The marketing tool every publisher undervalues

Why are publishers so scared of free and sample content? Sure, most publishers offer at least one way to test drive their content but they could be doing so much more. I think free/sample content is the single most under-utilized customer acquisition tool out there. Here’s why…

Have you noticed that most newspapers and magazines don’t offer a free e-trial. Or if they do, they bury it on their site. Most of these publishers have always offered free trials of their print product, but free e-trials are almost unheard of. If they’re concerned about chronic freeloaders, why not just give the first few pages of the replica editions?

Even the stingiest publishers let you sample a few articles on their website. I’m sure they figure they’ll at least monetize the ad impressions during that sample period but the same philosophy apparently doesn’t hold up for replica edition sampling. Even if they can’t count those replica edition sampler impressions, why not mix in some interstitial ads between pages for samplers, thereby creating an entirely new revenue stream?

Btw, Amazon, the undisputed king of data and customer acquisition, understands the value of free and sample content; that’s why they typically offer two-week test-drives for newspapers and magazines. Why aren’t publishers following Amazon’s lead? Don’t forget the benefit of gathering prospective new customer names and email addresses; these readers may not opt in immediately but you’ll have a link to market to them in the future.

Then there’s the opportunity for book publishers… Why aren’t they creating super-sized samples available exclusively on their websites? The book samples available on the major retailer sites are generally the same ones publishers offer on their own sites. That’s a huge missed opportunity to establish a direct relationship with those customers.

I realize plenty of book publishers feel it’s hopeless creating a direct-to-consumer channel. They’re clearly not trying very hard though. Here’s another tip: The first thing a reader should see when they open your ebook is a note from the publisher thanking them for their purchase and a link to your site where they’ll find these exclusive, super-sized samples I’m talking about. They should include this messaging in all copies, including the ones sold by retailers. That’s right…use the retailer channels to build your direct channel.

Lastly, how easy are you making it for readers to share that free sample with others? Most publishers put their sample content under lock and key, missing out on the opportunity for pass-along to family and friends of those reading the samples.

Publishers, it’s time to re-think your free/sample content strategy. Learn a lesson from Amazon and start fully leveraging all that terrific content you have to share.

The future of digital content on the road

My wife and I recently returned from an anniversary trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. If you ever have the opportunity to go there, do it; we have nothing but terrific things to say about the city, people and food. The trip opened my eyes to the opportunities that exist for digital content to enhance the travel/vacation experience.

Unlike most hotels in the U.S., our resort didn’t include free wifi access. They instead offer something akin to 1990’s dial-up speeds at $10/day for each device. This model is likely designed to both gouge guests and encourage them to unplug during their stay. I’m sure it works but there are better options that would benefit both the resort and the guests. For example, how about turning the wifi network into a gateway to rich content, services and special offers?

Let’s start by offering a couple of wifi access tiers. A free model includes a slower connection that’s partially subsidized by ads. A paid option offers a faster connection with no ads. It’s the same model you see in many airports today. It’s not the connection that matters though, but rather the content and overall experience the connection provides.

Most travelers are hungry for recommendations of the best local meals, deals and happenings. Here’s where the adaptive content model and opting in to data sharing starts to pay real dividends. The more my app/device knows about my habits and interests the better it can provide relevant content and deals. Think of it as a virtual concierge, but unlike the hotel concierge who knows nothing about you, the virtual concierge has a pretty good idea of what you like to eat, where you’d like to visit, etc.

Let’s also roll in an opportunity for publishers to provide relevant content, acquire new customers and plant the seeds for additional engagement with those customers. How about giving me free access to a daily e-newspaper, for example? And please don’t pick that e-newspaper for me; let me choose one from a list of hundreds offered. When someone’s on the road they like to keep up with news back home. Many of those travelers don’t subscribe to their local newspaper, so what a great opportunity for publishers to expose their terrific product to new prospective readers. Capture names and email address if you must, but be sure to end the trip with an irresistible discount on becoming a full-time subscriber.

