There’s a guy who panhandles for change outside the 24 hour drug/convenience store in our neighbourhood. His name is Al. Al had been doing this for as long as I could remember – he was a fixture. Day in and day out, he’d stand by the front door holding an old paper coffee cup, bumming for change. I first talked about Al in a series I did last year. He appeared in the story entitled “Buddy Can You Spare a Tweet” As improbable as it seemed, Al had started up a social media consultancy run from his Blackberry.
After that, I hadn’t seen Al in a while. Nobody had. I had asked about him. Weeks went by. No sign of Al. Then tonight, I saw him again, in his old familiar spot. He had his old familiar paper cup which he pushed out as people walked by. But there was something new. Now he had a sign. When I stopped to talk to him I looked at it. It read…
“Will Read Your Blog for Food”
“Al,” I said. “Good to see you again, I think…”
I was a bit at a loss for words. It was good to see Al again. Like everyone, I had missed him. But secretly, I was hoping that he wouldn’t e back. That would mean that he was no longer living on the street. As unprobable as it was, I had hoped that this social media thing was not a fantasy, but a real opportunity for him. I guess it was silly to think that he could actually make money doing it. If the pros were having problems, why should some homeless guy succeed?
Although I have to say that Al never seemed to be “down and out”. He was always friendly and up-beat. Everyone liked him. We didn’t see him as just a pan-handler. He was, part of the neighbourhood — he was a neighbour and a friend. He knew everybody and everything. If you wanted to know some neighbourhood news, you went to Al. It was rumoured that one of the local businesses actually had a room for him to ensure that he didn’t live on the street. As much as all of us wanted him to succeed, it was good to have him back . So it was with a real warmth of welcome that I reached out and shook his hand.
“Jim, my man! Good to see you,” he replied with a smile pumping my hand with a surprisingly strong grip. Then he looked at me. He could see my discomfort. As if to put me at ease, he pointed at his sign and smiled.”Jim, my man…you are wondering why I’m back? Huh?” As we all knew, Al was perceptive.
“Yeah, Al,” I said. I asked hestitantly, “What happened to your..uh…”
“Social media consultancy? You didn’t believe I could do it, did ya? Actually it’s doing fabulously, thanks for asking. I’ve franchised. I’ve got folks working for me.”
I looked around.
“Not here, Jim. I off-shored that stuff.”
“Off-shored?” I said, with genuine surprise.
“Yeah, Jim. Off-shore. You aren’t telling me a big IT guy like you has heard of this? I moved part of the business overseas. They’ve got guys there who were doing what I was for a fraction of the price.”
“But I thought you were using the locals…”
“Jim, Jim, Jim. Margins are thin. Lot’s of competition.” He pointed to the other entrance of the store at another guy panhandling. He had a dog with him and he looked, well, a little frantic.
“He’s the competition?” I looked at the other panhandler. “I thought he was a friend of yours?”
“He was. I had to lay him off. Strictly business, you know.” He put his hand up to whisper to me. “Didn’t take it well at all.”
“So how do you…” I wasn’t quite sure what I was asking. Al’s ‘crew’ were panhandlers. But as fantastic as it seemed, he really did seem to have them making money. But now, with them all gone or ‘laid off’ what was he doing?
“How to do we get money?” said Al. “It’s all in cloud, Jimmy. Panhandling as a Service, I call it. PaaS. Smart phones. e-commerce. The usual”
“So who is that guy? ” I asked, pointing to the other gentleman working down the street.
“Sad story, Jim. He couldn’t make the transition to the cloud. Bricks and mortar guy. Sad. What are you going to do?” Al shrugged.
“So the..uh…business is going well?”
“Couldn’t be better, Jim. Could not be better.”
I had to ask. “Okay, Al. If it’s really doing so well, what are you doing back here?”
“Oh Jim, Jim, Jim.” He looked at me with a mixture of disappointment and pity. “Everybody and their dog has a social media consultancy. I’m long past that. That is soooo 2010! You’ve got to evolve. Move forward.”
I looked at him. I was never sure if Al was just toying with me. But now I was caught. Al went on.
“The problem with businesses today is they lose touch. CEO’s don’t get out and talk to the real customer. They don’t know what is really happening. If you don’t ever get out and work with the rest of the folks how the hell do you know what it’s really like to be on the front line.” He shook his head and frowned. “That ain’t happening to me. I’ve come back to my roots. I’m getting back to basics.”
He pointed to his sign. “And when you do get back to basics, Jim, my man, you find opportunity.” He rapped on the side of his head. “Opportunity knocks.”
By now Al was off and I was enthralled. It no longer mattered if it was true or not. I just stood and listened.
“You see, it occurred to me, Jim – with all of the people out there blogging and tweeting and facebooking and linking in — with all of the people generating content — it occurred to me that there was something missing. And do you know what that is, Jim?”
I wasn’t sure. He didn’t wait for me to answer.
“Readers, Jim! Think about it!” He laughed. ” Remember when you were talking about the ‘information highway’ and the ‘500 channel universe’? Do you remember wondering how on earth we were ever going to get enough content ?”
I smiled. I did remember when we were trying to figure out where we would get all the content we needed to fill all of the available channels. Who thought that our real problem would be too much content?
I thought of my inbox. I thought of all the newsletters, the blogs, the electronic publications, the tweets, the forums. Just thinking about it made feel overwhelmed. Al looked at me as if he could read my mind.
