Friday, August 31, 2012

Pepsi Looks to Change Diet Formulation

Friday before Labor Day? Must be a slow news day, as I saw this story in several places.

I consume way too much diet soda, but Diet Pepsi is among the worst in my opinion. My Dunkin' Donuts is in the process of switching from Pepsi to Coke, so net-net, this has little impact on me. 

Diet Mountain Dew, which has about 10 calories per serving in it, is much better. So, I would think they would go in the direction of adding some real sugar back in and cutting back on the aspartame/saccharin.

The Gray Market of Twitter and Facebook Followers

I have seen a few articles on the topic of fake followers on Twitter and Facebook. Particularly on Twitter, a significant portion of the population seems to be either spambots or dormant users who only follow a few users and never tweet or retweet.

Case in point, Lebron James. According to analysis by Big Lead Sports, only a third of King James' followers appear to be real active users. Serena Williams did even worse, at less than a quarter of her users. She appears to have more 'fake' followers, than real ones.

That's not to say that they necessarily paid for those users to follow them in bulk, but it does indicate that the engagement of their followers may be lower than others. 

On the other side of the coin, celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Shaq, where were among the first to join Twitter, naturally have more followers, real and fake, because they have been their since the beginning. 

But it does show the potential value of a lesser-known athlete or blog or individual who's audience is really engaged compared to a big-name property that drive a lot of low-quality eyeballs.

For example, a graphic designer I worked with at AARP, Erin Freedman, was recently named one of the 20 Most Influential People on Pinterest. Even with (only) 600K followers, she has established herself as one of the tastemakers on this burgeoning platform.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Investing for the Fed Up

The founders of investing site Motley Fool appeared on Yahoo! Finance saying investors should stick with stocks. Obviously they have their perspective, but just as after the tech bubble imploded in the early 2000s, may investors are turning their backs on equities.

But many business news outlets are caught in a trap. You can't sell a monthly, much less daily, publication with boring ideas like asset allocation or index funds. Plus, their advertisers are often the brokers and actively managed mutual fund companies.

At the same time, many young potential investors either don't have a 401(k) through their jobs, or don't even know where to begin. Thought this was a great NYTimes article about investing for those fed up with the stock market.

For those either thinking about pulling out of the stock market or not sure where to begin, here is what I personally would recommend:

1. A Single Bond Mutual Fund. If you are just starting a 401(k) or an IRA, just start with one fund. Lould look at either a Vanguard U.S. Bond Index fund or ETF, or a broad bond-based fund like PIMCO's Total Return Fund. These funds are less volatile than stocks, and you should at least be getting some interest payments. While you won't beat the market, you won't have to worry about what the S&P 500 is doing (or not doing). When you have more than a few thousand dollars in your IRA or 401(k), then you can think about a Lazy Portfolio approach with a half dozen funds.
2. Real Estate. People sometimes say they want to buy a home or condo because they are 'missing out' on something, whether it's a buyer's market, low interest rates, etc. The easiest way to invest in real estate is through a Real Estate Investment Trust, which is like a mutual fund of properties, usually apartment buildings, malls and office buildings. Like a bond fund, REITs usually have a healthy dividend, so you are making money even if they go down in value. I've put some money in the Fidelity REIT Index Fund and it's never lost money. Another way to get into real estate would be to look at a cheap second home or investment property. But my perspective is, if you make less than $70,000 a year, I wouldn't worry too much about buying a home to live in. You should just rent, stay flexible and focus on your career and personal life.
3. Online Banking. I am constantly amazed by the $3 ATM fees charged by many convenience stores and banks for non-customers. Then your own bank sometimes hits you with another fee. Get a checking account with Ally Bank, and just keep $100 or so in it. Ally refunds your fees at any bank. Otherwise you will probably be paying $50-$100 per year to access your own cash. They also have high-interest rate CDs, if you have a few hundred dollars that you aren't sure what to do with, including a no-penalty option.
4. Credit Cards. One way to bolster your investing, is to get a credit card that pays you to invest. Fidelity has cards that give you 2% back on all purchases. Let's say you spend $500 per month on groceries and gas (which would be pretty low). At 2% back, you'd be looking at $10 per month to put into a regular IRA, and you'd even get a tax write-off. It's not hard to imagine that you could end up with $200-$300 in your investing account just for using your credit card on things you already buy. Another idea would be to use your credit card cashback to pay off student loans. The Citi Forward Card offers an option to use your points for a check to send to your student loan provider. It also rewards you for staying under your credit limit and paying on time.