This is an opportunity for book publishers as well. Why not offer special samplers to get readers hooked on your authors and products? Better yet, offer access to short works travelers will be able to finish on the trip. Make recommendations (based on data accessible through the adaptive content model) so readers don’t have to spend too much time hunting for something that’s just right for them. This is where the service can combine the knowledge of personal interests (including how fast the user reads) with the visitor’s length of stay to recommend works of certain lengths. Since the content is free the publisher should feel comfortable pitching other products in the reading app. This is another opportunity to capture reader names and email addresses for follow-up marketing activities.

Let’s also not forget that many of these ideas can be extended further with an affiliate program for the hotel or resort; they’re bringing in the customers so publishers and proprietors should be willing to pay finder’s fees from the resulting revenue.

I’m only scratching the surface here but you get the idea. Just as digital books, newspapers and magazines will eventually evolve beyond the print-under-glass model that exists today, I’m confident digital content will find its way into new services like this that can significantly enhance the travel experience.

Thriving as econtent prices fall

Last week I wrote about why I believe econtent prices will continue to drop in the future. The feedback I got in a couple of LinkedIn groups and via email was mixed. Some readers agreed and others seemed to think it was the craziest thing they ever heard.

Regardless of where you stand on this, there are a number of things you can do to prepare…just in case I’m right. Here are a few strategies to consider:

Sponsorship – Why force the consumer to pay the full price of your content? Think about a multi-pronged revenue strategy instead, where a sponsor pays part of the price. The end result is an ebook, newspaper or magazine that features a “Brought to you by ‘xyz’” banner somewhere on the cover and probably includes a sponsorship message and maybe even an offer for the sponsor’s products/services inside. You first need to think of which prospective sponsors might be interested in an affiliation with your content. Are they looking to get their name next to your brand? Do they want to include a message to your audience? Whatever the reason, identify a short list of sponsor prospects and start the discussion. Be sure to think long-term, not just one title or a single day’s/month’s edition. And be creative: Rather than just asking the sponsor for a fixed fee, can you get a cut of the revenue generated by the leads you’re providing them?

Premium+exclusive+direct – This is rapidly becoming one of my favorite concepts. Book publishers in particular are seeing their prices pushed downward by Amazon’s desire to give customers the best deal possible. There’s nothing wrong with that, till it starts to cheapen your brand. You can try to go direct at a higher price but what consumer wants to pay more when they can get the same product from Amazon for less? That’s why you have to think about creating premium versions of your products that are available exclusively on your site. What value can you add to your standard products and how can you deliver those only on your website, in a B2C manner. Yes, it means investing more in that premium content, but if it helps preserve your price point and enables a direct relationship with your customer it’s definitely a model worth building. 

Bundles and partnerships – What are some of the adjacent businesses and products that complement your offerings? How can you bring them together to create a bundle consumers can’t resist? And are some of those companies looking to extend their reach, particularly into your customer base? If so, they’ll have an incentive to discount their product in order to partner with you.

Despite the grim outlook of declining prices there are still new business models to be invented. The beauty of this is that these three options are not mutually exclusive; they can all co-exist with your existing channels and pricing models as well.

Why Amazon Firefly is important

At any given point in time it’s easy to assume that search engines have evolved as much as they’re ever going to. Sometimes it’s hard to avoid falling into the logic that was allegedly uttered long ago by Charles Duell: “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

Putting the gimmicky eye candy called “Dynamic Perspective” aside for a moment, there’s another element to Amazon’s recently-announced Fire phone that everyone in the content industry needs to focus on: Firefly.

On the surface, Firefly also feels like a Fire phone gimmick. In reality, it’s a next generation search platform and likely to be the first significant Google challenger. I’m not suggesting Google will disappear or feel the pain anytime soon, but Firefly will force them to evolve.

Firefly lets you snap pictures of objects so you can buy them from Amazon. It’s the next step in showrooming, the process brick-and-mortar retailers loathe. Publishers need to look beyond Firefly’s ability to enable one-click purchase of a physical book sitting on a table. Rather, publishers need to consider how Firefly will eventually enable the discovery and consumption of all types of digital content as well.

Let’s say you’re at the ballpark watching the Pittsburgh Pirates play. You snap a picture of the beautiful city skyline, looking out from behind home plate in PNC Park. You’re curious to learn more about the park, the team or maybe even the city itself.