“Too much, now, eh, Jim?” Al smiled. “What’s that two dollar word you are always using. Soo namey?”
“Tsunami,” I said. “It’s like a huge tidal wave that can wipe out an entire coast…”
“I know what it is, Jim. I can google too. I just don’t use a big word when a simple one will do. It’s the web, Jim. Simple. Short. To the point.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“The point is Jim, that there is something missing — we are missing people to read all this stuff. What point is there in writing, blogging and tweeting if there’s nobody to read it? That’s when it occured to me.” Al shifted into a conspiratorial pose and shifted gears.
“Let me ask you, Jim,” Al went on. “How much of this Sooonami get do you act-choo-allee read?” He saw me pondering it and moved in for the kill. “And what good is it all if nobody reads it?”
“None at all,” I admitted. “There is no point in pumping out content if nobody is reading it?”
“Exactly my point.” said Al. “That’s where I got this idea.” He pointed to his sign. “I figured it wouldn’t be long before companies would be paying people to read their content.”
“So let me get this straight, Al,” I said, incredulous. “You think that people will pay you to read their content?”
“Not think, Jim, my man. I know.” He leaned forward as if to take me into his confidence. “At first, it was b to c play’. Started out simple enough. We’d like them on Facebook. Maybe add a post or two.” He looked at me seriously, “But I don’t poke anyone, Jim. I’ve got principles”
He went on. “After a while we started reading what they’d publish. You would not believe how bad some of these blogs are! The average reader would say that you couldn’t pay them to read half the junk that people put out there. Well you could pay us. ” He made a face. “But it was pretty bad. We earned every dollar. Even when they could string a sentence together it was all about them. Nothing for the reader.”
He went on. “But now we are going b to b. Businesses, Jim. It’s where the money is. And they’ll have to pay people. Have you read some of the stuff they pump out? No content. Just sales pitches. All about them. Some of this crap is worse than the stuff just regular people write. So much for professionals and big marketing budgets.
“Sometimes Al hit the nail on the head. I thought of some of the ‘white papers’ I had downloaded. I was looking for real information. What I got were blatant pitches for products. I didn’t mind a little bit of sales – if the content was valuable. I was willing to accept a tasteful promo if I got what I was looking for. In fact, if they had good content, I actually wanted to hear their pitch. But if they had no value, if they wasted my time, I resented the ad.
“So people are paying you to read their content?” I said “And business is good?”
“It’s great.” Al smiled. “As long as they are writing crap, they’ll have to pay if they want someone to read it.”
“And what if they learn, Al? What if they really start to write for the reader’s interests and need. What if they start to really think about and understand their audience?”
A light went on when I said that last sentence. I thought of the web design that we had done recently. Now I realized why the designer had been so insistent that we talk about the actual people who read our web content. We all knew (or thought we knew) what to put up on the site. We all had strong opinions. But then she asked us if we actually read our content the way our audience read it. Had we talked to our customers about it? But when she asked if we watched them read it, we all drew a blank.
I remember Bill from operations joking in the bar after the session. “Read this stuff? Who would read OUR web content?” He laughed. I frowned. There was something not so funny about this.
Al broke me out of my reverie. “Besides, Jim. You got Moore’s law. But I got Sturgeon’s Law.”
“Wasn’t Sturgeon the science fiction writer who said that ‘90% of everything is worthless?”
Al frowned. “He said it was ‘crap‘ Jim. Crap! Do you guys ever talk like real people? With real words?”
He smiled and didn’t wait for an answer. “Yeah, he was talking about science fiction. But he could have been talking about web content, email or even social media. Most of it is crap. People know it.”
“You’re right, Al.” I said “You really couldn’t pay me to read most of it.”
“But you can pay me. That’s where I come in,” said Al “It’s a great business.”
“At least until people learn to speak plainly and deliver real value — things people really need. What would you do then?”
“Jim — I’m one step ahead of you. Like always.” He grinned. I smiled back. “Even if they get it — and they ain’t gonna. Even if they did fix all the crap that that they were pumping out, there will still be a need.
Even if it’s all good, the volume will kill you. Someone has to sort through it all, reduce the volume and get to the stuff that people really need. People don’t have time to read it all.
“But,” he winked, ” a few people do ‘get it’. These guys are successful. And they deserve to be. They get people to read their stuff cause it has value. It gets picked up in search engines. It will be there when people need it. Other people will link to it so it will get great search results. Thats the good stuff.
The rest? The rest is crap. There will always be a lot a crap. As long as people are pumping out crap and big volumes of stuff, they will have to pay folks to read it.”
I smiled. Once again, Al had me reeling. I looked at my Blackberry. It was late. I turned to go into the store. But before I did, I reached into my wallet and took out some change. Then I thought better of it. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a twenty. I put it in his cup. I figured it was the cheapest consulting I’d ever had.
Al looked down mildly appreciative, but not as if it was the biggest bill he’d seen today.
“Smart move, Jim.” He winked. “I’ve read your blog.” He made a face and held his nose.
I smiled. But I knew I was blushing as well. He was right. But I was determined to learn from this. Tomorrow I’d read my own blog again — this time with new eyes. I’d read it like a customer.
I wandered towards the store thinking. I turned to see Al talking with someone else who was looking at his hand printed sign – Will read your blog for food. I smiled. And I went into the store.