Ron Lieber's article mentions a few other ideas, but these are the handful that I find myself repeating over and over when I get into conversations about this.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Impending Decline of Apple Stores

A friend of mine worked as an Apple Store Genius for almost a decade. There were apparently some urban myths among the employees about Steve Jobs himself coming to the Manhattan store. Obviously the day that a new iPhone or iPad were released were insane for him.

Another friend of mine works for a company that makes cell phone cases, and he made it clear that not having a presence in the actual Apple Stores surely hurt his companies ability to appeal to the rabid customers.

You've seen Samsung and Microsoft essentially copy Apple Stores, in the hopes of inspiring some of the passion and loyalty that Apple enjoys.

But the rumor is that Apple is looking to cut back on their staff or somehow rework Apple Stores, supposedly to make them more profitable.

I actually was not very impressed when I bought my most recent iPhone from the Georgetown Apple Store. The Genius seemed to have a hard time migrating my contacts, so I probably might have preferred to just order it online, and save myself a trip. But I couldn't imagine buying an iPhone at an AT&T store or Best Buy either.

I do think they could probably close a few locations. The first Apple Store in D.C. is in a somewhat struggling quasi-strip mall, so if it were closed, I would not be at all surprised.

One thought is that Apple may be looking to avoid unionization efforts, which is one of the issues Wal-mart faces.

It's interesting to note that Apple recently ran a somewhat controversial series of commercials, specifically featuring the Genius Bar.

But I think it's hard to understate the competitive advantage that Apple has over other phone companies and computer companies, that customers know they can go to any store, get help, and not get ripped off.

So it'd be sad to see that go away.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Flight of the Conchords Do New Song 'Feel Inside' for Charity

The stars of HBO's 'Flight of the Conchords' quit after just two seasons. But they are still doing their thing, with Bret McKenzie earning an Oscar for his work on the recent Muppets movie.

Saw this on Vulture and BuzzFeed, but thought it was worth posting.

I hope the movie happens.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Is CNBC Losing It's Mojo?

When I worked for what was then called AOL Personal Finance (more recently DailyFinance and WalletPop), we watched CNBC at our desks all day long. It was our equivalent of a Bloomberg machine. When the Fed cut rates or the monthly employment numbers were released, we saw it on CNBC first.

They also had big names like Jim Kramer, Suze Orman and Louis Rukeyser.

So it was with great interest that I saw this post: Has CNBC Lost It's Mojo, which then links to CNBC Ratings at 7-Year Low.

One of the things that made CNBC compelling in those days was a great partnership with the Wall Street Journal. Some of their anchors like Becky Quick eventually came over from the Journal.

When Rupert Murdock bought the Journal and launched Fox Business News, there was certainly some concern that CNBC would be facing it's greatest challenge. Then Bloomberg launched it's own TV channel, and also bought BusinessWeek.

Last year, CNBC lost both of the anchors to the Squawk on the Street program, with Erin Burnett jumping to CNN, and Mark Haines passing away. Dylan Ratigan also left for MSNBC and then left NBC entirely.
While the FastMoney format still works with Melissa Lee at the helm, Squawk on the Street is still a mess.

