequent distraction. Both products seems to have fended off TikTok somewhat. Instagram has succeeded in finding a way to intersect short video with their legacy experience;
TikTok is not a priority. He sees his female friends use it more frequently. His view is that it is all generational. His dad doesn’t use YouTube. He doesn’t care much about TikTok. Snap had its moment when he was younger but has been replaced by text;
Podcasts come from YouTube. Email newsletters? Are you insane? I don’t use email like that and don’t read much;
Websites are basically irrelevant to him.
There you go.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
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