The War Chest

Highlights from MIT’s 3rd Annual Platform Strategy Summit

Highlights from MIT’s 3rd Annual Platform Strategy Summit

Let me get this out of the way upfront: I hate going to conferences.

In my experience, the average conference operates on a 1:3:12 ratio of substance to bullshit to someone trying to sell me something I don’t need for a problem I don’t have. Too many of the conferences I’m invited to are simply sales pitches disguised as “thought leadership” hosted by “luminaries” and “innovators” when what they’re really presenting are recycled ideas hawked by the used car salesmen of the digital world. The rare exceptions that proves the rule are the events hosted by MIT’s Center for Digital Business and their Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE). This is where leaders from all industries come to discuss business of the future, and where I found myself last month.

On July 10, I attended the Platform Strategy Summit–my second conference on digital business at MIT–and instead of walking away with business cards and sell-sheets I walked away with ideas and questions. To me, those are two of the most valuable takeaways from any interaction.


The Summit focused on how platform-centered markets (MIT’s Innovation@Work: Why Platform’s Beat Products Every Time) impact the economics and management of corporate strategy in today’s digital world. Naturally, we talked a lot about Air BnB and UBER as the creme de la creme of platform business models, but we dove deeper into other industries I’d never have guessed had platform players (John Deere comes to mind) and exposed some significant learnings about how platform-based businesses are cannibalizing out-dated product and service based business models.

“Since 2000, 52% of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared.”
– Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture

I was shocked to hear Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture, announce that 52% of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared since 2000, and that those companies have largely been firms who couldn’t make the transition from product to platform. In fact, in 2013, 14 of the top 30 global brands by market capitalization were platform-oriented companies.

That was two years ago, imagine what the matrix of business models will look like five or even ten years from now.

Hands down, the most charismatic speaker of the day was Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo. He has his own great personal story–from creating the reCAPTCHA to selling the company to Google for an undisclosed amount–and captured everyone’s attention with the story of his new company, Duolingo. The more he spoke about how his company’s app is helping to change the world the more you could hear the opening jingle from people downloading Duolingo on their iPhones.

The Summit was chaired by Geoffrey Parker, Professor of Management Science at Tulane University and Research Fellow at the MIT Initiative for the Digital Economy, along with Marshall Van Alstyne, Professor of Information Systems at Boston University and Research Fellow at the MIT Initiative for the Digital Economy. Along with Strategy Summit co-chair Sangeet Paul Choudary, they are co-authors of Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy—and How to Make Them Work for You.

“Platforms have begun to absorb what were previously government functions. Some of the areas include monitoring, incentives for good behavior and the exclusion of bad actors.”
– Geoffrey Parker, Tulane University

The rising power of platforms–and how companies like UBER are able to influence market regulations–makes one wonder what the relationship between governments and platforms will be in the future. Platforms are more nimble and adapt lightyears faster than anything in government could ever hope, and part of me wonders if this could be the beginning of a technologically advanced Adam Smith inspired utopia. Without a doubt, platforms are shaping public policy right now and government will have to work closely with the private sector to make sure they adapt to a platform-centered ecosystem.

It’s rumored that next year’s business conference will be centered around how the Internet of Things (IoT) needs a platform perspective to realize its promised benefits.  As Parker said in a recent interview, “much of the effort around IoT has been about developing the technologies needed to link machines to networks. What has mostly been missing, however, is the economic logic that would make companies want to deploy the technologies and the incentives to make developers want to innovate on top of IoT technologies. Next year is likely to be the year that platforms really break into the public’s consciousness.”


I just saw a 61% increase in conversions using Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting

I just saw a 61% increase in conversions using Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting

I’ve been managing a campaign where one of the KPI’s (Mashable: What is a Key Performance Indicator) is capturing email addresses for a free subscription to a digital magazine. Over the past few months, I’ve been pushing my vendors to give me access to beta products so I can experiment with new tools before they hit the masses and Outbrain was cool enough to let me test out their new(ish) Vertical Targeting product. I experimented to see if their claim of heightened targeting would help me increase email registrations. It did. In a huge way.

What follows is a very unscientific overview of my experiment. I can’t tell you how much I spent, what my CPC’s were, who the client was, or any of those fun details but I can tell you I was really happy with the outcome. So was my client.

My experiment with Vertical Targeting.

I’d been running a campaign with Outbrain targeting high income business decision makers for a long time before testing out Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting product. Performance (clicks and presence on top tier publishers like Mashable, CNN Money, and FOX Business) was solid. We were getting traffic to the website, which was the primary KPI of the campaign, but wanted to get more visitors to sign up for the free email subscription.

I added Vertical Targeting to the campaign for two weeks as a supplemental buy. In layman’s terms: I didn’t reduce the amount of money I was spending on the standard Outbrain product but I added budget so I could supplement the existing campaign with this experiment.

Over the course of those two weeks, I saw a 61% increase in email registrations coming from Outbrains native content recommendation widget compared to the conversions I had been seeing from only using Outbrain’s standard product.

What is Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting?

Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting is similar in concept to Taboola’s White Listing product, where they only display the content on top-tier vertically selected publishers. For example, if I select the Business & Finance vertical my content will only display on publishers websites like VentureBeat, Fortune, Money, and The Street. Other verticals include Sports, Entertainment, Technology, Lifestyle, Fashion & Beauty, Food, Health, Parenting, Entertainment, and Travel. They also have verticals built out for demographics like Male, Female, Millennial, and Affluent individuals.

Outbrain Vertical Targeting

How much does Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting cost?