I have a few observations on why CNBC has lost some of it's luster, some of which are fixable, others of which are structural.
  • During the recent Olympics, CNBC would regularly pre-empt shows. This is indicative of a larger problem that comes from being part of NBC and now Comcast. On the weekends, CNBC usually shows infomercials. Bloomberg or Fox Business would likely not do this.
  • The web and text seem to come more naturally to Bloomberg than it does to CNBC.
  • Introducing the New York Times' equivalents of the Wall Street Journal, such as Paul Krugman and Andrew Ross Sorkin, has not offset the loss of that relationship with the Journal. If anything, it has made it worse.
  • CNBC and now CNN are going to bet on reality TV to boost their rankings, including home flipping shows. If anything, this will potentially alienate their core audience without attracting new audiences. Leave the bad reality shows to A&E and Bravo.
  • CNBC needs new blood. Darren Rovell recently returned to ESPN after six years at CNBC. I find Jim Kramer's Mad Money and Kudlow and Company unwatchable. Another thing I like about Bloomberg, they seem to focus more on the West Coast based tech scene, rather than being driven by the New York Stock Exchange and the big banks.
  • The reality is that CNBC does better when the markets are not doing well, with their peak days coming in 2008 during the financial crisis.
I wouldn't be at all surprised for CNBC to go away in the next decade, perhaps merging with MSNBC or being sold off. But it seems clear that the network's best days are behind it, when it was the unrivaled champion of TV business news

Case Study: Washington Post Announces New 'Games' Section

In my time with AARP, it was well known that the Games section was by far the site's biggest page view driver by a wide margin. Thousands, if not millions of users, had bookmarked their favorite free games, whether it be Solitaire, Mahjong, Soduku etc. Of course, these users also spent much more time on the site, compared to a user who would read an article or two and then move on to something else.

So I wasn't totally surprised to see that the Washington Post is getting into the same 'game' at least online, offering many of the same games in addition to their own crossword etc. One thing to note, these games are all Flash-based, so most will not work on mobile. In the comments on the blog post above, one user notes that their employer is blocking Flash-based sites.

News sites have often tried to create original games, such as Marketplace's Budget Hero, with varying levels of success. I'm sure the New York Times Crosswords section is a huge driver of repeat traffic. In fact, it appears to be a decent revenue driver and it's own iPhone app. There's a documentary called 'Wordplay' that is almost an infomercial for the hallowed NYT crossword.

Features like weather, games, and to a certain extent, comics and photo galleries, are not always sexy, but they are often crucial to building repeat visitors.

HT: Potomac TechWire

Friday, August 10, 2012

McSweeney's on Writing Better

Thought this was an elegant, simple post from McSweeney's Internet Tendency on improving your writing. Originally posted back in April, it has remained among their most popular posts.

One part that is particularly compelling is just the simplicity of the first point: Write Every Day. Just the discipline and the mechanics of writing something every day can't help but improve your technique.

If you aren't familiar with the chapter from the book Outliers about the 10,000 hours it takes to attain mastery, it can be simplified into practice makes perfect. This is why tennis players hit a ball against a wall when they don't have one to volley with, and why comedians search out multiple open mike nights in one evening, because they need the repetition to get better.

It also seemed like such a perfect post in the context of the 826 charity that author Dave Eggers started, which encourages inner-city children to read and write more for any number of reasons.

For those in the D.C. area, if you have not visited the Museum of Unnatural History, which is sort of a fundraising/gift shop for 826DC, it's worth a visit.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

ESPN Films on Netflix Streaming

Happy to see that almost all of the movies from the ESPN Films collection, including the 30 for 30 series, have been finally added to Netflix. Some of them, including The Announcement, are fairly recent, and more should be on the way.

My favorites include Unguarded, Pony Excess and Once Brothers. But even something like Into the Wind, a story I had zero familiarity with, was pretty interesting.

Most of them are less than an hour long and well worth your time.

When people say there's 'still nothing good" on Netflix's streaming library, either they aren't looking very hard or they aren't open to seeing something that wasn't a huge box office hit. Although Netflix is certainly doing better in the latter department, adding movies like Thor and Captain America in the past few months, the sweet spot is more for documentaries and indie movies you probably wouldn't go way out of your way to see in the theater.

It is also great for "binge watching," where you get into a TV show that you've never seen. Plus, there's no commercials! I doubt I would have gotten through Arrested Development or Battlestar Galactica without Netflix streaming.

If anything, I find it annoying that Netflix only has season one of shows like The Walking Dead, but Netflix and AMC don't particularly get along.