Instead of clicking the camera button, click the Firefly button on your Fire phone. Rather than just getting a photo you might not ever look at again, your screen is filled with search results. These aren’t just the website links you get from Google though. You’re looking at all sorts of free and paid content you can consume now or later.

All the usual suspects are included here. You’ll see links to books about the team, park and city. But you’ll also have an opportunity to buy the program, print or digital, from today’s game. And maybe there’s a link to purchase a digital edition of today’s local paper or just portions of it (e.g., the sports section, just those articles covering today’s game, etc.) The results could also include articles about the team/park/city, accessible via either a trial subscription or maybe they’ll ultimately be free thanks to the ever-expanding reach of Amazon Prime. 

Don’t forget that all these results won’t just appear in random order. Amazon will develop a search algorithm as sophisticated as Google’s, but with the benefit of all Amazon’s “customers who viewed x also viewed y” data and capabilities.

Most importantly, don’t forget the power of paid placement in these results. Amazon has generated plenty of revenue from publishers for placement and promotional campaigns. Firefly will open the door to an enormous number of new ways Amazon can charge publishers for premium placement in those Firefly search results.

I haven’t forgotten that you’re sitting at a baseball game and the last thing you want to do is flip through search results and spend time reading content on your phone. That leads me to another model I suspect we’ll see from the Firefly search platform: save for later.

Web searches today focus exclusively on the here and now. You search, find what you need and you move on. Firefly opens the door to a lengthier relationship between user and search results.  You can’t be bothered with all the Firefly details when you’re trying to watch the baseball game. That’s why you’ve configured Firefly to save those results for later retrieval. They could sit in a holding area in your Amazon account, similar to your Amazon Wish List, or maybe they’ll be delivered to you via email. The more likely scenario is that Amazon will do both, of course. Amazon knows the value of data and reminding customers of what they like, so expect to see plenty of notifications about these potential one-click purchase opportunities.

None of this functionality exists today, of course. And most of it won’t be available when the Fire phone ships in July. But rest assured that these and plenty of other innovations will eventually be available through the Firefly feature. Amazon’s #1 goal is to get consumers to buy things and Firefly is a huge step forward in making those transactions happen more frequently and conveniently.  

Location-based content in the future

I’m one of the hundreds of millions of people who use Google News in a variety of ways. Long ago I configured it for the keywords I like to track so that I can scan the latest headlines on my favorite topics. I also have it set up to show me the latest goings-on in my hometown.

I’ve got to say the local element of Google News isn’t exactly the service’s greatest feature. It’s littered with stories that aren’t exactly news, they’re not in line with my interests and, in some cases, they have only a very loose association with my town.

It’s amazing that in this day and age of geo-tracking, data capture and rich content there’s no killer app for location-based content.

I’m talking about a service that does the following:

  • Knows precisely where I am, whether that’s at a ballgame, in the supermarket or sitting in a coffee shop
  • Knows who I am, including my interests and habits, whether this is the first time I’ve been in this location or if I come here regularly
  • Provides me with information, stories, and yes, even deals on purchases I might want to make while I’m in that location 

I’ve seen bits and pieces of these requirements but I haven’t seen them all rolled into one service.

The first point is pretty simple. Every modern phone has geo built in, so it’s just a question of this service tapping into those capabilities. 

The second point may sound spooky, especially if you’re concerned about data privacy. Then again, anyone who thinks they can avoid being tracked and measured these days is pretty naïve. Opt out when you can but know that data is still being collected, even if it’s nothing more than your location from cell tower triangulation.

I figure that since all this data is being gathered, why not use it to my advantage as a consumer?

The second point also sounds a lot like how Zite, now part of Flipboard, tracks my reading habits to gauge my interests and uses that information to provide more relevant content tomorrow. That’s a terrific application of data gathering and one that always resulted in a more efficient reading experience.

The third bullet is where all the work still needs to happen. Tagging is critical here. When stories are written, what level of tagging is included so those same stories can be presented in a location-based service? I’ll bet there are few, if any, geo-based tags included with most articles today, so this is an important point to consider when creating content. 

Finally, the game-changer here isn’t a bunch of apps. You don’t want to force mobile users to download a new app every time they visit a new city or go to a museum. This has to be one single service that provides access to all the big stories and hidden tidbits of information no matter where you are. Sort of like Google News, only much, much better.

