Tuesday, March 14th, 2000
I’ve got a long letter in the works right now to the consumer affairs department of Continental Airlines following a massive screwup that started with me booking a ticket on their website—or so I thought. It’s the kind of mess that probably should have me calling in Clark Howard or some other consumer reporter, but at this point I’m trying to deal with it myself.
I mention it to you only because it involves the latest trend when old-line companies want to move fast to develop an on-line internet presence. If they can’t figure out how to do it fast, they outsource—hiring an outside expert company to process the transaction or provide the help or implement the search engine or whatever—all in the name of the hiring company.
We are indeed in an age that you can’t assume you’re dealing with employees of company x when you do business with company x—especially when services are involved. Get cable installed, and likely as not, the installer is not a Media One employee, they’re a subcontractor. Same deal with DSL service from Mindspring. Call and talk to the subscription department of a magazine (and many newspapers), and chances are that person doesn’t have any real connection to that publication—they’re off in Marion, Ohio or someplace else and they’re working from a script—telling you what they’ve been told to say. This is the crux of my problem with outsourcing. The people you’re dealing with often don’t have any expertise outside the narrow window of what they’ve been asked to do—and if you really need help with a transaction, it tends to involve departments and dependencies way outside their scripted, limited
When I booked the ticket on Continental, I was actually booking a ticket from cooltravelassistant.com, which as far as I’ve been able to determine, actually is a operation run by the folks at expedia.com, which used to be part of Microsoft, but they’ve spun it off, and by the way, they’re based here. And every time I talked with someone at that operation, they answered the phone Continental Airlines—but when I asked who were they—really—I got different answers each time I asked. And then the Continental people, who said well, we can’t help you because these folks are not really us at all, so you’ll have to go through them to make the changes.
But I digress. And rant. And worry.
But yeah, it is a concern when I see new companies cropping up all the time like liveperson.com, which offers to give your site a real human your customers can chat with, live—but those real humans are, like the other service droids, trapped within scripts as well, playing the part of being part of the organization you think you’re doing business with. Yes sir, I am indeed the voice of AT&T!
And when CBSAtlanta..er..WGNX puts together a site that is basically hosted by CBS in New York with some local content, or when some of the pages at 11alive.com are actually from NBC’s corporate sites, the questions of who is responsible for what content—who stands behind what goes out under their logo—become increasingly relevant.
I guess I don’t care who you outsource stuff to—as long as you—the main company, the mothership—are willing to take full responsiblility for the actions of those others. You don’t get away with well, actually that’s some other company. You pretend—in certain contexts—they’re your company, you stand up for their mistakes, too.
Phew. Where’s Clark’s number?
Monday, March 6th, 2000
A recent Wired brought us the success story of Times Digital, the soon-to-be-independent arm of The New York Times. Under the command of Martin Niesenholtz, they were able to bring the oldest and most venerable of old media—the great gray lady of New York—into our new age. The Times site is everything a newspaper of the future should be—comprehensive, intelligently organized, easy to use, innovative, up-to-date, and, oh, yeah, profitable.So when I think about all the energy that’s been expended down on Marietta Street in the name of creating a presence for the AJC and their sister broadcasting operations, I applaud their efforts and ponder their failure.
I think a big part of what’s behind this digital mess is the underlying fear of all traditional publishers: the new media will gut the old. If we put all our good stuff out on the web, people won’t buy the dead-tree version. If we build it too well, too many people will come.
Interestingly, the Times succeeds at this in spite of erecting a gateway between the world at large and the wealth of its content. They make you register, but it’s perfunctory, non-intrusive: can we have your name and e-mail and zipcode once in exchange for a cookie? Thanks, go on in. Once inside, it’s a unified, sensible, deep site. They’ve got some basic demographic information, and a very desirable audience to sell to advertisers. And they do it by placing ads beside articles you really want to read.
The Cox Interactive folk took a different approach. They created AccessAtlanta, an entity that is confusingly an umbrella for the AJC, and WSB TV and Radio (and their other radio stations)—and yet independent of all of them; vaguely commercial and untrustworthy, and despite some apparent depth of content once you start exploring, the place feelslike it’s an inch deep—a creation of the sales department. AccessAtlanta comes off like the online equivalent of those unwanted roto ad inserts that clog the arteries of the Sunday paper.
So they plop this wannabe portal—in between us and the real content providers—the paper and the stations. But once you struggle to the ajc.com page, you’ll find it links to some stuff that’s really from the paper and then these entities called News@tlanta’ and Biz@tlanta’ and the X-site’ and then there’s Today’s Paper’ and Today’s Read’ (which isn’tthe same as Today’s Paper’) and—excuse me, I just want to find the damn front page!
All this fast-shuffle seems to do is keep us from getting at the information we want. No, I’m not saying that they’re not offering full-length articles from the paper—the multipart piece on Atlantans driving way, way too fast (there’s breaking news!) was dumped into the site one day at a time, in sync with the printed AJC, more or less. Jim Auchmutey’s multipart history of Peachtree Street got this treatment, too. But there seems to be some of the paper here, and some there, as if a virtual dog knocked it off our coffee table and scattered the sections willy-nilly before we had a change to get to them all. How do we know which stories will be in Biz@tlanta and which will be in the Business section of Today’s Paper’? How much overlap is there? Do we need to read both to get the whole picture? There is no reliable place—that I’ve found, at least—to give us that information.
Wanna search? The Today’s Paper’ part offers something called the Stacks Archive, (a page in dark green and blue) which lets you search the paper from 1985 to present—but you have to pay to read the full-text of an article. If you start from ajc.com though, you have to click on different-looking button labeled Look it up and then you’re uh kinda at the Stacks Archive, but with different colors and typography, a different gateway to the same search.
Try that search from an AccessAtlanta page, however, and you’re off in a whole different realm—they’re offering you a search of their Best Atlanta Sites which contains none of the newspaper content at all. If the AJC wrote an article about one of these places, there’s no link or connection to it. But hey, they’ve got chat rooms!
Then go to the classifieds. These show up on a page called atlantaclassifieds.com, but appear under the banner of AccessAtlanta, followed by another logo for ajcclasifieds.com and a third, sub-logo that says a product of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a fourth tiny dude that says powered by Thomson Interactive Media.
So who’s on first, again?
You see why I keep getting lost? I’ve got to keep that dog away from the coffee table, or I may never make it out of this site.