If you can get it (more on that in a moment) the minimum buy is $5,000 with a minimum CPC of $1.00. I expect this to change in the future, but this is what they’re running with right now. It’s more if you enable their KPI based retargeting (about 10-20% more per click).

Why can’t I find Vertical Targeting in the Outbrain dashboard?

Right now, Vertical Targeting is an agency only offering meaning the average user doesn’t have access to it through the dashboard and you have to activate it through a dedicated account rep. Based on the performance so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if they rolled it out to all users sometime later this year.

Executive Summary: 140 words or less.

It’s worth taking a more scientific approach to this case study, but the initial results were fantastic. Keep in mind that this was a supplemental buy, so we added funds to the existing budget and would have seen an increase in conversions even without the Vertical Targeting. But the increase would have only been a small fraction compared to the actual results. Definitely a tool to keep in your back pocket if you’re lucky enough to have access to it.



You Can Now Find My Memoir at Duke University’s Law Library

You Can Now Find My Memoir at Duke University’s Law Library

Duke University’s Michael Goodson Law Library recently became the fourth Law Library to stock my memoir, which readers are calling “Outstanding”, “Gut Wrenching” and an “incendiary, long overdue call to action”.

The memoir–which is dedicated to my father and son–debuted at #1 on Amazon for both Constitutional Law and Penology eBooks, temporarily beating out John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, Piper Kerman’s Orange is the New Black, and Glenn Greenwald’s No Place To Hide.

If you find yourself at Duke University’s Law Library and have some time to spare, pick up a copy and read a few pages. It might just make you think twice the next time you’re about to say “there ought to be a law…”

The Blue Tent Sky is Now Available at Portland’s Iconic Powell’s Bookstore!

The Blue Tent Sky is Now Available at Portland’s Iconic Powell’s Bookstore!

Self publishing is no easy task. I was fortunate to pre-sell 1,200 copies of my book before writing a single word but, after turning down two commercial publishing offers, I worried I might not be able to get my memoir into traditional brick and mortar bookstores without the benefit of the distribution network of a traditional publisher. If you’re interested, I wrote a post for Medium about how I crowdfunded $42,000 and why I turned down those publishing offers.

Over a hundred bookstores have since agreed to carry my memoir, including one of the most iconic indie bookstores in America: Powell’s Books of Portland, Oregon.

Since 1971, Powell’s has grown into one of the world’s great indie bookstores, with five locations in the Portland metropolitan area and one of the world’s most successful digital bookstores. Only a handful of shops have refused to carry the book–and some were very outspoken about banning it–so it feels like a huge victory to have my memoir stocked at the legendary Powell’s Books. To their credit, Red Emma’s–Baltimore’s radical bookstore and vegan cafe–has also agreed to carry my memoir.

At first I thought it was strange that a bookstore that prides itself on it’s communist and anarchistic literature would be more open-minded than some of the other indie bookstores I’ve talked to. Now, I’m not so sure. I suppose it’s difficult not to judge my book by it’s cover when it has such a polarizing subtitle, so I can understand why some stores wouldn’t want to carry it, but I think those same people would find a lot they actually agree with if they only set aside their preconceived notions of bipartisan politics and read the book. They’d probably be surprised to read about what happened to me, how it happened to me, and the criminal justice reform I call for in the pages of my memoir.

You can support Powell’s by buying the memoir through their website or, if you’d prefer a limited edition printing, you can buy a first edition directly through Amazon.

MIT’s First-Ever Conference on Digital Experimentation

MIT’s First-Ever Conference on Digital Experimentation

I just got back from MIT’s first ever Conference on Digital Experimentation (#CODECon14).

As one of the only non-academics in attendance (I was invited as the CEO of Alister & Paine Magazine) I found some of the really academic lectures weren’t all that exciting. But there were a two lectures that really stood out. They captured my attention as an entrepreneur, digital practitioner, and amateur economist.

Those lectures were given by Eric Anderson and Sendhil Mullainathan.

Anderson, who is Chair of the Marketing Department at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice, presented an abstract on Transforming Marketing Analytics in Consumer Focused Organizations. This is my wheelhouse, and I loved every second of it. I reached out to Anderson for slides and hopefully I can update this post later with his presentation, since no recap I can give here will really do it justice (but I’ll try anyway).

In his talk, Anderson discussed how opportunities in marketing analytics are moving much faster than most organizations can handle. As a result, firms have become reactive and tactical.  He explored how firms can adopt a more strategic, customer-focused perspective and said that predictive marketing analytics, driven by rapid experimentation, is central to this transformation. I’ve been using rapid digital experimentation with some of my clients already, so I was pretty happy to have him provide some bias confirmation.

The other lecture which really captured my attention was given by Sendhil Mullainathan.

Mullainathan is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and author of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.

He focused his talk on the theory that causation is overstated. As he put it, “To make empirically driven decisions, our methods must reveal causal patterns.  We must know what outcomes each of our choices results in. As a result, experimentation is quickly becoming the tool of choice for decision making. In contrast, it appears that machine learning models because they only produce correlations are problematic for guiding choices. I argue that this is too narrow a perspective on decision-making, that there are many (important) decisions where predictions–with only correlation and no causation–are exactly what are needed for decision making.  Understanding the dual role of prediction and causation in decision making will allow us to better combine machine learning and experimentation.”

As a marketer and amateur econ-nerd, Mullainathan’s lecture really hit a nerve with me. Plus, he’s just a fantastic public speaker. If you have the opportunity to see him speak in person, you absolutely should. He’s funny, energetic, and has all of the entertainment value of a TED Talk but with more substance.