Why you need to experiment with content sponsorship

Every type of content is facing downward pricing pressure. Free online news has disrupted the newspaper industry. Free article-length content has impacted the magazine model. Free and cheap ebooks have completely upended the book publishing world.

It’s time for publishers to think more broadly and creatively about multiple streams of income. Many are too focused on protecting the streams they already have and worry about the cannibalization potential of new models. Those publishers are only contributing to their own demise.

No matter what type of content you’re producing, why wouldn’t you consider at least testing the sponsorship model? 

Here’s what I’m suggesting: Find a business partner who values your content, your brand and your audience. Sit down with them to determine what you both can offer each other and gauge their sponsorship interest. Then pick a product, determine the publicity campaign, nail down the offer and make it happen.

Here are three scenarios based on what type of publisher you are:

Newspapers: Give away an entire day’s e-edition; the whole thing, not just a section or two. Make sure the sponsor’s message is prominent so readers can appreciate the generous deal this sponsor has created for them, the reader. Feeling bold? Why not make it free for an entire week? Btw, plan ahead and sell special advertising pages, and don’t forget to count all those new digital ad impressions you’ll get from this broader, free access. 

Magazines: Similar to the newspaper model, but now you’re probably talking about one weekly or monthly edition. But why not make this a richer edition with more features than what you typically offer? After all, one of your goals should be to attract new customers with your unique, valuable content. Think about video content that’s currently behind your paywall, for example.

Books: Yours isn’t a subscription model with new editions every week/month so you need to focus even more on the length of time to extend the free offer. Don’t go through a retailer! Just give readers the ebook right on your website; that way you’ll know who those readers are and you’ll be able to build a direct relationship with them. 

Each model is slightly different but there’s a common thread throughout: dramatically expanded reach. Be sure to have a plan for all those names and email addresses you’re gathering. Don’t let them just sit in a spreadsheet that nobody ever acts on. In fact, force your team to come up with a detailed follow-up plan before you ever launch the campaign.

This is an opportunity to dramatically increase your product’s reach. It’s not about giving something extra to your current subscribers; this is all about finally building a relationship with all those other prospective customers. It’s also about building a solid relationship with your sponsorship partner. If they like the results, which means the sponsor gets more visibility for their brand and products, this could be step one of a much broader, ongoing sponsorship program for you business.

Here’s another reason to do it: Even if you don’t, your competitor(s) probably will.

What can we learn from Getty’s new free, embed model?

Getty Images made an interesting content-usage model announcement last week. After years of playing whack-a-mole with everyone who’s ever stolen one of their images, Getty decided to embrace the free model for a portion of their library. You’ll find additional details on this here and here.

As a wise man once said, you can significantly reduce piracy if you make your content available at a reasonable price and in a convenient format.

OK, free is a pretty radical price and of course piracy evaporates when content becomes free. But it’s important to note that Getty isn’t just giving up and letting pirates have their way. They’ve introduced a model that I think could become a viable template for other types of content.

Note that Getty isn’t saying everyone can now just copy and paste the images into their sites. Getty is instead providing a snippet of HTML code you’ll use to legally embed the images on your site. This approach offers a number of benefits for Getty including tracking and, more importantly, a new potential revenue stream.

By embedding the code in your site Getty will be able to gather data about where their images are being viewed and who is viewing them. This data could eventually be valuable to Getty as they’ll suddenly have access to plenty of metrics they knew nothing about before. Unless you’ve been hibernating the past few years you know that big data can be quite valuable and it’s easy to see how Getty’s data will become big rather quickly.

What’s even more intriguing to me is how Getty will be able to control how those images are rendered on your site. The images live on Getty’s servers, much like YouTube videos live on Google’s servers.

Do you remember when YouTube videos didn’t have pre-roll ads? These days it’s rare to watch any YouTube video without first having to sit through a short ad. 

Will embedded Getty images soon have ads in them? Maybe. It makes sense for Getty to at least experiment with ads. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to study all that data they’re gathering to determine the viability of ads with images.

What about other types of content? Magazine and newspaper articles come to mind. How often is that content illegally copied and pasted onto someone’s website? How often is the same content scraped off the publisher’s website and dropped into an app? The app might give credit to the publisher, and even offer a link to where the content originally appears on the publisher’s site, but how many times do readers get what they need from the ad-free scraped version and never click through to the publisher’s site? How many ad impressions are lost as a result?

What if publishers offered a model like Getty’s, so someone could grab a snippet of code to embed the article in their own site? That version would provide data and a possible advertising opportunity, just like Getty’s.

OK, I think I know what would happen… Most publishers would resist, saying they want the traffic coming to their own site and threatening legal action against anyone who copies and pastes illegally. The smart publisher, on the other hand, would instead embrace this for the data and new, alternative revenue opportunities it represents.

I can’t wait to see how Getty’s model evolves and whether it will expand into other types of content.

How I would fix the paywall model

The digital content industry is infatuated with a paywall pendulum that keeps swinging back and forth, from one extreme to the other. Remember when paywalls were considered a roadblock to achieving the broadest reach possible and all the revenue problems could be solved with advertising?

That didn’t work, so now a lot of newspaper publishers and pundits are saying paywalls are the future (again). Paywalls are rapidly going up around content that used to be freely accessible with no limits. On the one hand, I think this makes sense. After all, how can newspapers expect consumers to pay a monthly subscription when the exact same content is available for free on the publisher’s website?


The rebirth of paywalls

Remember when newspaper and magazine publishers said they can’t keep giving their content away for free so they started putting it behind paywalls? Then they got disappointed by the low number of subscribers, reversed course and paywalls began to come down.

It seems like a scene out of Back to the Future as paywalls are now apparently once again in vogue. Over the past week I’ve read multiple accounts of publishers deciding the totally ad-subsidized model just isn’t going to cut it.


Death by irrelevance

Now that I'm in the broader digital content industry and no longer in the book publishing sector I've realized something very important: Amazon isn't killing book publishers. Publishers are killing themselves. Book publishers, or more accurately, their products, are becoming less and less relevant every year.

Snacking vs. dining

Let's start with the distinction between information snacking and long form reading: More of my time is now spent snacking, reading short pieces of content. The time I spend snacking has largely shifted from the time I used to read more long form content. My tablet and phone are almost always with me and I find the web as well as services like Flipboard, Zite, Instapaper and Byliner are replacing much of the time I used to spend in books.

I find myself much more attracted to short bursts of content and I doubt I'm alone. Book publishers, on the other hand, are still caught up in making products built for yesterday's container, the 300-page print book. That's fine for the rare storytelling author who can capture your attention for many hours, but let's face it...most authors and their books don't meet that standard.

Changing expectations

Publishers are an Inefficient breed, but not in the typical sense. I'm not talking about production or editorial processes. Widespread outsourcing and staff cuts mean publishers are more efficient in these areas than ever before. But what about being efficient from the customer's point of view?

Where does most content consumption happen these days? On the web. Where is the book publisher's content? It's not on the web and it's certainly not exposed to the major search engines. Google is amazingly efficient at enabling content consumption, but the results benefit info snacking, not long-form consumption.

Publishers will shudder at the thought of exposing all their content to the search engines. How about simply taking some baby steps in that direction? Start with the ebook sample. Why are samples always under lock and key via DRM? Publishers need to encourage sample sharing and not lock them down.

How about giving prospective customers even more content than today's samples offer? Instead of 5%, give 10% or 20%. Maybe give that larger chunk only to customers who are willing to provide their contact info on your website. Then you'll have a way to market directly to them. And be sure to expose that additional content to the search engines, btw!

Changing revenue models

Finally let's talk about something that will give every traditional publisher heartburn: the need to change revenue models. Publishers are tied to yesterday's revenue model in a classic case of The Innovator's Dilemma. I'm talking about the difference between content purchased at today's prices vs. sponsor/ad-based content consumers will pay less, if anything, for.

At some point, even longer form content will be offered via a new model, where the content is fully exposed on the web, searches lead to it, and it's partially or fully subsidized by advertising or sponsorship. That's a model today's publisher is simply not structured for and they simply cannot fathom.

Startups will understand it though, mostly because they'll exploit the opportunity created by incumbents who are desperately trying to protect their outdated model.